By the Seat of His Pants

21 May 2022

Emmanuel Macron is firmly at the controls of the aircraft, but its destination remains unclear. After three weeks of flying in circles, the pilot-in-chief settled on a new government but filed two or perhaps three quite different flight plans.

The first indicated no change of destination whatsoever: Bruno Le Maire remains at Bercy and Gerald Darmanin at Beauvau. Hence no change of direction in regard to the economy or police. The right is satisfied, the left incensed (but at the same time disarmed by the very audacity of the president’s inaction–“he can’t even be bothered to signal the least modicum of concern on these issues, nothing will ever change”).

The second flight plan indicated an altogether different, not to say contradictory, routing. Macron had promised that ecology would be at the top of the agenda for his second quinquennat, and there it was: no fewer than two ministries devoted to the issue, in addition to a prime minister herself charged with overseeing the effort, whose precise terms remained totally ambiguous. Amélie de Montchalin was put in charge of “ecological planning,” an appellation borrowed from Mélenchon, while Agnès Pannier-Runacher was assigned to monitor the “energy transition.” Ecopoliticians were not much impressed with any of these nominations, given the past experience and commitments of the three women involved. Still, every maroquin creates incentives to fill it with something, and with three highly ambitious women eager to make their mark, one can look forward to a good many announcements in the ecological domain in the months ahead. Whether these will amount to more than greenwashing for policies dictated by the priorities of Le Maire et al. remains to be seen.

Finally, the third flight plan filed by Macron began with a spectacular aerobatic stunt, what is referred to in the aviation community by the French word chandelle: an abrupt course reversal with simultaneous gain in altitude. I refer to the already much-remarked nomination of the historian Pap Ndiaye as minister of education. Ndiaye is not only an historian, he is an historian of the black minority in the United States and a defender of minorities in France. Franco-Senegalais, he did his graduate work at the University of Virginia under the supervision of Olivier Zunz (with whom I collaborated on the translation of several works of Tocqueville). I can personally testify that he is an impressive scholar and thoughtful human being. He is the diametric opposite of his predecessor, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who has been an outspoken critic of what he calls “le wokisme” and “Islamo-gauchisme” in French universities. Ndiaye rightly denounces these ideological categories as chimeras.

The selection of Ndiaye is thus a strong signal, but will it amount to anything more than that? Is Macron counting on the effet d’annonce, which has already been considerable–the Ndiaye nomination has drawn more commentary than any other aspect of the new government–or will real changes in the structure of the educational system and the content of the curriculum follow? Predictably, Ndiaye has quickly become the focal point of far-right attacks: both Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour accuse him (wrongly) of being an indigéniste who will sap the glories of French culture from within.

By contrast, the new minister introduced himself as un pur produit of French meritocracy. Of course, this can be taken two ways: as proof that structural racism does not exist in France, because a black man with talent and determination can successfully complete the long march through existing institutions to the top of the heap, or as the exception that proves the rule that French meritocracy suffers from any number of biases in need of correction that can best be applied by someone who has studied their causes and effects.

In either case, Ndiaye will have his work cut out for him. The ministry of education is notoriously difficult to reform in the best of circumstances, but the difficulties will only be compounded if every move sets off a barrage of charges from the usual suspects that the Great Replacement has come to les hussards de la République themselves, threatening the very pillars of the Republic if not of civilization itself (and much other nonsense of similar ilk). Despite Ndiaye’s moderation, it is easy to foresee him becoming the bête noire, as it were, of every racist in France, much as Christiane Taubira was in her time. I wish him a happier fate, but I fear the worst.

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5 Comments

  • bernard says:

    Ndiaye will become the chief subject of every racist in France, that is a given not a risk. The real issue is the one you touch upon at the end of this article: secondary education seems to be collapsing (along with the public medical sector), and this has accelerated during Macron’s first term according to international comparison indicators. In fact one might suspect that Blanquer turned to these ridiculous ideological fights in his last two years as a distraction after having failed abjectly to fix secondary education or rather after having damaged it further).
    Public expenditure is around 57% of GDP, yet public education and public health are failing, a sure sign that there are serious efficiency issues. Can we get rid of the hundreds of thousands of useless administrators who have been pretending to rationalise processes and hire useful technicians in the future such as sufficiently well paid professors to attract some of the best. This will obviously take more than 5 years to accomplish. Starting would be nice.

