They made an odd couple, standing beneath an overcast sky in a replica of a Roman amphitheatre in western France. On one side was the 38-year-old then minister of the economy and industry, Emmanuel Macron, whose evident ambition and embrace of the market had angered many in the governing Parti Socialiste (PS). Beside him was his host, Viscount Philippe Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon, a nostalgic nationalist and anti-EU politician who warns about the Islamisation of France, and who took 2.2 per cent of the vote when he ran in the 2007 presidential election. The setting for their encounter in August was the Puy du Fou; the viscount created this historical theme park nearly four decades ago in the Vendée, scene of the chouannerie, a rural uprising against the French Revolution led by reactionary noblemen and drawing on deep Catholic resistance to change.
Macron, who says he offers France “the choice to be free” of its long-standing political cleavages, insisted that there was nothing surprising about appearing beside the 67-year-old viscount, who appears to prefer the past to the future. “Honesty obliges me to say I am not a Socialist,” Macron said. “Philippe de Villiers has his convictions, which I respect. We belong to the same country.” Then he mounted a reproduction Roman chariot and drove its four horses round the amphitheatre. The viscount was impressed. “This is the first time I have seen a minister drive a chariot with such dash and with such an ability to learn how to do so,” he told reporters.
A month earlier, Macron had launched his movement En Marche! (“Forward”) at a meeting hall in Paris, where he told a large crowd that he had “touched the limits of our system, the last-minute compromises, its imperfect solutions”. Macron’s admirers hope that his “dash” will lead him to tilt at the presidency next year as the new and independent face in a crowd of familiar contenders; this week, aides confirmed that he would declare his candidacy “before 10 December” and some told the French news agency AFP that he has decided to stand “since all the conditions are in place”. Thousands of young supporters wearing grey T-shirts have been canvassing on his behalf. One I met in the 13th arrondissement of Paris pointed to everything that was going wrong in France – social divisions, economic stagnation, lack of confidence, concerns about law and order. It sounded like a litany of the “French-bashing” that the Socialist prime minister, Manuel Valls, decries as unjust (though just as much of this bashing seems to originate in France as from abroad). Then the young woman quoted Macron’s line that France is “paralysed by sectarianism” and asked if I didn’t think it was time for a new approach.
By the time of the visit to the Puy du Fou, President François Hollande was growing increasingly exasperated by Macron, who had acted as his special adviser before being appointed a cabinet minister in August 2014. To begin with, Hollande had found the younger man’s independence of mind refreshing as he sought to veer away from left-leaning policies, on which he had been elected two years earlier, in favour of more market-orientated measures to boost the economy. But now Macron’s maverick streak was contributing to the widespread perception that Hollande lacked authority.
His behaviour was also too much for Valls, who was caught on television muttering “that’s enough” as Macron flaunted his free thinking. The prime minister had other things to worry about, given the continuing terrorist threat, the prospect of renewed street protests against legislation to relax France’s protective labour regulations, a slowdown in growth over the summer after a promising start to the year, and the general mood of discontent and rejection of authority that makes France so difficult to govern.
In addition, Valls and Hollande faced rebellion in their own ranks. The more centrist path they want to set, by way of big financial breaks for companies and a relaxation of the 35-hour working week, are unpopular among large parts of the PS membership. Macron was not helping matters, his disdain for people on the left all too evident. He had long been suspect, in any case, as a former Rothschild investment banker who had never run for election, and who showed a propensity for being photographed for magazines on holiday with his wife; she is two decades his senior and taught him French when he was in high school.
The left’s doubts forced the government to water down Macron’s proposals to free up the economy (and the parallel efforts to modify labour laws). Yet even then it could not be sure of a parliamentary majority, so both sets of measures had to be pushed through by decree.
Hollande needs every bit of backing he can muster if he is to have any chance of hanging on to office after the presidential election next spring. The boost he received for his firm reaction to the terrorist attacks has evaporated and more than half the respondents in a recent poll said they were “very unhappy” with him. Another poll in late October put his support at only 4 per cent; others had it in the low teens.
Ministers admit that the state of emergency and the “war on terror” – 10,000 soldiers have been deployed on the streets of France – cannot guarantee that there will not be further attacks. The discovery in early September of a car with five full gas cylinders in the boot in a popular tourist area of Paris was the latest sign of vulnerability. Criticism of the police and security services rose after the attack on Bastille Day in which a Tunisian resident of Nice killed 86 people by driving a lorry through a crowd on the Promenade des Anglais. Nor was the president’s status helped by the summer revelation that a hairdresser is retained at the monthly cost of €10,000 to ensure that he is properly groomed. It was just the latest in a string of embarrassments that included being photographed on the back of a motor scooter on his way to an assignation with his actress girlfriend, even as he maintained a long-term mistress at the Élysée Palace.
