Le Sursaut

20 June 2024

A word much in the air these days is sursaut. It was a favorite of General de Gaulle’s, but it’s hard to translate into English. One dictionary suggests “surge,” which rarely fits the context; another suggests “start,” as in “to wake with a start.” A sudden burst of energy leading to a state of heightened awareness and engagement. A younger, hipper writer might suggest an awokening–except that the connotations of “woke,” or le wokisme, as its French enemies say, are likely to lead the anglophone reader astray.

Linguistic niceties aside, there is no doubt that President Macron’s dissolution of the National Assembly has provoked un sursaut. French politics had been in the doldrums. I had all but stopped blogging, because political discourse had settled into a dreary and repetitious round of empty posturing and ritual invocations of Article 49.3. And then came the thunderclap of June 9. What happened?

The polls had predicted that the European Parliament election would deliver a sound rebuke to Macron, who had sought to frame the vote as a choice between himself and the radical right, as he had done successfully in 2017 and 2022. He succeeded only in giving voters an opportunity to vent their anger against him, whatever they might think of Marine Le Pen and Jordan Bardella.

But why does Macron provoke such extreme anger? For all his lofty speechifying and vaulting ambition, he has governed as a relatively timid technocrat, a Giscard redux. To be sure, he’s annoyingly arrogant, with little apparent regard for those who aren’t les premiers de cordée, who haven’t finished at the top of their class, who don’t exhibit the glib self-confidence of the international investment banker equally at home conversing in pidgin Globish in Paris, New York, Tokyo, or Dubai. One commentator compared la bande à Macron to the student association of an elite business school, which has treated the government as a place to party with abandon while leaving the ensuing mess to be cleaned up by the staff in the morning.

Irritating, no doubt; juvenile certainly; but still the French re-elected this boy-wonder just two years ago because 60+% agreed with him that the Rassemblement National could not be trusted with power. Why this belated eruption of anger, which, according to early estimates threatens to reduce the already shrunken majorité présidentielle to la portion congrue? Yes, the latest reforms have been particularly contentious. Polls suggest that the retirement reform was a bitter pill for the vast majority of the French. And the immigration reform had the effect of normalizing the RN’s position. But why would that prompt anyone previously wary of the radical right to vote for it now, if they could have immigration restrictions without running the risk of incompetence in other areas in which the far right has no experience and a weak grasp of the realities of governing?

We are all familiar with the range of arguments that have been advanced since 2016 to explain the rise of the populist right across the western world. Globalization, deindustrialization, inequality, rural/urban divide, xenophobia and racism, nowheres vs. anywheres, reaction against identity politics, political correctness, and wokeism, rejection of neoliberalism.

Each of these explanatory frameworks has some merit, but none, I think, adequately accounts for the peculiarity of the French case. France is hardly a paragon of neoliberalism: state spending accounts for a larger proportion of its GDP than in any other EU member state, and for all the “structural reforms” adopted since 2007, first by the center-right, then by the center-left, and finally by the Macroniste “et de droite et de gauche en même temps”, the state continues to direct the economy and shape the market. Inequality has increased, but not dramatically. The rural/urban and educational divides have always been powerful determinants in France: one has only to think of Maurice Barrès’s depiction of les déracinés, torn from the soil of the fatherland by the influence of “woke” foreign ideas (Immanuel Kant!), or of the perennial polarization of Paris vs. les provinces.

So what has changed? Two things: France’s share of hard power and its share of soft power. In political and military terms, France no longer has the might to shape the world. This has been true for a long time, but the implications of this waning power were finessed by sleights of hand such as the French nuclear deterrent, which was de Gaulle’s ploy, and the substitution of Europe for France in the world arena, which was Mitterrand’s, subsequently taken up by his successors.

As for soft power, the whole tenor of the game has changed. France has lost its aura. It was once possible for  Serge Guilbaut to argue that French culture was so important a prize in the Cold War that the CIA contrived to kidnap it. If the idea was implausible then, it is ludicrous today. The distinctive treasures of national cultures have been reduced to so many items on the global tourist’s bucket list.

