In the long shadow of De Gaulle, France faces the polls

It is an early spring day in Courseulles-sur-Mer, a sleepy fishing port on France’s north coast. The Channel sparkles in the morning sun, the white smudge of a ferry edging across the horizon towards Le Havre. On the beach a cluster of middle-aged men in neon sportswear are rigging up their sailboards. It is hard to imagine a scene more remote from the horrors recently unleashed at the other end of the European mainland, in Ukraine.

But if places have memories, these sands know something of the horrors of war. In 1944 they were Juno Beach, one of five D-Day landing sites, where thousands of mostly Canadian troops braved machine gun fire and mines as they stormed ashore. A Sherman Tank stands next to the merry-go-round on the seafront. Towering above the beach is an 18m-high Cross of Lorraine, the two-barred cross used as a symbol by the Free French during the war. The monument marks the spot where, on 14 June 1944, Charles De Gaulle first put his foot back on the soil of mainland France after years of exile in London.

One can trace the story of today’s France back to this point. From Courseulles, De Gaulle was driven to Bayeux near by. With characteristic immodesty, he would later recall how “at the sight of [me], its inhabitants were overcome by a kind of stupor which exploded into cheers and tears”. Other accounts relate a more restrained response. Still, such was the symbolism of the site that he returned to it in 1946 to lay the foundations of Gaullism, in a speech calling for a highly centralised constitutional order: a strong and quasi-regal presidency, a weak parliament and an all-encompassing emphasis on national stability and independence. This was the vision that he would put into practice when he came to power during the Algerian crisis of 1958, the dawn of the Fifth Republic, and which defines so much about modern France.

Charles De Gaulle arrives on the beach at Courseulles in June 1944. (Photo by Keystone-France)

I have come here in late February, to this place of beginnings, to start a trip through the country before its presidential election, the first round of which is on 10 April. My plan to travel by rail from the Channel to the Mediterranean was made before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What was conceived as a portrait of a major European country going into a close-fought election campaign has become something else: one of a major European country going into an election campaign against the backdrop of Europe’s biggest war since 1945. What does the future hold for the Fifth Republic against this dark international horizon?

From the coast I make my way to Caen. It is a genteel place, a regional centre for high-tech industry with a perfectly preserved old town. The café terraces on the Place Saint-Sauveur bustle with the Norman bourgeoisie, enjoying their coffees and glasses of beer or calvados in the sunshine, overlooked by a statue of Louis XIV erected during the Bourbon restoration of the 1820s. Inside the cafés the TVs are tuned to news channels showing the bombardment of Kharkiv.

The city has long been a stronghold of the moderate right. Its mayor, Joël Bruneau, is a centrist in the Republicans, the mainstream conservative party, which means today’s rally for the party’s presidential candidate, Valérie Pécresse, should be an easy gig. Pécresse (in her words, “two thirds Merkel, one third Thatcher”) is widely considered the right’s best chance of dislodging Emmanuel Macron from the Élysée — though she must hold off challenges from Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour on the far-right to make it to the runoff on 24 April.

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The crowds filing into the city’s Congress Centre are mostly grey-haired. Inside, young men in suits chivvy them into place while a moderator reminds them to respond enthusiastically as they are “being watched on social media all over France”. There are introductions from Bruneau and Hervé Morin, the defence minister during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency and now president of Normandy, each of them reeling off well-worn jokes. Morin’s “we Normans are the ones who civilised the English!” gets hoots of laughter.

But for Pécresse herself, the woman who would be president, there is rather less affection. “Energy! Energy! We’re going to win!” bellows the moderator, as the music pumps up to announce her arrival. Tricolour flags are waved compliantly. Her blonde bob passes through the throng before she materialises on the stage to cheers, but there is little of the warmth directed at Bruneau and Morin. This reflects one of the biggest difficulties Pécresse faces. While the moderate centre-right retains some strongholds at a regional level, it remains weak at the national one — where Macron’s combination of pro-European economic liberalism and a broadly Gaullist vision of society (secular, republican, centralised) has that part of the political spectrum locked down. Caen voted for him and his centrist La République En Marche party in both the 2017 presidential election and the 2019 European election.