  • Anonymous says:

    I spend at least three months each year in France, where I own a house in a small village (pop. 1500 at the peak of the season). I was intrigued by Bernard’s observation that public health is failing. Dear Bernard, “Would you be more specific, if possible?” The only fact in my experience that “jibes” with what you say is that in the area both general practitioners/internists are becoming thin on the ground, likewise (for those concerned) veterinarians. However, if you –or Art– have more specific information, I would like to know of it. The OECD ranking of French basic care has been excellent for many years, so I’m puzzled by the doom you prognoticate.

    • Dear Anonymous, There is tremendous variation across France. It is common to speak of “medical deserts,” areas that are very poorly served because of a shortage of physicians, clinics, hospitals, etc. And Covid has put a lot of strain on medical personnel even in better-served areas, so that, for instance, in some places so many nurses have quit that hospital beds have had to be closed. Yet, as you say, statistically, the French health system still generally receives good grades. The complaints are loud, perhaps excessively so. The same is true of the schools, where there is considerable variation and, in my view, excessive sensitivity to performance in international rankings like the PISA. Evaluation of public services is a delicate art, but disgruntled patients and parents are not always in a mood to listen to soothing statistics. They see things they regard as broken and demand action. You comment reminds us that it’s always important to maintain a proper perspective. Thanks for writing.

    • Bernard says:

      I am talking of public hospital medicine rather than the local medical doctors you seem to refer to. I will give only one concrete example which comes from the region I live in, the South West. Bordeaux is a huge public hospital, teaching and research centre there, with world class doctors in several of the specialties (I should know, one of them is caring for my heart…), and a “zero” cost to patients (we pay health care through our taxes and wage social contributions in France). Yet, in this centre of excellence, starting a few days ago, emergency health care is now functioning in a degraded mode due to a persistent lack of doctors and nurses (around 20% deficit in headcounts). I can witness that emergency medicine in Bordeaux already went on indefinite duration strike back in November 2019 prior to the Covid pandemic, protesting against lack of personnel (I would reassure readers that being on strike for French emergency workers means they are wearing a sign saying “we are on strike” rather than actually stopping work and letting patients pass away, even those damned union members have a heart!). Workers there complain that very little has changed for the better since then and a lot has changed for the worse. There is a reason why ministers of education and ministers of health under Macron are not enjoying the stellar careers they hoped for.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Art:
    Thank you for supplying me with the broader picture. I am in the southwest of France. There, my elderly next door neighbors (she an incapacitated diabetic, he afflicted with a cancer that he lives with still), have a visiting nurse stop by first thing in the morning and last thing at night, if not also in midday. Another friend, sadly, died of lung cancer two years ago –she was treated in Toulouse, Carcassonne and Montpellier with considerable attention, and died peacefully at home., she and her husband both believing she had gotten the best care possible. Earlier this year he had a valve put in in his heart, and is recuperating well. –He is from the U.K., and thinks the French system better. (As well he might –the U.K. has the lowest cancer survival rate in continental Europe because the waits are so long, that by the time the patient is accurately diagnosed, it is too late to do much.)
    In my village there are two general practitioners in the village, although seeing an eye specialist can involve a wait of several months, according to my informant, a retired gendarme.
    On the other hand, urgent care is quick, if not to the U.S. standard: an American woman who had a fall that required an artifical joint be inserted in her knee returned to the U.S to see her orthpopedic surgeon there. He recommended a more recent interation of the joint, and asked his patient if he could keep the French device.
    –“Yes”, said the patient, “Why?”
    –“Because I want to show my interns what the old way of fixing the problem was”, was his response.
    With every best wish,
    A Fan

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