Is France’s President thinking of ‘doing a Putin’?

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15 mins. to read
Is France’s President thinking of ‘doing a Putin’?
Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Macron: Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown[i]

France’s President Macron is a man with great power and Napoleonic ambition. Though there is a lot that could go wrong, he might just prove to be historic.

A long, hot summer in the Midi

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Down here in the Languedoc, the relentless heat, day after day, is sending the locals into a flap. They are genial in the morning as one queues at the boulangerie to buy hot croissants and baguettes; but, by afternoon they are morose. And la morosité is a condition that the French embody better than anyone else. After sunset, however, an element of gaiety returns as people sip chilled rosé at pavement brasseries in town squares and chat irreverently about the news.

A number of French acquaintances have expressed astonishment this week about the pronouncements, reported in the Sunday Times – and recycled in French media – of le docteur Fox. Most French people could not name a single member of the British cabinet if you paid them with free Pastis; many would struggle to name the British Prime Minister. But now all Frenchmen and women who follow the news know that le docteur Fox has declared a no-deal Brexit a certainty.

There is much tutting and shaking of heads in the boulevards; and elderly men wearing starched white shirts and grey waistcoats have been seen to shrug their shoulders during drawn-out games of pétanque.

***

Tonight, I am in old Toulouse, sauntering through the brick-pink alleyways which meander out from the Place du Capitole walking in the steps of Pierre de Fermat (of last theorem fame) and the great theologian, Aquinas. I am in search of a lively restaurant I went to a year or so ago where a hyper-affectionate lesbian Maître d’ greets male customers with Salut, couilles molles! (Hi, soft balls!)…

Social engineering first; economic reform second…

Marlène Schiappa is the 35-year old Minister of Gender Equality. She drove a law recently through the Assemblée National to outlaw sexual harassment and violence. But her real mission, she says, is to change the attitudes Frenchmen traditionally hold towards women. The stereotypical Frenchman is macho, likes a glass of wine and is persistently flirtatious with the opposite sex. (Gérald Depardieu is, as we know, a Russian citizen.)

The problem has been that many French women, even soi-disant feminists, quite like French men. Obviously, in an age of identity politics, that is totally unacceptable. But French women just refuse to fall in line with their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. In January, a 100-strong sorority of senior ladies, fronted by the legendary actress Catherine Deneuve, wrote an open letter Le Monde accusing the #MeToo movement of getting things wrong. These ladies expressed the view that the boys should generally be excused for their insistent and clumsy flirtations.

The Minister of Gender Equality, though she would not say so, would like to send the wonderful Ms Deneuve to a re-education centre, Cambodia-style, where she could learn the truth about how awful men (and particularly Frenchmen) are. She has established the Secretariat of Equality between Women and Men, which now occupies an 18th century palace near the Jardin du Luxembourg. (If a French government agency is not housed in an imposing building, then no one will take it seriously.) The Gendarmerie is being trained in how to spot sexual harassment in the street – and they will be given powers to demand on-the-spot fines of €90 where they perceive it. Watch out lads!

Ms Schiappa has come under criticism from social conservatives – which, in France, normally means Catholics. Some claim that the minister had a previous career as a writer of erotic novels. One of her novels is apparently called Sex, Lies and Hot Suburbs. I have just checked on Amazon.com and there is a swathe of feminist tracts in her name – though nothing saucy. Maybe she used a pseudonym.

President Macron’s political party – which he created out of nothing – will operate an all-female shortlist for half of the seats contested in the Assemblée National. Perhaps Ms Deneuve may be persuaded to come forward.

The French language is itself sexist. A group of women requires the plural female pronoun elles. But if one man joins them then the group should be referred to by the plural masculine pronoun ils. Alas, it is not in the power of the President of the Republic to reform this grammatical sexism – the power to change French grammar resides with the Académie Française alone. This is a body composed of 40 men and women known as les immortels – of whom just four are currently women.

Race does not exist!

One of the things that Anglo-Saxons find most difficult to understand about France is the subtle underlying sub-currents of racial tension. Overwhelmingly, the French are not racists, even if they are cultural snobs. If a black man from Chad or Côte d’Ivoire speaks grammatical French and can tell the difference between a Bordeaux (claret) and a Bourgogne (Burgundy) they will embrace him as a fellow Frenchman.

It is a somewhat more nuanced calculation, however, with the 5-6 million strong Muslim community – which is overwhelmingly of Maghrébine heritage (that is from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). French Muslims tend to congregate in the inner suburbs (banlieues) of the larger French cities which are generally poor and where unemployment is high – sometimes as high as 20 percent, or about double the national average. Some of these banlieues have even become no-go areas to the police.

