The Curse of the French Presidency
So great is the presumed power of the French presidency that every mere mortal who has filled the post–sat in Jupiter’s seat, as it were–has left it diminished. A president arrives in office with the expectation that he will use it to carry out some project limned in his campaign. He will liberalize the economy (Giscard), achieve socialism democratically (Mitterrand), heal the “social fracture” (Chirac), revive the work ethic and scour the suburbs of criminals (Sarkozy), put “the world of finance” back in its box (Hollande), or infuse a moribund economy with innovative energy and rivers of cash (Macron). Five years later, or seven, or twelve, or fourteen, little remains of the initial project; the country looks much as it did at the inauguration, except that the enthusiasts of the new regime have become disillusioned, embittered, or dispirited, if they have not ended in jail, and a new group of enthusiasts has emerged, promising that the next round will be different.
The tragedy of Macron is about to begin its dénouement. The “startup nation” has been reduced to its mere husk with the foolish insistence that one last reform, one final jiggering of the legal age of retirement, will at last lift the burden from the back of France’s forces vives. But the battle lines are already drawn, and across the invisible barricades the warnings are flying thick and fast: “Don’t do this! You’ll regret it!” Workers are seething for a fight, as the wildcat railroad strikes of Christmas showed. Leaders who could once be counted on to at least sit down with the government are already lacing up their combat boots (or sneakers, as the case may be):
« Mes baskets sont prêtes et celles des militants écologistes aussi », a prévenu, lundi sur RFI, la cheffe de file d’Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, Marine Tondelier.
« Nous ne nous faisons pas d’illusion », reprend M. Berger [leader of the CFDT-ag]. « Lors de ses vœux aux Français, poursuit-il, le président de la République a, de nouveau, clairement indiqué qu’il fallait travailler plus longtemps. »
Le rendez-vous à Matignon constituera surtout une opportunité pour « rappeler le climat social et les dangers d’aller contre toutes les organisations syndicales et 80 % des Français ». [CGT]
But the tragedy is not that France will once again face weeks, if not months, of economic paralysis and social turmoil, to say nothing of the familiar revolutionary theater of smoke bombs, billy clubs, and rubber bullets. It is rather that some semblance of the much-bruited reform may pass with some semblance of a cobbled-together majority of convenience, after which … everything will remain the same. The slow-motion reform, about whose potential efficacy there is no consensus, will have no purchase whatsoever on the structural and conjunctural forces that are impinging on the economy at the moment: high fuel and food prices, supply-chain disruptions, trouble in and with China, and transformation but not cessation of global trade. Navel-gazing as usual, France remains mesmerized by its inveterate Franco-Français obsession with its social model and all but oblivious to the shifting tides of world history.
Macron’s New Year’s Eve speech might have been calculated as a metaphor for the oedipal blindness at the heart of his particular version of the classic French presidential tragedy. He spoke from a library–not an aristocratic library laden with leather volumes and mahogany shelves but a modern one (so impersonal that it might have been a FNAC or the basement of la Librairie Compagnie) filled with paperbacks. Yes, the president is an intellectual, presumably widely read, and yet his message was that France would be saved not by the elucubrations of intellectuals like himself but by labor-la valeur travail, as the French like to say. And what justified the message to the peasants that their lot was to work another year or two? Simply that this was what I promised you when you elected me. He couldn’t have portrayed himself as more aloof or out of touch if he had sat himself down next to his wife in front of the château fireplace, as Giscard did many years ago.
The coming months in France will not be pleasant. Jupiter has become Oedipus, and his congenital flaw is driving him inexorably toward the end foreordained by the oracle no one, including me, wanted to hear when he first burst on the scene.