THE FRENCH ECONOMIST Jean Fourastie in 1979 published a landmark work entitled ‘Trente Glorieuses’ celebrating an era of progress since the war, three decades of prosperity no less, when there was no talk of unemployment or decline or crisis. What Fourastie had really demonstrated however was that French society had progressed without the French themselves actually realising it. For the journals and the press in the 1960s had registered nothing but regression in the condition of the working class. Everywhere were Marxists complaining about the pauperisation of the salaried classes and of social misery.
In comparing the France of the 1970s with that of the 1940s, Fourastie was not merely doing the work of historians; he wanted to demonstrate to his contemporaries that they had misjudged their times, thus illustrating the old Marxist adage, according to which men make history yet are not aware of the history they make. It applied even to Marxists!
A generation later (2004), Jacques Marseille, a historian, took the same approach and showed to what an extent his own contemporaries also viewed their era as a regressive one. Had not Nicolas Bavarez published his well-received ‘La France qui Tombe’ in 2003 in the wake of his essay ‘Les Trentes Pitieuses’ which had clearly been a rebuke to Fourastie?
In taking up the same comparisons as Fourastie, Marseille arrived at similar conclusions as if history could only stutter. His book was entitled ‘La Guerre des deux France’ and it proved the immensity of economic, social and cultural progress made in the previous thirty years. It raised, however, the question why these improvements had been ignored by the younger generations and forgotten by their elders?
Today, after almost another twenty years France seems to be split once again with the ‘declinists’ clearly in the ascendant. President Macron is facing re-election next spring and already he is facing hysterical opposition with not only his political opponents predicting chaos and civil war but also, apparently, large sections of the armed forces agreeing.
On 14 April an open letter was published by 21,000 retired servicemen (with the support of more than two dozen retired generals). It talked of chaos brought about by ‘the hordes from the suburbs’ (immigrants of African and Arab backgrounds living in the run-down housing estates that surround Paris and other big cities) and said the government had lost control of the country. Government ministers and army chiefs expressed outrage, Le Pen expressed support (no insurrection was being planned!) while 58% of voters expressed support in opinion polls. Would the letter give rise to a new protest movement – ‘gilets khakis’ perhaps?
In her May Day speech, Le Pen echoed the themes of the letter: ‘Crime and urban riots have become our daily lot’, ‘Chaos has been installed in France’, ‘Concerning crime the last four years have been among the most painful we have known for decades’, ‘Concerning the economy, the slow decline of our country has continued with metronomic regularity’, while she threw back in his face Macron’s statement to a US tv station in April that in order to tackle racism ‘we have in a certain way to deconstruct our own history.’
The declinist viewpoint meanwhile grew. On 19 May police officers held a huge demonstration outside the National Assembly. An enormous banner read ‘Paid to serve, not to die’ (two policemen had been killed recently.) The Interior Minister turned up to thank them and said he thought about them day and night. Since an opinion poll showed 65% of voters unhappy with the government’s record on law and order, this was no doubt true.
But it was not just the Far Right which was expressing support for the retired soldiers and policemen. If among Le Pen’s supporters, backing was 86%, among those of the Centre Right it was 71.% and it was even 46% among supporters of Macron’s own party. The Centre-Right MP Eric Cotti accused the government of ‘looking the other way while France sinks deeper into chaos every day.’
More significant was the support given to the letter by the Centre Right MP Rachida Dati, mayor of Paris’s 7th arondissement and former Justice Minister from 2007-2009 under Sarkozy. She is a Muslim who intends to run for President next year. She said: ‘When you have a country plagued by urban guerrilla warfare, where you have a constant and high terrorist threat, when you have increasingly glaring and flagrant inequalities, we cannot say that the country is doing well.’ Ominously she added: ‘I am afraid the police will break down one day. And if they crack, we go well beyond the disintegration of society.’ Not a happy thought.
If this were not bad enough a second letter appeared on the same website on 10 May, this time from serving officers – ‘the generation of fire’ – who had seen active service in Mali, Afghanistan and Central Africa as well as in security operations in France itself. They themselves had to remain anonymous but they invited members of the public to sign in support. And by the end of that afternoon 145,000 had done so. Ten days later, the website had been visited by 2.5 million people and 298,980 civilians had signed.
This time the soldiers had written that the survival of France was at stake due to Macron’s ‘concessions’ to Islamism. They had offered up their lives; he had made concessions to religious communities to whom ‘France means nothing but sarcasm, contempt or even hatred.’ ‘We have seen hatred of France and of its history become the norm.’