Joël Bruneau, mayor of Caen, got a warmer welcome at a rally for Valérie Pécresse than the presidential candidate herself. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP)

Another problem becomes clear when Pécresse speaks. Her first talking point is, of course, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The campaign, she says, is now a “masked ball”. Le Pen, she observes correctly, is trying to hide her old affection for Vladimir Putin. She quotes Zemmour, who has called for “a French Putin”. “No!” she insists. “Mr Putin is not the victim, but the aggressor.” Then, sweeping together Le Pen, Zemmour and the anti-Nato leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, she cries: “Shame on them!” There is applause from the moderate burghers of Caen, but it does not go unnoticed that she has not mentioned Macron.

And who can blame her? The president’s extensive talks with Putin immunise him against claims that he has not tried diplomacy. His support for sanctions and a tough European response immunise him against claims that he has not stood up to Putin. What space does that leave for a would-be French Merkel or Thatcher? Not much. In Caen, Pécresse ventures some obvious overtures to the more hardline right: lock up the louts and keep the hijab out of public life (“Marianne doesn’t wear a headscarf!”). But it does not seem to inspire. Over the course of my trip through France, Macron’s ratings will steadily rise as those of Pécresse, until mid-February a plausible challenger, will slump.

Onwards and eastwards to Paris, a two-hour ride on a double-decker train, past fields, quiet lanes, apple orchards and old Norman churches that could equally belong in southern English villages. We sweep past the 17th-century Château de Maisons, on a bluff overlooking the twisting Seine, past the troubled cités at Argenteuil, past the modernist 1968-era campus of Paris Nanterre University, over the périphérique motorway, past the skyscraper cluster of La Défense and into Saint-Lazare station.

If you have not visited Paris for a few years, and remember it as rather tired and traffic-choked, then I would recommend a return trip. The transformation of recent years has been remarkable. In 2014 Anne Hidalgo of the Socialist Party was elected mayor, beginning a dynamic administration dedicated to making the city greener and more liveable. In 2016 the narrow “intra-muros” Paris within the périphérique was administratively joined with the city’s outskirts, under as scheme known as “Grand Paris”, and there was a flurry of associated infrastructure spending. The election of Macron in 2017 brought a series of liberalising economic reforms that have particularly benefited Paris, with its globalised knowledge economy.

The result is a city that in dynamism and influence is probably the closest there is today to a capital of Europe. Expanses of boulevard and side-street have been turned over to bicycle lanes; train stations like Saint-Lazare gleam following renovations; cranes and building sites everywhere announce the arrival of new high-rises, parks, tramways, campuses and infrastructure (including 200km of new train lines across the Greater Paris region).

The city is a good vantage point from which to take in the positives of the Macron years. France’s unemployment level fell to 7.4 per cent in the last quarter of 2021, its lowest for 13 years. Its economy came through the pandemic “astonishingly well”, according to the American economist Paul Krugman, and it has enjoyed the strongest recovery of any big European country. The country’s start-ups are thriving: Macron’s goal of 25 French digital companies worth $1 billion or more by 2025 was reached in January this year. Its GDP per capita has overtaken that of Britain, and its productivity per hour worked is about a third higher. A number of longstanding French instincts are becoming more mainstream internationally: from the merits of nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source to the 35-hour week and strong European defence, especially in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

And yet. Even in the booming French capital there is a gnawing malaise. In 2017 Macron pushed aside the two longstanding political families — the Republicans on the centre-right and the Socialists on the centre-left — and remade the landscape of French politics, promising a post-ideological, post-historical rupture from the old politics. En Marche was built on a series of intense dialogues with voters and drew half its candidates from outside politics. Yet notwithstanding Macron’s achievements, however, and the fact that he now seems very likely to be the first president to win re-election in two decades, even some sympathisers lament the missed opportunities for greater change; the president, they argue, is haughty and has over-centralised just as much as his old Fifth Republic predecessors.

