Retour de la France

12 June 2023

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks in France. I am not carrying in my bags the outline of a latter-day “Retour de l’URSS.” I can’t claim that my fleeting perceptions either reveal the future or provide the basis for a diagnosis of the past. The country has certainly changed under Macron, not least because he has focused an immense–indeed, an almost unbelievable–amount of hatred on himself.

Yet despite the negative passions aroused by the mere mention of his name in certain quarters, or the rolled eyes and exasperated sighs generated elsewhere, the country seemed to me for the first time in more than half a century of watching, to have sunk into political torpor. France is “in irons,” as sailors say, without political winds to move it forward, adrift on tides rolling in from afar (China, Eastern Europe, Africa, the US, the world of high-tech). Although the Macron afflatus is spent, the “modernization” he was supposed to represent and abet continues apace: witness the sheer volume of new construction on the capital’s eastern outskirts, where countless cranes hover above imaginatively shaped new buildings. The country doesn’t lack for investment or dynamism, but it is desperately in need of a navigator to tell it where it is headed and what it all means. The United States is used to undirected growth, but France likes to have a roadmap.

A widespread feeling has set in that Macron has handed the country over to Marine Le Pen, who will waltz to power in four years’ time. Such resignation, while understandable, is surely premature. The moment no doubt seemed particularly morose because of the final collapse of the opposition to Macron’s pension reform. The last demo, on June 6, D-Day, fizzled out, and le Groupe Liot threw in the towel before the final battle programmed for June 8.

But the collapse of Macronism after, and partly as a result of, this Pyrrhic victory leaves a gaping hole in the center of the political spectrum. Any number of ambitious politicians are trying to fill it.

Édouard Philippe has a bit of a head start in the polls, but when I brought up his name at a dinner party in the west of France, the leftists at the table cried out, “Quelle médiocrité!” while the centrist sitting opposite me said, “A good number two but not a president.” Bernard Cazeneuve recently launched his remake of “The Ex-Wives Club” with a cast of ex-presidents, ex-prime ministers, and ex-party leaders summoned to give a much-needed jolt to the undeclared candidacy of an ex-Socialist seeking to resuscitate the carcass of French social democracy.

Les Républicains have meanwhile attempted to rally their rump around the evergreen issue of controlling the borders, further diminishing the distance between themselves and Le Pen and lending credence to the rumors of a Le Pen-Wauquiez ticket in 2024. At the other end of the spectrum, Mélenchon has not given up the hope of reviving the career of his erstwhile dauphin Adrien Quatennens, whose domestic imbroglios have made him persona non grata in other quarters of the leftier left.

All of this political nombrilisme does nothing to alleviate the real but largely undiscussed anxieties engendered by the looming Sino-American conflict, the war in Ukraine, climate change, immigration, und so weiter. Macron’s sporadic efforts to address these matters in quiet moments between domestic crises have given rise to some fine rhetorical flights as well as a few memorable gaffes, but in the intervals between photo ops very little happens, unless it is taking place under the radar, in quiet intergovernmental consultations among EU member states, where progress can be noted.

Little sense of that progress is perceptible to the broader public, however, which remains sullen. Talk of a Sixth Republic is common, but it is hard to imagine how a more empowered legislature and a redressed balance between the legislative and executive branches will improve matters as long as the only conceivable political dialogue remains a dialogue of the deaf. And yet the cafés are full, there is literal dancing in the streets (on Sundays in the place St.-Médard, for example), and one can still eat well for not all that much money by Boston standards (for example, at Flornia on the bd. Port-Royal at the corner of rue Berthollet, where a Romanian-born but Spanish-trained chef produced a superb dinner in a minuscule kitchen enclosed in plexiglas, serving 30-40 people with the help of just one assistant and a single waitress).


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