Are the French Toast?

BY STEWART SLATER

Find someone who loves you as much as The Economist loves Emmanuel Macron. The house journal of the technocracy told readers of its daily email to “Sigh with relief” for the recently re-elected Emmanuel Macron had been an “unusually good leader for France.” Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

And, it turns out, that point is 41.5%, the proportion of voters who experienced 5 years of Jupiterian rule and decided that, on balance, they would prefer the candidate widely derided as a fascist and who had been forced to pulp over a million leaflets showing her with Vladimir Putin, Prince Andrew’s only realistic competitor for the title of least popular man in the Western World. 28% of the electorate found so little to choose between the two candidates that they stayed at home/had a long lunch/visited the French equivalent of B&Q or indeed did anything but visit the polling booth, the highest level since 1969. If we apply the peculiar maths beloved of the further-out end of the Remainer spectrum, only 38.5 % of those eligible to do so looked at their lives under the Macron imperium and said, “Yes, let’s have 5 more years of that.”

Although a different system and not therefore directly comparable, the Conservatives took only 43.6% of the vote in their landslide 2019 victory, while Le Pen’s tally is higher than that achieved by David Cameron in 2015, or by Tony Blair in the latter two of his three election victories.

We cannot ascribe this performance purely to Mme Le Pen having a particularly winning personality. In the First round of Les Presidentielles, the far left Jean-Luc Melenchon came third with just under 22% of the vote while Eric Zemmour, so far-right that he has a conviction for incitement to racial discrimination, another for incitement of hate along with six acquittals for similar crimes and two further convictions overturned on appeal took 7%. To put it another way, merely the three best-known extremists took 52% of the vote, surely an underwhelming result for an “unusually good leader”.

In recognition of this, Liberation called for the victor to show “humility”, not necessarily the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking of M Macron. However, to be fair, he seemed aware of the issue when he addressed the faithful in the afterglow of his victory. “An answer must be found to the anger and disagreements,” he said, promising that “No-one will be left by the wayside.” But if that is his aim, one might reasonably ask what he was doing for the previous five years. For these issues are not new. Mme Le Pen made the second round in 2017, as her father did in 2002. All his previous term did was add 8% to her vote share, which was itself almost double that of Le Pen pere.

For while M Macron may have been posing in a variety of costumes, and listening to Daft Punk with President Trump, he has not markedly improved life for the average citizen. Household income per capita is still over 10% lower than its pre-Financial Crisis peak. Unemployment overall may have declined to 7.4% but for the youth, it is 16.4%  and, due to the nature of the French benefits system, 13% of those aged between 18 and 29 are in poverty compared to 8.2% in 2002. This is not the position you would choose when entering an inflationary spiral. Nor is there any sense that these problems are temporary. Only 30% of the population believe that today’s children will be better off than their parents, perhaps explaining in part why Mme Le Pen secured her best results in the 25-60 child- rearing age group.

His time in office so far has seen a continued widening of the split between urban centres such as Paris and Lyon, areas familiar to the average Economist journalist, and La France Peripherique analysed in the 2014 book of the same name by geographer Chrisophe Guilluy. Small wonder that the electoral map shows the challenger breaking out of her traditional North and South-East redoubts into the South West and Centre, while leaving the cities islands of metropolitan exceptionalism. Such town and country splits are not unheard of – they are very much a feature of British and American politics – but they can be fruitful hunting grounds for extremists. The Muslim Brotherhood would never have taken power in Egypt had only Cairo and Alexandria voted, and, Erdogan relies on la Turquie profonde to offset his losses in Istanbul.

Promising to govern in the interests of all is one thing, but actually doing so is another. President Biden promised that there would be “no Red States or Blue States” when he took office, and to be fair to Sleepy Joe and his handlers, that hasn’t entirely worked out. What are the chances of Macron pulling it off?

For all the rhetoric, there are grounds for caution. Whereas Tyson Fury chose “Sweet Caroline” for his ring walk on Saturday, Macron’s triumphal stroll to the podium was accompanied by the “Ode to Joy”, a bold move in a country where just 41% have a positive view of the E.U. and faith in its institutions consistently lags the European average. Prime Minister Jean Castex accused the President’s opponents of a “lack of understanding”, in the same way that much of the eighteenth century unpleasantness could have been avoided had only the people understood that cake (or brioche if we’re being strictly accurate) was an acceptable substitute for bread.

It was an attitude similar to this which caused much of the trouble in the first term. The Gilets Jaunes protests arose after the government increased diesel duty. For residents in urban areas with strong transport networks, such a move was an uncontroversial environmental policy to which few could object. To rural voters who relied on their cars to get to their increasingly precarious and badly paid jobs, it was a rather more concrete and existential threat than global warming. Sometimes, even the smartest guy in the room just isn’t smart enough.

The Parliamentary elections due in June may be key for the next Macron term. A victory for his La Republique En Marche would likely lead to more of the same, a government of technocrats for technocrats, storing up trouble for the future if the people are not wise enough to appreciate his enlightened leadership. A loss, however, would be more interesting, ushering in a period of the dreaded cohabitation. What would happen then?

Would he, frustrated at the inability to enact his program, withdraw into the other powers of the Presidency, focusing on foreign affairs applying the balm of global statesmanship to his bruised ego while France burns? Or would he, forced to confront the views of others, pay more attention to the needs and values of those who have, so far, failed to prosper under his watch? Could he, humbled, change his ways and become truly popular?

We should hope so, for France is a volatile country. Not just in recent years when car-burning has become something of a national sport. Civil disorder and revolution are part of the national myth in a country which has, over the past 230 years, had a Consulate, an Empire, two Monarchies and five Republics. One of the striking features of French history is the frequency of ruptures, times when the system has fallen apart. Roughly once a century there has been an outbreak of severe civil strife such as the Fronde, when the young Louis XIV was forced to flee Paris, the mob having broken into his palace. A unresponsive and remote government was enough to ignite the tinder then. It could well be now.

It is easy for the British to dislike M. Macron. He is just too French – haughty, self-consciously intellectual, all too inclined to wear a polo-neck. But he might just be France’s last, best hope. We should wish him well.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.