It predicted: ‘Chaos will not come from a military pronunciamento but from a civilian insurrection.’ Worse still: ‘Civil war is brewing in France and you (Macron) know it perfectly well.’ Finally, these serving officers defended their retired comrades who had authored the first letter: were their elders, who had made France what it was only to see it turned into ‘a failed state’, to become victims of a brutal tyranny? The survival of the country, it told French politicians – ‘your country’ – was at stake.
This might all seem unique and extraordinary had not, for example, Patrick Calvar, head of French Internal Security, five years ago not also raised the spectre of civil war. Then in 2018, Gérard Collomb, Minister of the Interior, again painted a bleak outlook if France did not regain control of her inner cities from Islamists and drug barons. (He then resigned!) Arguably, in the view of one distinguished Spectator columnist, France has been at civil war for years as then President Francois Hollande told Congress in 2015, days after Islamists slaughtered 130 people on the streets of Paris. Macron seems in no position to keep the streets of France safe, whatever his policy on Islam, something we will return to later.
Meanwhile, can his critics provide an alternative?
Among those pointing to the decline of the French state into chaos and incipient civil war, only Marin Le Pen has a chance of supplanting Macron. All opinion polls show this. And she is gaining strength while Macron could be defeated in the first round of the next presidential election should a strong challenger emerge on the Centre Right. Meanwhile, the Centre Right may be doing what it can to undermine Le Pen with Barnier, for example, the strict former defender of all EU rules, suddenly calling for a five-year ban on non-EU immigration into France and the abandonment of the Schengen Agreement. Yet this could also strengthen her and undermine Macron. Time will tell.
Certainly, the British media seem to have lost track of Le Pen, whose clear and elegant French has recently put together a new manifesto. It has not so far boosted her polling data but it deserves to be looked at since it is the complete opposite of Macron’s agenda. And it is explosive. The British media however who are bitterly opposed to her have ignored it.
Far from dropping her Euroscepticism, Le Pen seems to have reinforced it. For example, the first promise made in her 144 point manifesto is to hold a Frexit referendum on EU membership. (Macron, himself, remember, told Andrew Marr that the French would vote Yes but that he wouldn’t give them the choice. Le Pen would.) She would also withdraw France from the Eurozone, the CAP, the Schengen Agreement and NATO.
France would become a strong, independent country with 50,000 extra troops, 15,000 extra police and 40,000 extra prison places. A new Anti-Terror Agency would be set up. (There would be full life sentences but no death penalty.)
The national economy would be strengthened by a system of ‘intelligent, patriotic protection’ instead of free trade. There would be a move towards re-industrialisation with up to 35% tariffs to encourage French car companies to bring production home. With regard to procurement, a doctrine of national preference would be written into the constitution. To obviate the need for migrant labour, the state would promote a higher birth rate among French families. Low-income families would receive special allowances and the number of medical students would be vastly increased to end dependence on foreign doctors. There is no mention of abortion but Le Pen would outlaw surrogacy and same sex marriages.
As befits a nationalist party, Le Pen would have a requirement written into the constitution to protect France’s cultural and historical heritage. An official version of French history would be reintroduced in schools and the politics of historical apology would be abandoned. Multiculturalism would be opposed and secularism reinforced to the extent of banning all signs of religious belief in all public spaces.
The CAP would be replaced by a local version with local supply chains and consumption and a ‘practical version’ of environmentalism. She would keep nuclear reactors and boost renewables but not wind power. Costs would be met by ending benefit fraud and tax evasion.
After withdrawing from the Schengen Agreement, a whole raft of measures would be introduced to reduce immigration to near zero by making it difficult for immigrants to be naturalised. Asylum seekers would have to apply at French embassies and consulates outside France.
Perhaps her most radical proposal domestically is to recentralise the presidential regime by reforming Article 11 of the constitution to allow the president much more scope in holding plebiscites, thus directly consulting the electorate by-passing Parliament, which would be dramatically reduced in size. She would simply abolish French regional government. Constitutionally, finally, she would repatriate data on the French to French servers and introduce closer supervision of trade unions.
In short, Le Pen offers France a revolution.
So what does Macron offer? In face of his declinist critics charging him with furthering chaos and civil war, what will be his defence of the status quo?