After France’s victory in the World Cup in Moscow on 15 July, Emmanuel Macron urged the bosses of France’s leading companies gathered at the Elysée Palace to take on talent from the disaffected suburbs of Paris, Lyon, Marseilles and elsewhere where many of the French national football team grew up. Football seems to be one of the few domains where the French have achieved true national unity. Football superstar Paul Pogba, whose parents immigrated to France from Guinea, is considered a role model amongst French Muslims who believe that they are discriminated against in many walks of French life.

President Macron has rejected a plan put forward by the former minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, to revitalise the suburbs through institutional reform of the police, the justice system and education. The President said that there was no point in announcing yet another new plan agreed between “two white men who do not live in these districts”. Instead he is proposing 30,000 internships in industry for 14-year olds, extra nursery places and new measures to bear down on discrimination in the workplace.

But the most Gallic initiative of Monsieur Macron’s presidency is to abolish discrimination by declaring that race does not exist. This task has already been partially accomplished. After WWII, with memories of the Nazi occupation still painful, the French government rewrote the constitution to enshrine in law the principle that French citizens were “indivisible”. This had the effect that, unlike in the UK, it is illegal to compile statistics about ethnicity, even in the national census. So we know that France has more Muslims, black people and Jews than any of its neighbours: but we don’t know how many there are because it is illegal to count them.

The first article of France’s 1958 constitution states: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion.” On 12 July the Assemblée National unanimously voted to remove the word “race” from that sacred text.

If race does not exist then there can be no racism. I am not alone in finding something very Orwellian about this move. But then the French understand perfectly well that thinking is driven by language. I believe that is what structuralism is all about – but I have always had better things to do than pursue that one.

Carnage on the roads

French media are currently much exercised by the trend for modified e-bikes to accelerate through pedestrian areas at speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour. But perhaps French pedestrians should relax. Nearly 3,500 people died on French roads last year – as compared to about 1,700 in the UK, which has approximately the same population and number of cars. (France has more kilometres of road, though).

Under President Macron’s safety-first political strategy the speed limit of secondary, single-carriageway roads was reduced this spring from 90 kilometres per hour to 80. A lot of Frenchmen (they are overwhelmingly male) are unhappy – especially a once despised minority who have recently become à la mode. Bikers.

They are the group where traditional speed-loving French masculinity meets long-haired, hippy-tinged pro-American sentiment. While French liberals are knee-jerk anti-American, there are many French people who hanker after the wide-open spaces of the continental USA and its loud articulation of freedom. (The American Revolution preceded the French Revolution by 13 years – and largely inspired it.)

French bikers even eat beef burgers (much tastier in France than in the USA). There are more Harley Davidsons in France than in the UK – probably something to do with long, open roads bathed for much of the year in sunshine. And Harley Davidson (NYSE:HOG) is unlikely to suffer too much from recent EU retaliatory sanctions – their products are, as economists say, price-inelastic.

***

I am now in the deep limestone rifts of the Val du Célé. It is a panting dog-hot late afternoon and the cicadas on the river bank are revving up for evening. At least this mediaeval village offers access to the river where one swims in brownish dark-green water touching algae-soft rocks. There are still youngsters hurling themselves from the high ridges into the cool water below to escape the heat.

He’s not my lover!

The French don’t do scandals like the English do. Politician in France generally get away with murder as compared to their British counterparts. But every so often something so bizarre takes place that it just cannot be hushed up.

On 01 May – Labour Day – Alexandre Benalla, a 26-year-old bodyguard on the President’s staff, rushed from his office in the Elysée to brawl with leftist protestors outside the presidential palace. Formally, it was his day off and he was only attending the demonstration as an observer. It was only in mid-July that video footage was released (leaked?) to Le Monde of what Benalla had done[ii]. He is shown brutally dragging a woman away from the demonstration and then thrashing a man repeatedly who was already on the ground, despite pleas to stop.

There was inevitably a hue and cry. The President was forced to suspend his bodyguard, then sack him and finally charges were pressed against him. During this process certain curious things came into the public domain. The security officer, born in Normandy of Moroccan parentage who had a thuggish reputation and was nicknamed Rambo, had been given top security clearance. He had been living in a sumptuous grace and favour apartment in Paris and was on a salary of €100,000 per year with a car thrown in.

In the fallout from this affaire three police chiefs have been fired and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had to apologise personally to the Assemblée National. Then came the president’s address to MPs on 24 July. Here he announced that Benalla did not have access to France’s nuclear codes. (Well, that’s a relief then.) The President then added a presumably unscripted afterthought: “Nor has Alexandre Benalla ever been my lover”.

The government of Prime Minister Philippe survived two motions of no confidence on 31 July. But there is a feeling that some of the bad practices of the ancien régime of Chirac-Sarkozy-Hollande have not gone away – even though Monsieur Macron was supposed to be a new broom. It’s not exactly that most French people suspect endemic corruption – it’s more that they know that their political class have an enduring tendency to be generous to their friends at the people’s expense.

