This week CapX is republishing some of our favourite articles of the year. This piece first appeared on December 13.
When he was 15, in his Jesuit Lycée in provincial Amiens, Emmanuel Macron wanted nothing more than to become an actor. He joined the school’s drama club, created by the woman he would eventually marry, Brigitte Auzière, a French Literature teacher. (Trawling through YouTube, you can find snippets of his performances.) As he delivered his somewhat stilted pre-taped address on Monday night, breaking a 12-day silence during the worst of the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) unrest, Macron’s voice, especially in the first few minutes, had that slightly hollow tone characteristic of French acting technique.
The address was a last-chance move after frustrations among the country’s less privileged led to four successive Saturdays of nation-wide demonstrations, riots and looting. It was the kind of performance Macron has been giving all his life. The peculiar cursus honorum he chose for himself, after laying to rest his acting dreams, required passing a number of the ritual competitive exams and public oral examinations, complete with socially-adept banter, in which the French elite co-opt their own. (In terms of exclusiveness, an Oxford PPE doesn’t begin to compare with having graduated in the rarefied top ranks of France’s post-graduate government school École Nationale d’Administration, ENA).
He excelled at them. The French have an expression for students like him: “c’est une bête à concours”, someone who thrives under pressure at exams, job interviews, auditions. Macron rose from finance ministry mandarin to government aide to merchant banker to Minister to President of the Republic in 13 years. He got there through a combination of intelligence, energy and chutzpah, reinforced by large helpings of youthful charm. He tailored his delivery to individual mentors and crowds.
The day he was elected, he broke character to present a new face: his evening victory address was designed to make everyone forget his age and inexperience. Dressed to look like François Mitterrand, complete with old-fashioned navy overcoat, he mimicked France’s wily Socialist President’s inauguration by walking alone across the great courtyard of the Louvre, and speaking over an empty chasm to crowds massed at a distance. He himself termed his new, regal style “Jupiterian”, and he delivered encores to Donald Trump on the Champs-Élysées, and to Vladimir Putin at Versailles. And at first, the crowds at home and abroad couldn’t get enough of it.
In a way, the clash between Emmanuel Macron and the forgotten men and women of la France périphérique was inevitable, even though the Gilets Jaunes are really protesting against a deindustrialisation and social insecurity that started at about the time he was born. He is the face of the Anywheres, in David Goodhart’s taxonomy: those educated 20 per cent who can choose where and how they work; who speak foreign languages, especially English; who feel closer to their counterparts in other Western nations than to the Somewheres, the country’s déplorables, stuck in the region where they grew up, with local familial and friendly ties, and without the means to job-hunt in high-rent large cities.
The French felt Macron looked down on them, and did not like it one bit. They remembered that during his campaign, he answered back an angry striking worker in a Hérault small town that “the only way to buy a nice suit [like the one he himself was wearing] is to work hard.” Giving a speech to entrepreneurs in a new business park incubator, he contrasted “those who will succeed” with the people one sees in a crowd, “who are nothing”. He called opponents to his labour law reform “lazy” and vowed he’d “never give them anything”. A couple of months ago, he told an unemployed worker that to find a job, “all you need is to cross the street”, something that may be true if the street is in Canary Wharf, less so if it’s in Ussel. Only two weeks ago, his wife was giving interviews to Le Monde and Le Figaro to explain how she was redecorating the Elysée place (to the tune of €500,000) “to let the light in… this kind of fortress.”
Jacques Chirac, whose background is similar to Macron’s, cultivated an image of forceful Philistinism far from his hidden interests in Chinese poetry and African art. He became France’s favourite agriculture minister by defending beleaguered French farmers against “Brussels”, never passing a cow in his rural constituency farms without patting it enthusiastically, and eating truly heroic quantities of tête de veau. To this day, this château-owner married to an aristocrat is fondly described in the country as a man of the people.
François Hollande, another top-ranked énarque (ENA graduate), described himself as the “normal” president and developed a nebbishy, jokey manner which insulated him to criticism for the first half of his term at least.
Of all recent French presidents, it’s probably Nicolas Sarkozy, whose popular instincts were honed under his Gaullist mentor Charles Pasqua, the last of the great Corsican politicians, who might have managed to come to terms faster with the Gilets Jaunes. Sarko failed all the examinations Macron, Chirac and Hollande sailed through, was dismissed as an outsider for his demotic language, taste for bling and Hungarian roots, and was slapped with the “Président des riches” tag long before it was shouted of Macron on roadblocks these last weeks. (Sarko believes this enough that he told a Le Point journalist earlier this week that he would “have to make a come back”, which seems unlikely.)
As it is, Macron’s 13-minute address was neither a show-stopper, nor a dud. He started with strong words against violence and unrest; offered apologies for his “aloofness” and the fact that several of his words have “hurt” the feelings of the French, managing to deliver them without clenching his teeth. He went on to break France’s commitments to the EU Stability Pact with about €10 billion’s worth of minimum wage hikes, means-tested bonuses, and cancellation of recent tax hikes. From all accounts, the president had been shell-shocked by what he saw as the sudden onslaught of hatred directed at him. For once, he looked on TV like he wasn’t enjoying himself (so far, he had consistently projected an attitude of delighted smugness, as if impressed by his own achievement); but he looked committed and sober enough.
At first the Gilets Jaunes’ reactions were prudent; even if afterwards most self-proclaimed spokesmen complained it was not nearly enough, there was a feeling that the arrogant President had been taken down a notch, and was making a real effort. More protests were announced for next Saturday, more in defiance than enthusiasm, especially as it was obvious that they would attract more violent activists and opportunistic looters than peaceful types. Nationwide support, shown in successive polls to be behind the Gilets Jaunes over the last weeks, started ebbing, from 80 per cent to about 54 per cent.
In the end though, it’s likely that Macron’s bacon will have been tragically saved by the ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in Strasbourg on Tuesday night. The president, his home secretary, and the anti-terrorist squad have put the country on alert during the manhunt, looking properly determined on the 24-hour newschannels. Many Gilets Jaunes on social media scream that it’s all a convenient conspiracy and a setup, which is either stupid or disingenuous (the hashtag #GiletsJaunes has been shown to be used by hundreds of Russian-IP’ed accounts intent on showing that France is falling apart).
All the same, the French had believed for the past month that they could retreat from the world and indulge in cosy national hysterics. Strasbourg is a sobering reminder that the police’s main task may not be to stand at the receiving end of weaponised paving stones hurled across the Champs-Elysées, and to round up teenagers helping themselves to Louis Vuitton bags from shattered shop windows.