France faces a collapse of order and an increasingly ominous and uncertain political future as its cities succumb to insensate mobs who revile the whole concept of the French nation but are more punk tearaways and gangster anarchists than true globalists.
Although it was only yesterday, it therefore seems the product of a simpler age to compare Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson. It’s what I did a chapter of my new book on Europe’s leadership failure.
What made them bond on occasion was that they were both big state liberals instinctively drawn to global institutions.
The extremely competitive Macron may have sniffed in disdain at Johnson’s inability to hold on to power, but as widely-dispersed parts of France now show they are ungovernable, he might be forgiven for envying his former British rival’s slow incarnation as an author and return to being a media celebrity.
It is worth remembering that both have been caught up in riots. In the summer of 2011 Johnson was enjoying a break from being Mayor of London – on a family camper van holiday chugging around the US Rockies – when riots erupted in the Tottenham area of the city which soon spread across England. Calm had been restored by the time of the London Olympics a year later. But what will be the fate of the Paris Olympics next year with the Olympic pool that is under construction having been torched and 40,000 police and gendarmes struggling to quell a near-insurrection?
Johnson cut short his holiday but Macron lacked the presence of mind to cancel his attendance at Elton John’s farewell tour at Paris’s Accor Arena on Wednesday evening. He danced as rioters ran rampage elsewhere in the French capital’.
Mass violence on a scale perhaps exceeding riots that erupted in 2005 raged through the night and continues unabated at the time of writing. It was only on Friday morning that the scale of the crisis hit home. He arrived for an EU summit in Brussels only to hurriedly depart to stage a crisis meeting back home. His bid to contextualise the riots by blaming ‘bad parenting’ and the prevalence of video games once again showed that this energetic and intellectually spry politician could rarely get the optics right. If by pointing his finger at social media and promising to expose those who ‘call for disorder’ on various online sites was meant to display a sense of purpose, it is unlikely to have convinced many.
In an age when politicians often seem timid, listless and unsure of what to do, Macron has never been short of self-confidence. But he has a tin ear for what the French feel and think in an era of economic decline, political fragmentation and growing social tension. From François Mitterrand onwards, most French leaders have neglected devising any practical steps to integrate the growing population of Mahgrebi descent. A combination of exclusionary labour laws, an enclave religious identity, prejudice from parts of society, and poor educational opportunities kept many (not all) at the margins of society. The lack of upward mobility meant that disaffection slowly spread, as growing numbers fell under the sway of clerics preaching a message of radical disengagement. This has been the pathway to a situation where millions are disaffected from the state and society and choose to devise their own rules for living. Truly a frightening shift in the social order in France.
Mitterrand’s decision to redesign the electoral law in order to frustrate his Gaullist rivals by making the far-right a permanent presence in politics, summed up the cynicism of a political class increasingly insulated from much of society. For much of the time in the Élysée
palace, Macron has been absorbed with promoting his own image as a visionary thinker and fixer in an inter-connected world while millions of his countrymen seethed and became increasingly fearful of the future.
Unlike Johnson he has never gone through a phase in which he has displayed the common touch in a sure-footed way. He came from nowhere in 2017 to snatch the presidency because Marine Le Pen was deemed un-electable and the Gaullist challenger was consumed in scandal. An ability to appear and sound innovative while mobilising forces committed to preserving the dominance of entrenched elite groups drawn from Paris, served him well. This power-base was enough to gain him re-election in 2022 against far-left-and far-right rivals but this time without a majority in the National Assembly.
Books appeared not long after Macron’s presidential tenure began, in which he was depicted as the only person on the European stage with the vision and determination to press ahead with further integration of the EU, a quarter of a century after the path-breaking Maastricht Treaty. He himself wrote Revolution in 2017, where he scarcely bothers to disguise his ambition to rank as a historical figure, or a ‘Jupiter’, as he once dubbed himself.