According to the latest polls, Macron is approved of by only 40% of French voters. 59% disapprove of him. As far as voting intentions in the first round of the next presidential election are concerned, 27% would vote for Le Pen and 25% would vote for him.
This is not perhaps surprising. He is not a very sympathetic character – convinced of his own intellectual superiority, predisposed to lecture at great length, apparently possessing an ambiguous private life, not noted for a sense of humour, and unable to appeal to the Left of the political spectrum despite having been a minister in a Socialist government. In many ways he has been a political wrecker, destroying the previous party system without managing to create a new one to replace it. It is all too obvious, for example, that his own party, the Republique En Marche (whose two last initials are of course his own) has lamentably failed to put down local or national roots. If Macron fails to be re-elected, it will probably just disappear. In some ways, he reminds me of Giscard d’Estaing – le roi Giscard – whose strident Europeanism, overweening self-esteem and intellectual arrogance eventually condemned him to being a one-term president. The French could only take so much. So far, of course, there has been no scandal equivalent to Bokassa’s diamonds, but there is still a year to go.
The British are used to judging Macron in the light of his excessively peevish response to Brexit, something which utterly destroyed his vision of a great, United Europe, led by France, dominating the international stage. During all the negotiations, Macron took the hardest line, always rejecting reasonable compromises to ensure that the ultimate deal would cost us dearly. Even after our exit, he kept up the pressure on us with the blockade of Dover through Covid tests, the threat to Jersey’s electricity supply and the continuing hard line on the Northern Irish Protocol.
But we have had the last laugh. The super-efficiency of Britain’s rollout of anti-Covid vaccines has been an example to the world, whereas the total fiasco of the EU’s effort has been an embarrassment. The situation of course was made even more embarrassing by Macron’s ignorant attacks on the ‘British’ (Astrazeneca) vaccine which in the last resort merely frightened French citizens from seeking to be vaccinated at all, delayed the rollout of vaccines there and caused a third wave of Covid with a belated lockdown that will cause a delayed French economic recovery which will lag behind our own. French voters are dimly aware of all this.
However, we should not seek to judge Macron purely from our own perspective. He should be judged instead in the light of the success or failure of his own objectives. What then has been the fate of his own ‘grands projets’— the rejuvenation of the French economy, European Fiscal Union, a European Defence Union and most of all the fight against Islamism at home and abroad which he termed France’s top priority?
In terms of economic rejuvenation, Macron’s initial attempts caused the yellow vest weekend protests that brought police violence and mayhem to Paris and many other towns and cities as poorer citizens protested against proposed fuel tax rises and other tax changes. Students joined in and France at times looked ungovernable until Macron toured the country, set up local people’s assemblies and promised all sorts of concessions. These, it has been estimated, cost the state some €17 billion. Meanwhile promised deregulation had only really affected local bus routes.
Macron also faced massive resistance to his plan, announced in December 2019 to scrap the French national pension system (41 different schemes) and replace it with a single state scheme. This was a good idea as pensions in France absorbed 14% of GDP (twice the British proportion) although a previous attempt by Chirac in 1995 had failed. Union—particularly rail union—resistance was even greater this time but after Macron compromised over the retirement age, a watered-down reform was passed by decree under Article 49 of the Constitution. Financially, it meant little improvement. With unemployment running at 8.6% even before Covid, welfare costs were also undermining French financial stability.
By the end of last year, the overall financial situation not only of France but of the EU was looking bad. EU threats to seize vaccines from private firms had undermined capital confidence with the result that there were eye-watering capital outflows from the Eurozone bordering on capital flight. According to HSBC, outflows reached half a trillion euros in the final quarter of last year, an annualised rate of 20% of GDP. It quickened to €250 billion in December alone. And this was before Macron’s ‘Jupiterian’ decision to delay a third lockdown which cost France an extra €15 billion.
Today the French economy is mired in debt. Indeed it has the greatest total debt in Europe to the tune of €2.6 trillion and in April finally overtook Italy as the Continent’s greatest debtor and the third biggest globally. That debt, moreover, is spread globally. Again, France still suffers from vaccine hesitancy and is probably the most politically unstable country in the G7.