“One person, however intelligent, cannot solve every problem in a nation of almost 70 million,” says one establishment insider. “This can-do mood is nice in movies, but in reality it helps to delegate. Yet the reflex in government is always, ‘We have to ask the president.’ If he is reelected, this has to change.”

A common argument, which I hear all over the capital, is that the party is an empty shell, that Macron’s prime-ministers and ministers have been too weak. The president, they say, remains too wedded to the technocratic republican consensus proposed by De Gaulle at Bayeux in 1946. Among Macron’s erstwhile supporters on the centre-left, these critiques meld with the now deep-rooted sense that he has been a “president for the rich”, and has courted right-wing opinion on identity and culture-war issues. There is a widespread sense that France remains too fragmented, too politically rigid and too susceptible to introspective gloom.

I stop by the Salon de l’Agriculture, the annual show at the Porte de Versailles that shows off and lobbies for the bounty of the French countryside, and dutifully admire some Auvergne cows. Then I head to a demonstration against Russia’s war on Ukraine at the Place Saint-Michel, yellow and blue flags flying as the multilingual crowd chants “Putin, assasin” (Putin, murderer). The contrast between this and the Pécresse rally captures the two sides of this election: the local and the global, one rooted deep in the bread-and-butter concerns of La France Profonde, the other rooted in the dramatic events now reshaping Europe from the other side of the continent.

The next morning, February 28, I meet Bernard Spitz, a founder of the social-liberal think tank Les Gracques, and a doyen of the French business establishment. Spitz credits Macron with some successes, such as improvements in German-style technical education. “The president’s leadership in this international crisis is a positive,” he says. “But the risk is that important internal topics could be overlooked in this campaign. To improve the relationship between presidency and the people will need some changes over the next years.” He warns that “the relationship between different parts of society has broken down”. Part of the problem, in Spitz’s view, is the mille-feuille of sub-national layers of government, both too weak and too many to present a serious counterweight to the presidency. “What is at stake in their election is not just competence, it is trust.”

Later the same day, I meet Caroline Fourest in Le Marais. Fourest is a former columnist for the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, widely known for her left-libertarian defences of French secularism. She speaks movingly of the darkest moments in her country’s recent history: the murder of eight of her Charlie Hebdo colleagues and four other people by terrorists in 2015; the attacks in Paris and Nice later that year and in 2016; and the decapitation in 2020 of Samuel Paty, a secondary school teacher in a Paris suburb who had shown his pupils Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a class on freedom of speech. Fourest despairs of both the right (she characterises Zemmour as an expression of the old reactionary French right exemplified by the writer Charles Maurras) and the left (which she says does too little to stand up to Islamism, or “the political instrumentalisation of Islam in a fundamentalist way”). But she is cautiously positive about Macron for seeking a universalist middle way with his controversial legislation against “separatism”, or the moral and societal self-segregation of parts of today’s multicultural France.

On the bustling Place de Clichy I meet Shahin Vallée, a former adviser to Macron, who remains largely upbeat about France’s future. “I want to be optimistic, but it is a long-run optimism — that we can get over these tensions and accept this multi-faith and multi-cultural society, which means accepting a different definition of universalism from the one we have now.” The vision of the country that he spells out is attractive and at odds with De Gaulle’s Bayeux vision of 1946 — more pluralist and polycentric.

There is a common thread running through these disparate perspectives: that the old model of the Fifth Republic may be reaching its limits. Macron is in many ways an impressive leader, but even he cannot overcome his country’s divisions, which some in Paris tell me are worse now than in 2017. Is something more radical needed? I think of Michel Rocard, François Mitterrand’s prime minister, whom I met shortly before his death in 2016. Rocard was a bastion of the so-called “second left”, a tradition heavily influenced by the 1968 protests, who believed in a more decentralised and intensively democratic vision of the republic. I think, too, of Pierre Mendès-France, who opposed De Gaulle’s top-down politics in the 1950s, and influenced the likes of Rocard.