Alienating the rank and file of his own party and disappointing those who voted him into office in 2012 on a platform of high taxes, public spending and pledges to reduce unemployment is not the way for Hollande to win re-election. Moreover, although his protégé Macron turned in strong polling numbers among the French as a whole, Macron’s unpopularity in the PS and his insistence on trumpeting that he was not a Socialist could only lead true believers to shy away from the president in favour of challengers such as the former industry minister Arnaud Montebourg, who accuses Hollande of having sold out to capitalism.
So, on 30 August, 11 days after his trip to the Vendée, Macron was summoned to a tense meeting at the Élysée. Immediately after that, he announced his resignation. Now, a presidential bid beckons for a would-be providential candidate who claims he can set France back on its feet. A snap poll has reported 30 per cent support for his candidacy next year.
Nathalie Saint-Cricq, a leading political commentator, says that Macron’s game plan is based on the supposition that the president will be unable to seek a second term because of his unpopularity. That could be a miscalculation, given that Hollande spoke in September of dealing with the terrorist threat “for years”, which was taken as a clear indication that he would seek re-election if he wins the PS nomination in January.
Emmanuel Macron’s emergence as a player in France’s convoluted politics comes at a time when the country is struggling as never before with problems of national identity, heightened by the terrorist attacks and a swirling debate over the place of French Muslims, who number at least five million, the largest population of Muslims in western Europe. The political jousting and the questioning of what it means to be French feed into one another, as in the fierce debate that erupted in August over the burkini for Muslim women after 30 mayors banned it from public spaces. Although the Supreme Court ruled against the ban, the government was split. Valls backed the mayors but several female ministers dissented.
Valls stoked further controversy by condemning Islamic veils and extolling the naked breast of the symbolic national figure Marianne, as depicted leading the second revolution of 1830 in a celebrated painting by Delacroix. He says the burkini is a political matter and incompatible with French values. Surveys suggest that terrorism has overtaken unemployment as the main public concern. The sense of danger is felt on all sides. Assaults on Muslims have increased and anti-Semitic attacks have prompted Jews to move from suburbs with high Arab populations into central Paris – or to leave France for Israel or London.
It is the kind of atmosphere in which Nicolas Sarkozy thrives. Since his early days as interior minister in the early 2000s, Sarkozy has made security and immigration his main themes. His presidency began in 2007 with promises of wholesale change, but the French people’s reluctance to reform proved great. He also had to cope as president with the global financial crash and the eurozone crisis. By 2012, Sarkozy was a deeply divisive figure. Hollande’s narrow election victory was the product as much of antagonism towards Sarkozy as the appeal of the Socialist programme.
Earlier this year, Sarkozy seemed to have lost ground as a candidate for 2017 to the suave former prime minister Alain Juppé. But he staged a strong comeback in late summer, hardening his rhetoric in response to what he sees as the shifting public mood, and shrugging off accusations of funding malpractice in the last presidential race.
In a book published in August to launch his campaign, entitled Tout pour la France (“Everything for France”), Sarkozy identified Islam as a religion that had “not done the work, necessary as well as inevitable, to integrate”. If elected, he says, he would ban the burkini on beaches and at public swimming pools, prohibit the hijab and the niqab in universities, public administration buildings and the workplace, and tighten family reunification criteria for immigrants as well as citizenship conditions. Suspected Islamists would be required to wear an electronic bracelet, or be assigned to controlled residences. Returnees from Iraq and Syria would be interned as soon as they arrived in France. Those with a second nationality would be expelled immediately. Logging on to a jihadist website would become a crime.
Juppé, who served as prime minister under Jacques Chirac, still holds a lead over all the other runners in broad public opinion. Sarkozy’s hardline views have harmed his appeal, but he remains the darling of a core of right-wing supporters in the lead-up to the primary to be held by les Républicains, the main opposition party, in November. In contrast to Sarkozy, with his tough stance, Juppé proposes a “happy identity” politics which accepts that most Muslims are not extremists. “Agitation doesn’t equal authority,” he says in a superior tone.
