Jonathan Meades

Man of Les People

Revolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation

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In 2011 Emmanuel Macron, no stranger to statements of the obvious, wrote in Esprit: ‘Everything ought not to be expected of one man. The 2012 presidential election will no more deliver us a demiurge, a mechanic of the universe, than any previous election has … The reconstruction of responsible politics cannot be effected by personal charisma, by a compact between an absolutist and his people.’

It is, of course, difficult to imagine anyone less like a demiurge than François Hollande, the excitingly pudding-like small-town lothario who got the socialist nomination in a faute de mieux-ish way because Dominique Strauss-Kahn (bizarrely endowed by Sophie Pedder with ‘rock-star appeal’) went just a tiny bit too far in a New York hotel room. Hollande then won because his opponent was the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Luck was with Hollande, just as it would be with the keen young Macron, who threw in his lot with Hollande after being courted by both Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn. Macron rose and rose before shafting his patron when the latter’s popularity rating fell to 4 per cent.

In cafes, in friends’ apartments and in his own flat (bought with a ‘loan’ from one of his many ‘mentors’, the late businessman Henry Hermand) Macron conspired to form a party, En Marche! (now LaREM), a mix of campaign machine and self-advertisement. He convinced thousands of teenagers and young adults to doorstep on his behalf. This smartphoned volunteer force of Macron Jugend defied conventional French wisdom that such a form of targeted canvassing was intrusive and ineffective; but conventional French wisdom was formed long ago, in the dark ages before the electoral uses of social media had become apparent. France was a latecomer to the digital party, handicapped by its reluctance to abandon Minitel, a system every bit as successful as Betamax.

Macron had further convinced his followers – clearly a dangerously credulous bunch – that he was a métèque, a pejorative, racist word with which he probably intended to express the idea of ‘mongrel’. He was, supposedly, an outsider to the farcically corrupt and properly despised classe politico-médiatique, but are there any politicians who do not present themselves as outsiders, anti-elitists, opponents of the establishment? This has been standard-issue political mendacity since the advent of Bomber Blair. If we are to take these power-hungry prefects at their word, there are no insiders left. It’s akin to The Man Who Was Thursday. Nonetheless, to manage this was quite a feat of legerdemain for Macron, who is an énarque, a sometime inspector of finances, an ex-Rothschild banker, a greedy accumulator of offices, a former ministerial adviser (or, according to his many enemies, ‘an intern’) promoted to minister, and a negotiator of revolving doors who obtained the bulk of his party’s funding from businesses and corporations that he publicly lambasted but with whose higher echelons he had connected very well indeed and whose interests he looks after. He also has a promiscuous fondness for les people (airhead showbiz celebrities).

It might be said, as it always is, that he made his own luck. But he can have had no control over Hollande’s minister for industrial renewal Arnaud Montebourg, who in 2014 broke ranks to publicly criticise the splendidly humourless prime minister, Manuel Valls. Macron was the beneficiary of Montebourg’s dismissal. Appointed in his stead, he became known for the first time to the public.

A far greater stroke of luck was the fall of François Fillon, the favourite to win the 2017 presidential election, a rightish Catholic placeman whose main achievement as Sarkozy’s prime minister had been to keep his head down and not appear too complicit in that president’s caprices. His decades-long peculation of public money, paying his alarming, sinecurist wife and school-age children as ‘aides’, was exposed when he was ahead in the polls and appeared likely to win the presidency. His nemesis was Le Canard enchaîné, which revealed his activities. Was this Macron’s lucky break? Or was it down to cunning? Where did the paper get its information? The timing would suggest that Macron and his accomplices were behind the detailed revelations, which could only have come from somewhere near the heart of government. The hyper-Tartuffe Fillon’s exposure cleared the way for him, for victory and for one of those things that come round twice every decade: ‘a new beginning’.

A year on, a ‘popular tide’ is rising. It has partly been whipped up by the unions, partly by the leftist bully boy Jean-Luc Mélenchon (yet another self-proclaimed outsider), partly by Macron himself. He makes tactless gaffes, preposterously suggesting, for instance, that the French should not complain about cuts in housing allowances when they could act like the heroic Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame, who exchanged himself for a hostage in a terrorist attack near Carcassonne and paid with his life. He lacks empathy with all but the wealthy and has no grasp of the struggles faced by the majority of his concitoyens, whom he patronises as his subjects. Effigies of him are being burned in the streets, placards showing him dressed in SS uniform (with, predictably, an Israeli armband) are held high in demonstrations all over the country and the polls show his popularity is declining – but that goes with the job. He is actually marginally more popular than Sarkozy and Hollande were at the same stage of their presidencies. Both, note, enjoyed but a single quinquennat. It seems likely that Macron will similarly not secure a second term.

Sophie Pedder’s Macron is a complicated gamut of contradictions whose obsessions include being taken for a statesman, spending almost €9,000 a month on a make-up consultant and gauging the meaning of his every heavy-handed gesture. The day he announced his candidature he went to the Basilica of St Denis, where kings and queens are buried. The symbols of office, French history and myth, a Barrès-lite mysticism, grandiloquent shows of duty, international prestige – these seem to preoccupy him in a way that quotidian matters don’t. It’s as though his solipsism enables him to inhabit some higher plane, a place of exceptionality, in signal contrast to his immediate predecessor. How this goes down in the grim corons of the Pas-de-Calais and the HLMs of Bobigny is not hard to guess.

Pedder has been The Economist’s bureau chief in Paris since Chirac presided. Leave aside her gift for pitch-perfect journalese and novelettish description; she is formidably knowledgeable, can find her way through the labyrinth of ministries and functionaries, is fluent in Macronese, is perhaps somewhat in awe of the man and certainly shares his enthusiasm for digital start-ups, which may not be quite the panacea France needs. She has interviewed him several times and obviously writes with sufficient lack of animus to get herself invited back. This is not to say that she is a journalistic béni-oui-oui, a yes-woman.

Macron tends to surround himself with such people. It’s as if he has taken to heart George Harrison’s observation, ‘It’s better to have yes-men than no-men.’ There is, then, little brake on Macron’s impetuosity. Pedder possesses a marked discretion that he lacks: ‘Macron’s haste and ambition lead him to push too hard in ways that are divisive.’ Too right. His ability to alienate, for instance, white blue-collars and boondocks smallholders marks him out as either clumsy or negligent. He is routinely compared to Napoleon III.

The one person he listens to is his ever-smiling wife, on whose behalf he self-importantly militated so that she might be officially pronounced première dame. Nothing doing. Pascal Bruckner, the no-longer nouveau philosophe, calls her, with unusual lack of originality, l’éminence grise. In this guise she was probably responsible for her husband’s cravenly bathetic performance at Johnny Hallyday’s funeral – several minutes of high-octane drivel that caused the insentient to weep and the sentient to wince. Pedder amiably describes it as ‘both romantic and deeply calculating’. The same might be said of any number of populist, lush, intellectually void spectacles that offer no more than temporary relief, temporary communion. They are mere diversions. They are his forte. Chiselhurst awaits.

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