A mural by the artists PBOY depicting the gilets jaunes, rural protesters who marched on Paris decrying the high cost of living. (Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP)

Proof of France’s Paris-centric order can be found in its railway network: the TGV trains radiating out to the country’s other big cities are sleek and modern, but those on lesser routes are not. Leaving Gare d’Austerlitz the following morning, I have chosen the latter. The service to my next destination is a slow, old-school country train, dust-caked curtains hanging in grimy windows.

As it meanders southwards the passengers illustrate some of the tensions I heard about in the capital. “Excuse me, can you put your mask on?” a young man asks (masks remain obligatory in most indoor spaces). He is addressing an older man of upper middle-class demeanour, with swept-back silver hair, a goatee, Ralph Lauren jumper and tortoiseshell glasses. “Who are you, the police?” snaps the maskless monsieur and returns to his magazine — Valeurs Actuelles, a hard-right weekly which is ideologically close to Zemmour. The issue bears the headline “The true cost of the great replacement”, a reference to a racist conspiracy theory about a deliberate plan to replace “white” Europeans with migrants. The younger man moves carriage.

I get off at Vierzon, an old industrial town in central France perched on the northern side of the valley of the Cher river, a tributary of the Loire. The Paris of the Macron boom feels a long way away; the paint is peeling on the row of houses and shops outside the train station.

I wander down the hill to the old Societé Française works, a row of brick hangars that long housed an agriculture machinery factory. On a plinth outside sits a 201 tractor, its body a cheerful green and its wheel rims bright yellow. Built in Vierzon between 1953 and 1957, the 201 helped to feed the nation in what came to be known as the “Trente Glorieuses”, the thirty-year economic renaissance that followed World War Two. During that period, Vierzon’s population grew from 26,000 to 35,700.

But then, from 1975, as industry started to decline, that growth went into reverse. In 1995 the factory closed. Now it is mostly derelict, one end turned over to an already tired-looking cinema and bowling alley. In 2017 the town’s population hit a post-war low of 27,900. In that respect it is typical of what the geographer Christophe Guilluy calls “la France périphérique”, the small and mid-sized towns left behind by the cities.

Guilluy was hailed as something of an oracle when, in late 2018, peripheral France produced a protest movement of unusual vigour and impact: the gilets jaunes (yellow vests). This began as a protest against an increase in diesel tax, and gathered momentum over the winter. It was an unideological and leaderless expression of anguish at the growing gap between rising living costs and stagnant or falling incomes, gathering first at roundabouts in provincial towns like Vierzon before marching on Paris.

That the protests were sparked by fuel costs was no coincidence. The centre of Paris and other major French cities such as Toulouse, Nantes, Strasbourg and Lyon (many now led by Greens or their political allies, such as Hidalgo) are cyclists’ paradises with ever-improving public transport. “The inhabitants of peripheral France, mostly working-class, live far from the main employment centres but also from public transport networks,” Guilluy tells me by email. “The car is therefore essential.” Despite valiant attempts to renovate Vierzon’s riverside centre, 26 per cent of shops there are vacant, while properties go for €100,000 or less. The new economic activity is on the edge of town in a cluster of recently built hotels and US-style chain restaurants specialising in burgers, ribs and “le Tex Mex”. If Vierzon has a defining economic raison d’être today, it is that it sits on a major autoroute junction.

Macron learned his lesson from the gilets jaunes. The fuel tax increase was cancelled and in January 2019 the president set off on “the great debate”, a listening tour designed to reconnect him with ordinary people. Such measures stabilised his presidency and inform Macron’s re-election campaign. Last December he visited Vierzon in a trip billed as another attempt to commune with peripheral France, touring the town with its Communist mayor, Nicolas Sansu. Together they visited projects designed to revive the town centre, including a reinvention of the old Societé Française as a “digital campus”.