But not everyone feels at home in this disenchanted, deracinated global boardroom. Even Macron was once a stranger in this milieu of movers and shakers. Shortly after his election, the Financial Times published a piece on his brief career in investment banking. There were some choice quotes from bank colleagues who viewed the future president as an alien Luftmensch in their midst: a student of classic French literature and former assistant to philosopher Paul Ricoeur, he had not been to business school and therefore had not learned the jargon of the trade, English acronyms such as EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization). They mocked him for his backwardness, but young Emmanuel was a quick study and a gifted mimic (his theatrical background helped). He could convincingly project himself into the deracinated culture of international finance. And when he turned to politics, he drew immediate support from others who had also been acculturated to this deracinated milieu.

This was a thin base on which to build a political career. This is not the place to review the various accidents and contingencies that made it possible. But the strange and alien character of the world that Macron represented did not go unnoticed by those who did not belong. Some were on the left and refused to bow before this new master, but the majority were on the right and soon were driven even farther right by incomprehension of what the leader represented. They declared themselves “patriots” to emphasize the refusal to recognize filiation or consanguinity with this new power.

It is this deep and novel cultural divide between the new center, embodied in Macron, and the people of both the left and right that accounts, I think, for the unique intensity of France’s populist moment. Macron himself has had un sursaut of recognition: in extremis, he seems to have awakened to the fact that he is perceived as a foreign body. Every time he tries to speak the local language, descending to such unpresidential locutions as “un pognon de dingue,” “je les emmerde,” and most recently “immigrationistes,” his foreign accent gives him away. That is why the person Macron and what he represents loom so large in this election. Even many candidates running on the Renaissance ticket have tried to distance themselves from their leader by omitting his name from their campaign posters. In the logic of the Fifth Republic, the prime minister is supposed to serve as a lightning rod for the president, but in this case the president stands so isolated on such high ground that all the bolts are directed at him. The only question is, Will he weather the storm?

The focus on Macron has made it easy for the parties to be even more equivocal than usual about what is actually at stake. The president characterizes both the right and left opposition as extreme and says both are anathema to him. If a new centrist coalition does somehow emerge from the polls, it will no longer be the center that Macron thought he had midwifed into existence in 2017. If the RN wins (with no less than an absolute majority, Bardella now tells us), exactly what it would do is hard to say, because promises made yesterday are dropped today. And the left’s program is shrouded in even deeper ambiguity, since its leader will emerge only after the votes are in and the shouting dies down in the smoke-filled room where the ultimate decision will be made. In any case, no one believes that the infighting among the mutually hostile elements of the New Popular Front will end with the selection of a leader. Ledru-Rollin, facing an angry mob, said, “Je suis leur chef, il faut bien que je les suive.” Today, it’s hard to know who’s following whom.



  • Geof Brayton says:

    Alphonse D’Amato was a two-term U.S. Senator, a Republican in Democratic NY state. He survived by mastering the art of Constituent Services, the little favors that posit how the voters’ servants repay them for their votes. Eventually, he lost, surprising many. It befell to Rudy Giuliani to eloquently explain his demise: “After a while, they [voters] just get sick of you.” EM is past his “Sell By:” date; the French are just sick of him.

  • The only question? I don’t think so. I think it is very interesting, in thinking of where Macron “comes from”, to contrast his unpopularity with Hollande’s. Hollande, being a socialist, was a natural target for L’express and Le Point and the Figaro and rightwing tv, so naturally every poll showing how much he was disliked was an event. Macron’s unpopularity, however, was, until recently, invisible to the media establishment. They are, after all, his base. And so it is a “crisis” that suddenly, they discover the man who shoved the reactionary “reform” of the pension system down their gullets after a presidential campaign of obfuscation and total dishonesty is “unpopular” – I think the more common term is hated. The damage he has done has little to do with France’s “power”, an obsession with the media establishment that has zero roots in the French population – unlike the U.S., there is no identification with French military force. It is the revelation that really, democracy has become a joke for the people running things. And so, why not take that joke and shove it up their behinds?

  • Gregory S Brown says:

    Doesn’t this entirely overlook the transformation of media I the last 20 years? France’s media landscape has been as much or even more effected than UK or US by the ways in which proprietary electronic media, social media and the near total collapse of traditional newsprint and traditional tv/radio news? I feel this factor is a major one and maybe the most significant explanation for what is under discussion here.

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