The Madame May problem

Mrs May visited the president at his holiday retreat in the Var at the fort of Brégançon on 03 August, as Le Monde put it on Monday (06 August) pour plaider en faveur de sa nouvelle approche du Brexit.

The French media was not sympathetic towards the British Prime Minister, Le Monde accusing her of being a political acrobat whose threat of a mutually catastrophic no-deal outcome is a negotiating tactic. Le Monde pointed out that pharma giant Sanofi (EPA:SAN) is having to stockpile medication in the UK, while the worst case scenario for France is that Marks & Spencer (LON:MKS) will be unable to supply the French with sandwiches[iii]. (You may have noticed that the French, much as we love them, can be quite irritating at times.)

On 08 August Mr May, accompanied by the Duke of Cambridge, attended the 100th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Amiens – perhaps the final decisive battle of WWI. There were no senior members of the French government present, much to the consternation of Le Figaro. Monsieur Macron, it seems, is still on holiday at Brégançon.

Upcoming reforms

The President signalled to the unions in mid-July that his presidency had entered a new phase and that he would listen to them more closely – after a year during which their protests were largely ignored. At the same time the President is promising an ever tougher round of reforms come la rentrée in September.

The major challenge will be reform of France’s Byzantine pension system. In France different professions pay into different funds of differing status so there is no one set state pension for any retiree. The system as it stands is both incredibly complicated and replete with anomalies. Then there is the reform of social security, sickness benefit, housing benefit (aide personnalisé au logement) and unemployment pay which permits some state employees to live at the state’s expense – even when they have no job. In France, once a teacher qualifies (he or she must attain the agrégation) they are paid an automatic salary by the state – even if there are no teaching vacancies where they live. (Technically, they remain available for work.)

Teachers, like postal workers, are state employees in France and make up part of the 5.6 million officials (fonctionnaires) on the state payroll. Monsieur Macron has pledged to reduce this number by 500,000. There are much more than that number who will bitterly resist such a move.

Budget troubles

French economic growth in Q2 2018 was below that expected when the 2018 budget was drafted. It ran at just 0.2 percent for the quarter – the same as in Q1. This is well below levels achieved in 2017. As a result, tax revenues are less than forecast and the budget deficit will be higher than the planned 2.3 percent of GDP. Economic growth for 2018 is now expected to be 1.7 percent as against the original forecast of 2.3 percent[iv].

That will mean that further spending cuts will have to be imposed in order to comply with the Programme de stabilité 2018-22. This determines that total public expenditure in 2019 may not be more than 0.4 percent higher than this year. Wherever the axe falls there will be recrimination – just as in the UK, where “austerity” has become a dirty word.

The verdict of the markets – or history?

The CAC-40 (the leading index for the French stock market) has gained about 7 percent over the last 12 months to 09 August – though with much volatility along the way. As recently as 26 March it hit a 12-month low of 5,066 before surging to 5,640 on 22 May. The main dampener since then has been the realisation that the excellent growth numbers of 2017 are not going to be repeated – either in France or in the eurozone as a whole.

I suspect that President Macron pays very little attention to the CAC-40. He is more focused on the verdict of history. He is one of the few contemporary politicians who sees himself as a great man in the making. His long-term ambition is to unify Europe (or more accurately the eurozone) into a tightly bound entity with France firmly in the driving seat. In order to achieve that he must succeed in his medium-term goal of re-dynamising the French economy – which can only be done by means of root-and-branch reform. That will be unpopular – there are too many different interest groups who fear losing out – just as there were in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain.

I conjecture that President Macron has a 20-year game plan. He is currently just 40 years old, so time is on his side. Strictly speaking, a French president can only serve two consecutive five-year terms. But the French constitution is much easier to amend than America’s. My best guess is that Emmanuel Macron is already thinking of doing a Putin in 2027 – that is, becoming prime minister while one of his acolytes serves a term as president – before barnstorming back in 2032. Or he might just remove the limit on the number of terms altogether.

Although the French are not entirely happy with their young, dynamic president, most know deep-down that he is necessary. Some already believe that he is their salvation.

***

This morning, much cooler, I visited a famous cave in the limestone causses of the Lot valley where there were brightly coloured wall paintings of dappled horses reckoned to be 29,000 years old. The prehistoric artists used their hands as stencils and painted over them – just as modern children do. The people of that time (whoever they were, as they were not French) found it necessary to place the bones of their dead in subterranean ossuaries.

I wonder if there will be any trace of us at all 29,000 years from now.


[i]From Henry IV Part II, by William Shakespeare.

[ii]See: http://time.com/5343012/macron-video-bodyguard-protestor/

[iii]A Brégançon May tente d’amadouer Macron, Philippe Bernard, Le Monde, 06 August 2018, page 3.

[iv]See: https://www.thelocal.fr/20180620/french-economic-growth-to-fall-sharply-in-2018

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