That Vierzon has a Communist mayor makes it something of a hold-out. Many such working-class places, long dominated by the hard left, have in recent years turned to Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). The party came first here in the 2019 European elections, took almost 25 per cent in last year’s municipal elections, and could get an even higher share in the presidential election. “The former members of the Communist Party vote for the RN,” says Rémy Beurion, author of the widely-read Vierzonitude blog. “It’s that simple.” Le Pen’s chances have been dented by her links with Putin, but Russia’s war could still help the party by pushing living costs even higher. “The cost of living is still relevant,” Beurion says. “Especially in Vierzon where the population, let’s face it, is worse off than elsewhere.”

From Vierzon my train takes me through France’s deep centre, the region historically known as the Bourbonnais, ancestral home of the Bourbon royal family. The region, and old towns like Nevers and Moulins that my train passes through, encapsulate the two rival sides of French history: the powerful centralising forces of the Paris-centric hub, represented by the Bourbon monarchs (supported by their Colberts and Richelieus) and their republican successors; and, on the other hand, the rebellious bids for autonomy that came from the provinces.

The train wends its way through the big-skied farmland, with its wind turbines, horse paddocks and crop hangars, skirting the highlands of the Massif Central, forested and dotted with villages. It trundles along, passing the occasional derelict station. Guilluy had told me that the heavy investment in France’s TGVs belies the poor state of provincial infrastructure: 28 per cent of train stations were closed between 2008 and 2013. The train passes the spa town of Vichy, with its dark memories of France’s collaborationist past. I check the news. Russia is now attacking Mariupol and refugees are arriving in their thousands in Berlin, my home city.

At Lyon I switch onto the TGV, which flies down the flat and industrial valley of the Rhône, the snow-capped Alps to the east. From Avignon and Aix-en-Provence southwards, there is a change in the landscape. Brown roofs give way to orange ones; the ground turns dry and scrubby. Then the train tilts eastwards and the Mediterranean glistens on the horizon.

Marseille, France’s second city and biggest port, is a festival of paradoxes and in some respects the country’s most dysfunctional metropolis. The city’s poor northern districts, with their social housing high-rises, have long been cut off from the more charmed sea-front neighbourhoods, where pleasure boats bob in the March sun. The graffiti-covered estates in the north are still a byword for gang warfare and drug problems; rubbish is piled on the curbs, homeless people sleep among piles of blankets and bags, teenagers on scooters careen the wrong way down one-way streets.

The Felix Pyat housing estate in Marseille. (Photo by Adlan Mansri/SIPA)

Such tensions are one reason why France’s south coast has long been a stronghold of the far-right: a fusion of big-city problems, a large Catholic bourgeoisie and a sizeable population of pied noirs (the white French from Algeria and other parts of colonial north Africa who settled around Marseille and Nice, following the same convulsions that brought De Gaulle to power in 1958). Today the south coast is the site of an almighty battle between Zemmour, Le Pen and the Republicans over the future of the French right. Le Pen’s strongholds are in the post-industrial north and centre, places such as Vierzon. But on 8 March, her powerful niece Marion Maréchal, from the party’s less economically statist and more socially hardline southern tradition, announced her backing for Zemmour. Within the Republicans, Pécresse’s Nice-based, right-wing arch rival Éric Ciotti is also seen as Zemmour-compatible. If Macron wins the election, it may well be from the south that the subsequent grand realignment of the French right will come.

Yet to define Marseille only by its problems would be a mistake. It is also a city with verve and a long history of rebellion — symbolised by the Fort Saint-Jean, built by Louis XIV at the harbour entrance, which reportedly had its cannons facing inwards to subordinate the city. It has long been a gateway to France for peoples from across the Mediterranean and beyond, including France’s old colonial territories. “Armenians, Comorians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese,” as Macron put it on a visit in 2017.