But Juppé, 71, also has baggage. He was thrown out of office in 1997 after mass demonstrations against his planned welfare and pensions reform, and is the epitome of the polished establishment figure that many people love to hate. “He knows everything, but not the way the French think nowadays,” is how one former Juppé supporter, who still holds an official position and did not want to be named, described him to me. As Bruno Cautrès, a professor of political science at Sciences Po, the elite institute in Paris, told the Financial Times: “After this summer, the terror attacks in July and the controversy around the burkini, Juppé may sound out of touch.”
Even more than Sarkozy, the biggest electoral beneficiary of France’s travails is Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN). Opinions polls give her 29 per cent of the vote in the first round of the impending presidential election. That would propel her into a run-off against whichever candidate les Républicains chose: Sarkozy or Juppé. Macron gets between 15 and 20 per cent, suggesting that he, too, would fail to reach the second round.
The elimination of the Socialists from next year’s decisive, second ballot would be an even greater blow for the left than Lionel Jospin’s failure to reach the run-off on the PS ticket in 2002, on being beaten into third place by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie. Jospin’s debacle was caused by a poor campaign and a plethora of left-wing candidates who split the vote against the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac. This time, it would be because the public had lost confidence in Hollande, who further damaged himself in October with a book of indiscreet interviews, and because the FN has become a well-managed movement that is strong in depressed industrial regions.
Regional elections at the end of last year were hailed as a “republican escape” because the FN failed to gain control of any councils. But this demanded that the left and centre right partner in some areas for the second round of voting to check the FN’s progress. Almost 30 per cent of voters backed Le Pen’s party in the first round and it ranked top when pollsters asked which party was closest to popular concerns. Middle-class, middle-aged provincial voters spoke openly on television about having cast their ballots for the Front; in 2002 few were ready to admit as much. After the 2012 presidential election, in which she finished third with just under 18 per cent of the first-round vote, she told associates that it would take two more elections to win power.
She was correct in her assessment that next year’s election is out of her reach: the mainstream electorate can be counted on to rally against her in the second round. Even so, she has completely changed the political landscape and ensured that the Républicain primary will determine who becomes France’s next head of state.
The French people have convinced themselves that they are caught in an existential crisis, ground down by the effects of globalisation, their society dysfunctional, the nation failing to live up to a role, bequeathed by history, which the French see as constituting exceptionalism.
Of 40 countries surveyed by the Pew Research Institute last year, France was among the most pessimistic about its economic future, 85 per cent of respondents saying they thought their children would grow up to be worse off than their parents. The French education system favours the best and brightest and leaves millions of others by the wayside. Although the population has grown by eight million to 67 million since 2001, the number of people employed outside the public sector has remained static even as the number of retired people has risen by a third. The proportion of young people not in jobs, education or training – 19 per cent – is twice as high as in Germany. Permanent jobs constitute only 16 per cent of labour contracts, and the chances of a temporary position becoming permanent have dropped from 62 per cent to 25 per cent over the past decade.
Facing a weak, flip-flopping administration and divisions within the PS parliamentary majority, each interest group pushes its own concerns, from Breton farmers to pharmacists, railway workers to teachers. In spring, when oil refineries were blockaded, power supplies were cut and street demonstrations turned violent as protests mounted at labour law reform, Le Monde ran the headline “France ablaze”, and the conservative Figaro wrote of “social terrorism”. The demolition of refugee camps, first in Calais and then in Paris, produced clashes and the spectacle of 1,500 abandoned children being bussed to reception centres.
A quasi-sacred reverence for the state in France unites left and right, impeding change that can be framed as challenging inherent values of the republic, even if this change is in defence of vested interests. Those in power all too easily give way, as if they fear being overthrown by direct action, like the Bourbons at the end of the 18th century, overlooking the way in which each French revolution has been followed by a swing back to conservatism. “If you tell the French the truth, and propose a remedy, you are sure to be beaten,” as the former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing put it.
This results in the extraordinary longevity of French political careers, which in turn heightens public alienation from the hermetic system of government, with its huge gap between a self-perpetuating elite and an increasingly anxious citizenry. Yet this elite class, with its many graduates from the top finishing schools that turn out France’s administrative gurus, has failed to respond to the problems facing the nation, with Islamist terrorism now joining the list of issues to which there seem to be no answer.
At the time of the regional elections last December, pollsters reported that over 90 per cent of respondents thought politicians were not believable, honest or capable of proposing effective solutions, and were too removed from popular concerns. A suitable case for treatment nearly six decades after Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic – but treatment by whom?
Jonathan Fenby’s book “The History of Modern France: from the Revolution to the War with Terror” is published in paperback by Simon & Schuster