Unfortunately for Macron, most French citizens possess little affinity with his vision of greatness, which has seemed too bound up with personal aggrandisement allied to the pursuit of global technocracy, in which France (though not him) can only enjoy a negligible role. He has been consistently under fire for systematic exploitation of his powers of patronage. He received fierce criticism for side-stepping French ministries and institutions and commissioning major global consultancy firms to formulate policy on everything from the environment to health, often at an exorbitant cost.
He has undoubtedly tried but failed to reach out and establish trustworthy dealings with the mass of ordinary French citizens. Too many tactless remarks suggest that he believes in an epistocracy in which power is concentrated in those entitled to rule on account of talents and social placement that dwarf those of ordinary mortals. It is not hard to sense that under the surface he thinks that many of his fellow citizens are too limited in their understanding of political affairs to deserve much control over them.
The 2020-21 Covid pandemic helped quell a militant anti-elite protest by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) against poorly-designed austerity measures which played havoc with the low-incomes of artisans and non-unionised provincial workers.
Macron returned to the theme of belt-tightening when, in a speech delivered in August 2022, he declared that climate change and the war in resource-rich Ukraine meant ‘the end of abundance’. He clearly thinks at a rarified level of the problems besetting France. But his solutions seem remote and unappealing except to protected state officials and middle-class technocrats. This was shown in the spring of 2023 by his decision to raise the pension age from 62 to 64. In most countries there would have been disgruntlement but not the outpouring of rage against a step felt to be necessary because of a fast-ageing population. Macron, the most ambitious president in the 75-year history of the 5th Republic, found himself the object of intense hatred, far more than the measure itself.
Its imposition by presidential decree, due to the absence of sufficient votes in parliament, was seen as proof of his illegitimacy. While being interviewed on television at the height of fierce riots that fanned beyond Paris, he surreptitiously removed a luxury watch from his wrist, presumably due to the unfavourable impression it might give.
Such artful guile has too often proven self-defeating. He acts like an undeniably clever but disdainful overseer towards a population who sense his lack of sympathy allied to a readiness to interfere in their lives. He may be acutely aware of the malaise of a country buffeted by de-industrialisation, communal fractions and demographic imbalance, but he is powerless to offer remedies or improvements because of a brittle and adversarial relationship with much of the French people.
In a fortnight France and the world will be reminded of the revolutionary origins of the modern French state with the commemoration of the storming of the Bastille on July 14th. Unlike in the United States, these revolutionary roots have not been a recipe for internal unity. The fact that France has had no less than eight constitutions since 1814 attests to that. If past history is any guide, Macron may be lucky to see out his presidential term which has nearly four years to run. This talented figure has too many features of an enlightened despot to withstand the furious gales blowing from different sections of the population who feel themselves with little stake in French life.
The French presidential system is unresponsive to public sentiment. This increases the likelihood that Macron will simply be unable to find a new empathetic and reassuring tone that can rally a majority of French citizens who distrust the far-right and hate the far-left for exploiting the revolt of mainly North African-origin youth. Accelerated social programmes and a tougher law-and-order response are unlikely to be more than short-term palliatives. A profound reformation of the haughty French way of running France – remote, crony-ridden, focusing on international hobby-horses rather than internal woes – may be the only way to prevent the country toppling into the abyss of permanent social strife and political warfare.
The ambitious shape-shifting Macron is capable of many somersaults but I doubt if he could revert from being a super-globalist to proving instead to be the architect of a French Reformation. Accordingly, he is likely to prove a temporary and ephemeral figure. It means that he may well have to consider new line of work just like his Anglo-Saxon rival Johnson, and sooner than he could possibly have imagined.
The disastrously misjudged priorities of his Presidency means it is far likelier that the commanding French political figures of the future will spring from the army, an overlooked provincial France, or from the radicalised street rather than from an already much-discredited political class.
Tom Gallagher’s new book, Europe’s Leadership Famine: Portraits of Defiance and Decay, 1950-2022, (Scotview Publications) was published on 22 June. ISBN9780993465444