Despite the city’s socio-economic faultlines, these different groups rub along strikingly well. In Afropean, Notes from Black Europe the black British author Johny Pitts writes of his time here: “Marseille is a mongrel of a metropolis, and all the things that made other people turn their nose up at it made me feel at home. I had found a place I could exist in Europe without any questions of belonging.” In Paris, Fourest had echoed something of this. “Islamism is not as big a problem in Marseilles as in the north,” she had told me. “They have strong local identity there: it cuts across divides.”

Marseille’s football club has for decades been a unifying force. But there is change afoot in the city’s politics. In the summer of 2020, the city had been led for 25 years by the establishment conservative Jean-Claude Gaudin, whose administrations had been mired in corruption allegations. But in municipal elections that July, his designated LR successor was swept aside in the so-called “Marseille Spring”. A pluralist bloc led by Michèle Rubirola, a local doctor, brought together socialist voices such as Samia Ghali, a French-Arab tribune of the city’s cut-off northern districts, with Greens and independents who carried the middle-class parts of the city nearer the sea.

Rubirola had to stand down for health reasons shortly after being elected, but the administration has gone on to bring in positive policies, from “shooting galleries” (supervised sites where drug addicts can take drugs safely and get help) to investment in public transport. A symbol of this renewal is the Rue D’Aubagne, a narrow street of tall, shuttered houses near the city’s old port. In 2018 two houses, numbers 63 and 65, collapsed, killing eight people. The tragedy exposed problems of urban decay, corruption and systemic mistrust. Today the street has been renovated: turned over to pedestrians and bikes, the buildings restored and planters dotted along its length. The next steps are being decided by citizens’ assemblies.

It is not too much of a stretch to ask whether what seems, tentatively, to be working for Marseille can work for France, too: more pluralism, more decentralisation, more layers of identity within a structure that remains unmistakably French. I get a coffee on the Quai du Port and read a book that Spitz gave me back in Paris, The Last Chance Manifesto. It calls for political reform: mid-term legislative elections to keep the president responsive to the electorate; a new balance between the upper (Senate) and lower (National Assembly) houses of parliament, making the Senate into a voice for the regions and mayors; cutting out the mid-level “départments” to give both regions and mayors greater powers; and stronger rules preventing politicians from holding multiple offices. It is a comparatively modest set of demands — short of the radical constitutional overhaul and “Sixth Republic” that some want — but a sensible revision to the top-down order envisioned by De Gaulle in the very different world of post-liberation Bayeux.

That evening I find a bar showing Macron’s address to the nation on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The president appears in front of Ukrainian, EU and French flags. “The consequences of these events will be felt not only in the near term, over the course of the coming weeks,” he says. “They also signal the start of a new era.” Everyone is watching the big screen. There is something Gaullist about the grandeur and solemnity of the moment. The following day, on 3 March, Macron announces his candidacy for re-election in a sombre “letter to the French People” published on the websites of the regional daily press. A poll shows a surge in his first-round support to 30.5 per cent (compared with 14.5 per cent for Le Pen in second place).

Before I leave, I pay a visit to the shore of the Mediterranean — this is, after all, a sea-to-sea trip. The Plage des Catalans, close to the old port, was once easily accessible only to the better-off districts nearby. Now, thanks to new tram and bus routes and cycle lanes, it has been opened up to the poorer north of the city. Marseille’s new pluralist administration has plans to expand it further.

Marseille’s pluralist administration could be an example for the rest of the country. (Photo by Catalin Daniel Ciolca)

The March sky is bright against the islands in the bay and the broad headland to the north. The Mediterranean slops cool and dark on the shore. Working-class Marseille families picnic on the sand, tattooed hipsters play volleyball and women in headscarfs walk along the promenade.

If you were to arrive on this beach, like De Gaulle landing at Courseulles after years away, you would assume France was the most integrated and serene society in the world. It is very far from that. But here, where the land meets the sea, there is a glimpse of the better France. With Europe once more confronted by the spectres of war and collapse, these things matter, too; the foundations of a resilient society that holds together in times of adversity. Spitz was right: what counts most in an election is trust. France’s task now is to shore up that trust, build cohesion, narrow the divides, to make itself robust for this uncertain new age.

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