It can of course be pointed out that in terms of GDP its debt stands only at 115% compared to Italy’s 160%, the figure to which Draghi’s modernisation plan is pushing it. But at least Draghi has an ambitious plan plus a stimulus programme. In France reform has stopped and the state is spending billions propping-up old industries (cf. the billion extra euros dished out to KLM-Air France last month.) Macron’s debt is less investment in the future than payment for an expensive welfare system. Finally, while 70% of Italian debt is owned by Italian banks (really the ECB), half of French debt is owned by the rest of the world. In Matthew Lynn’s words, it is after dollar debt, ‘the second largest traded commodity in the world’. And at the first sign of trouble in the Eurozone, global institutional investors will ditch their notes. Were Le Pen to win next year and exit the Eurozone, the French financial crisis would be enormous.
Unfortunately, there is no space here to discuss the financial stability of the Eurozone but there is little chance that the Euro Recovery Fund will morph into Macron’s desired Fiscal Union with its own Finance Minister, Treasury and even Parliament. For a start, the German Supreme Court would never allow it. Nor would German, Dutch, Finnish and other politicians. Besides, it only amounts to 0.7% of EU GDP.
As for Macron’s plan for a European Defence Union, it is so obviously nonsensical it is hardly worth discussing. Macron may believe it is not in Europe’s interest to rely for its defence on NATO and especially on the USA and the UK, as he told the 59th Munich Defence Summit. He may even genuinely believe that NATO is brain dead. But if he truly believes that Europe can defend itself the same charge can be laid against him.
Germany, for a start, is pacifist. It contributes only 1.3% of its GDP to NATO. Its voters tell pollsters they will not fight for Ukraine, Poland or the Baltic States. Its politicians tell the voters they will not have to. Its present Chancellor and President are fervent backers of Nord Strom II while its former defence minister, now EU Commission President, ran its armed forces into the ground. Much German military hardware – tanks, planes, submarines, whatever – does not work. As for many other EU states, their armies are fictions that exist only on paper.
The only worthwhile military power that exists in Europe apart from France is Britain. And we have special military arrangements with France through the St. Malo and Lancaster House Agreements. Macron should remember this. If he pushes us too far over N. Ireland or whatever, we could always end these arrangements. We already wisely refused to sign up to further EU defence projects in our Withdrawal Agreement. Still, it is British helicopters which are presently aiding French anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel. Macron should stop kicking his British gift-horse in the teeth.
So, given his poor record on economics and defence, how should we rate him on his ‘top priority’, the defence of France against Islamism at home and abroad? This seems to be the main bone of contention between him and his military critics. (Although his first big clash came when the chief of the defence staff, Pierre de Villiers, resigned on 19 July 2017 following a confrontation with the President over a budget cut of €850 million. He told one parliamentary group: ‘I will not let myself be fucked like this.’)
With regard to Muslims, France has the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe. There are probably 5 million Muslims in France and recently there has been an influx of unaccompanied minors from North Africa. Undoubtedly subject to discrimination, they live mostly in the outer suburbs of large cities, where the population is young and hostile to the police. Often their first loyalty is to Algeria rather than to France and there is a lot of drug-running. Cars are set alight at weekends and often these suburbs are no-go areas for the police.
Since 2015 about 250 people have been killed in terrorist attacks and many more have been thwarted by French intelligence. Many of these attacks have been horrific including the beheading of a schoolteacher outside his school and the slitting of the throat of a priest inside his church. No other Western European country faces such a persistent terrorist threat.
Against this background, Macron in 2018 proposed a plan to ‘reorganise’ the Islamic religion in France saying: “We are working on the structuring of Islam in France and also on how to explain it, which is extremely important – my goal is to rediscover what lies at the heart of laicite, the possibility of being able to believe or not to believe in order to preserve national cohesion and the possibility of having free consciousness.” He followed this up by inviting the country’s leading imams to hear him lecture them on their place within the nation. Unsurprisingly, he quickly came to be seen as the arch-enemy of Islam, with critics all over the Muslim world asking why a secular state should run their religion and why Macron should think himself an expert on the subject. President Erdogan of Turkey became his most outspoken critic, questioning his very sanity, but the criticism of him in the Muslim media all over the world has been harsh and in Pakistan very recently there have been enormous anti-French demonstrations.
No matter. In the middle of February this year the French Parliament passed the so-called ‘Anti-separatist’ Bill that the government sees as the national response to the development of radical Islam in France and which is supposed both to produce respect for republican values and to protect the Muslim majority from the extremist Islamist minority, who aim to create a ‘separate’ society in France.
