A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the French adventurer and writer Sylvain Tesson’s book ‘Berezina’ in the context of Ukraine. This week I have recourse to one of his telling quotes that ‘La France est un paradis peuplé de gens qui se croient en enfer’ which, given my perch overlooking the Seine, I fully subscribe to. I often think that if the residents of Bordeaux were transplanted to Birmingham or Seville, they might lament the public goods they had left behind.
The problem is that the residents of Bordeaux and other French cities are attached to their home country and deaf to the argument that the grass is not greener elsewhere. More worrying, well over half of the French electorate has voted for ‘anti-establishment’ candidates in the recent Presidential election, and warnings grow louder that Marine Le Pen might be elected President.
My personal view, based on what I see around me and the sense that while French people express themselves vividly, they are not willing to vandalise their country’s economy and geopolitical standing (unlike Brexit), is that Emanuel Macron will enjoy a second term. Still, it is hard not to feel uneasy about this prediction in a world where logically inconceivable events occur with growing frequency.
Sitting betwixt France and the outside world, one common misperception I find is the view from outside that France is a chaotic, badly run state. In my view it is the opposite – a complex, centralised, Cartesian machine run by generally competent people. To this end, the person at the very top of this machine must be steeped in its workings, which is why it seems to me very difficult that an ‘outsider’ could become President. For example, the prime minister Jean Castex is not a politician in the traditional sense, but rather a technocrat who knows the machine inside out.
In addition, anyone wanting to undertake a political revolution and take on this machine, can only do so from inside, as Macron has demonstrated.
A side effect of this centralised ‘machine’ is that it produces an elite class, and a broader elite that clusters around Paris. In my experience, France is a more elitist country than say the UK or certainly than the US. Very few foreigners run French companies, and the same is true for women, and in general for those who have not attended grandes écoles. Unlike say the US or UK, the ‘elite’ labour market is still tilted towards being part of a cabinet.
Now the idea of this impenetrable elite has become part of the political debate. This is reinforced by the fact that with the French state now so large (government spending is 56% of GDP) and debt high, that there is little fiscal space, so much of the political argument pivots to the question of identity.
To this extent, like many other countries, the French political spectrum is shifting from a traditional Left/Right axis to what we might call ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’ where people with different backgrounds and occupations feel that they increasingly have different levels of relevance in society. This configuration is broad but may well make sense to the way a Tunisian software programmer or a Lille based manual worker views French politics.
The important question now is what Emmanuel Macron and the French state will do about this growing divide in the next five years. The likelihood of a disparate, divided parliament and the competing interests of voters on the left and right will make domestic policy very difficult, and Macron might well concentrate his efforts on foreign policy.
The challenge, in my Irish eyes, will be to make French politics more democratic (the EIU rates France as a ‘flawed democracy’ along with the USA for instance) and manifestly more grass roots oriented. Some measures, such as opening up ownership of the press are unlikely to happen, but social media may eventually circumvent this.
There will likely be a debate on constitutional change after the election, and in terms of France’s political structure it might do several things – hold parliamentary elections before the Presidential one, give much more political and fiscal power to the 13 regions in France, and implement a Citizens Assembly in the sense that Ireland has (i.e. that can help to frame laws and referenda).
In the past, efforts to capture the views of the ‘downstairs’ have been far too haughty and theoretical (I am thinking of Giscard). This is part of the problem – the elite are by design haughty and cultured. A channel needs to be found to give French people a purchase over the politics of their country that translates into clear, practical improvements in their everyday lives. If that doesn’t happen, then an outsider from the ‘downstairs’, with far more talent than Marine Le Pen will step forward and take the Elysée.
Have a great week ahead.