In his inaugural speech to the National Assembly today, French prime minister Gabriel Attal used the word “rearmament” 14 times, “poverty” only once. He indicated that his government would be a government of deeds, not words, thoughts, or theories. And already he has been out on the hustings–of necessity rather than by choice–appearing behind improvised podiums made of haystacks to assure protesting farmers that he is with them in spirit, even as CRS armored vehicles shove their tractors off the roads. In short, tragedy and farce have now been supplanted by polished production values in a professionally orchestrated PR offensive designed to showcase the new PM as man of action, or perhaps more accurately, a man of tireless movement, prepared to criss-cross the country in search of the ideal photo opportunity.
But the farmers have stolen his thunder with their diesel-powered jacquerie. They have mobilized all across the country, blocking highways and preventing food from reaching the local markets and hypermarchés, while in some places burning down government buildings and casting an ironic light on Attal’s contention that “rien ne résiste au peuple français.” Although interior minister Darmanin tried to give in before last weekend, declaring that the farmers were “suffering” and therefore should not be met with CRS (unlike urban rioters whose similar contempt for state property earned them prompt intervention), he had to show that the police could and would resist ce peuple français if they insisted on “starving Paris.” So, shortly after Darmanin’s message of appeasement, armored vehicles were strategically placed to prevent the demonstrators from blocking access to the food markets at Rungis.
All in all, it was an inauspicious beginning for the new government and for Macron’s efforts to set a new course prior to the European Parliament elections in the spring. The French people whom nothing can resist agree on little except that they’re not happy with their government. Les Républicains are still smarting over Rachida Dati’s defection. The realignment of the left around either Mélenchon and the Nupes or some version of eco-socialism that would bridge the gap between the Greens and the Socialists seems to have foundered. And meanwhile, Marine Le Pen continues to gain credibility as a sober and responsible leader of the opposition, who can concentrate her fire on the incoherence of all of her opponents right across the spectrum. She doesn’t need to emphasize xenophobia as her core concern, all of her erstwhile enemies now having rallied more or less to her insistence on “controlling the borders.”
Inside those borders, the government under Attal now emphasizes “rearmament,” a tellingly martial term for such backward-looking exercises as increasing the number of hours devoted to civics classes, requiring students to wear school uniforms, and reducing immigrants’ access to medical care. One may doubt that any of these measures will appease rebellious farmers or reduce European opposition to French demands that its farmers be granted exceptions from union-wide rules.