The bill ends polygamy and forced marriage and the issuing of virginity certificates, compels children over the age of three to attend state schools, restricts the right to home schooling, makes online hate speech a crime, and allows the state to close down places of public worship found to air ‘theories or ideas’ that ‘ provoke hate or violence towards a person or people.’ It gives the government far greater control over the funding of mosques and the recruitment of imams, thus reducing the influence of countries such as Qatar, Turkey or Algeria. Whether the atmosphere will change in France is still to be seen. It is , however, difficult to square the bill with claims by his military critics that he has made concessions to Muslims.
As far as the struggle with Islamists abroad is concerned, France’s main contribution under Macron has been to send 5,000 troops to the Sahel in Operation Barkhane. Yet the French have been dogged by bad luck. At Christmas 2019 Macron had to visit Africa to bring the CFA, the French dominated West and Central African Currency to an end. Then Chad, a country which the French had never really left, fell apart when a convoy of 400-450 armoured vehicles carrying troops loyal to the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, drove from Libya, where it had been supporting French ally, General Khalifa Haftar, captured the Chad capital, N’Djamena, and caused the death of its President, General Idriss Deby Itno, France’s ally for thirty years. Nor has his son proved popular as a successor given the corruption and human rights abuses of his father. Again, just days ago, military officers arrested the president, prime minister and defence minister of Mali, where most of the fighting against Islamist forces has been taking place.
Only President Erdogan of Turkey will have been happy to hear of these events. He has been the foremost critic of Macron’s policy on Islam, has bitterly opposed his support of Haftar in Libya (indeed, at one point he trained missiles from his ships on a French frigate suspected during a NATO sea exercise of running guns to Haftar!) and has drawn French naval support to the East Mediterranean to protect Greek and Cypriot vessels from aggressive Turkish oil exploration in Greek and Cypriot waters. In 2020 Macron even called for sanctions against Turkey on account of its violation of Greek and Cypriot sovereignty: “it is not acceptable for the maritime space of EU member states to be threatened.” As for Turkish military intervention in Libya: “We have a right to expect more from Turkey than Russia given that it is a member of NATO.” Yet Macron is an outspoken supporter of good relations with Russia which, he says, “fully belongs within a Europe of values”, whatever that means.
Clearly Macron’s policy of resisting jihad in Libya and the Sahel has not exactly been a success. Both areas are still subject to civil war and ideological confrontation. Yet from Macron’s viewpoint, he has no choice but at least to try to bring order there and hold back the Islamist surge. Nobody else cares. His critics inside France must cause him immense and profound frustration.
Certainly those outside France do so, for as an avid reader of the Anglo-American press, he has not been slow to register his disdain at the lack of support he claims to receive from Britain and America. For example, last November he had a letter published in the Financial Times complaining that one of its op-ed pieces had misquoted him using the term ‘Islamic’ instead of ‘Islamist separatism’. The paper by then had withdrawn the offending article claiming ‘factual errors’. Days earlier Politico had removed an op-ed article by the French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar on ‘the dangerous French religion of secularism’ with the website explaining it had not met its editorial standards. In lieu of the offending piece Politico published a letter by French Government spokesperson, Gabriel Attal, who accused Khosrokhavar of blaming French secularists for the terrorist attacks in France in ‘an unthinkable reversal of roles between the attackers and the attacked.’
A few days later Macron himself arranged an interview with the New York Times in which he said: “…when I see journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – when I see them legitimising this violence and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”
Later, Anne Sophie Bradelle, Macron’s international communications adviser, also lamented the lack of support for France from its traditional friends and allies: “When the Washington Post and New York Times say we are at war with Islam it is extremely violent. Particularly coming from countries that supposedly share certain values with us”. Yet neither paper had ever said that. The only criticism was that France could perhaps do more to remove the grievances felt by its Muslim citizens. Again, Macron made much in his New York Times Interview of the failure of Anglo-Saxons to understand the French doctrine of laicite, although even many French have difficulty in fully comprehending it themselves. On the other hand, Americans also constitutionally uphold the separation of church and state. As a doctrine it is not of quite the same degree of difficulty as understanding the Trinity.
All in all therefore Macron like many French leaders before him appears to believe that his difficulties in Europe, France and elsewhere are compounded by the unprincipled opposition of the Anglo-Saxons. As pointed out last week, it is a constant theme in French politics and history.
Should he fail to be re-elected, we will definitely receive at least part of the blame. From Brexit to Islamism we shall have prevented the triumph of French rationalism.
Bien sur! Comme toujours!