President Emmanuel Macron was in an expansive mood this week as he commandeered the splendid beaux arts Grand Palais in Paris to present his vision for France 2030. The Palais is his new favourite venue for delivering his pronouncements to the people. Its grandiosity matches his own.
Macron is incapable of brevity. In a slick production that must have cost a fortune, presented to a fawning hand-picked audience, he spoke for two hours. His elocution was framed by a slick, Tik-Tokish video recalling the 30 glorious years of French economic growth and grand projects after the war.
Macron is nothing if not busy. He’s just been on a series of pre-election grand tours, dispensing billions of euros in promises like confetti. That includes a proposed repair of a national education system on its knees and of a criminal justice system overwhelmed by extremism and gang warfare. It didn’t land well: voters turned out everywhere to jeer him.
So nothing was left to chance as he described his €30 billion build back better – sounds familiar – project, which certainly isn’t lacking in ambition, even if the details remain obscure.
This was essentially a campaign rally promoting Macron 2.0. All the scary talk of structural reform – the necessary but boring stuff – has been largely forgotten. Instead the French are offered confiture demain – a tasty preview of the glory of France in the future.
Macron’s hubris goes largely unchallenged in the media. The president’s message is that Future France should lead Europe, from the conquest of space to the exploration of the bottom of the ocean, stopping off on the earth’s surface to decarbonise industry and robotise agriculture. Future France will also lead the world in the production of green hydrogen. It will cure cancer and dominate global culture.
He described his plan as ‘a kind of French growth deficit… a massive investment in a strategy of innovation and industrialization’ to produce ‘a virtuous cycle: innovate, produce, export, and thus finance the social model and make it sustainable.’ This is the rhetorical equivalent of one of those boxes of chocolates you can buy at the upmarket confiseries on the Left Bank of the Seine. Superficially attractive, yet full of soft centres.
The reality is much harder to chew. Despite Macron’s declaration almost two years ago that French virologists are the best in the world, France still hasn’t got a Covid vaccine to market, never mind a cure for 20 different cancers.
Its non-reusable Ariane rocket launcher is obsolete. Its nuclear industry is struggling with vast cost overruns and delay to new projects. Start-ups? Not one French start-up in the past half century has made a global impact. There’s no French Google, Amazon, Facebook or Apple.
French global leadership in electronics? This is the nation that was 20 years late embracing the Internet, after giving a monopoly on consumer data communication to the nationalised post office and telephone company.
Like a Bourbon in a black suit, Macron appears to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. The unabashed étatisme of his vision suggests that not much will change, other than the deficit, currently at 120 per cent of GDP.
These days, when money can seemingly be conjured by governments out of thin air, affordability may not be the only reason why Macron’s vision is most unlikely to ever be much more than a performance.
Still, it remains probable if not inevitable that Macron will be re-elected next year. The first round of voting is in 179 days, with the runoff two weeks later.
It’s possible that his prestidigitation at the Grand Palais might convince some of his disillusioned voters to return to the fold. But Macron will win not because he is strong but because his opposition is weak. The left is scrambled, the right is muddled.
Macron’s easy victory five years ago over Marine Le Pen is unrepeatable, especially if, as seems increasingly likely, Le Pen herself, his preferred opponent, fails to make it to the second round. But no matter who he faces, as things stand, he remains the strong favourite to win.
So Macron can win, but Macronism is finished. As his latest desperate bout of self-aggrandisement shows, his ability to impose an agenda is at an end.
It’s also highly unlikely that he will be able to renew his majority in the National Assembly. His portmanteau political party, La République En Marche!, has dematerialised. It doesn’t hold power in a single region of France.
Macron might assemble a cohabitation of sorts after the assembly elections next summer, but it would be opportunistic, compromised and unstable. His bigger problem is that he is ideologically out of tune with voters.
His undimmed obsession with Europe, once merely diverting, looks increasingly like a liability. Angela Merkel at least pretended to treat Macron as an equal. But she’s in the departure lounge. Even Macron’s allies struggle to explain his recent tantrum diplomacy with the Americans, the Australians, the British, the Swiss and the Algerians. His ministers’ threats to cut the electricity connections with Britain because of a fishing dispute have not been taken seriously, even in Brussels.
This week, I attempted to count all those who have thus far declared that they shall present themselves as candidates for the presidency of France. I can’t guarantee the absolute accuracy of my calculations but finally gave up at 44. And that’s not even counting Macron, who has yet to admit that he’s a candidate for re-election, or the journalist Eric Zemmour, who is equally equivocal but now outscores Le Pen in several major polls and is up again in today’s Harris poll. That, plus the expected abstention of many fed up voters, makes the election exceptionally difficult to predict.
Nevertheless, certain themes emerge. The world’s media has finally cottoned on to the seriousness of Zemmour’s challenge, seven months after TheSpectator did.
The establishment in France is terrified of Zemmour. Anne Hidalgo, socialist mayor of Paris, herself a presidential candidate, has declared his rise nauseating. She can talk.
The comedian Gaëtan Matis has yearned openly for his death in a terrorist attack:
If I had a time machine, I would book the Bataclan for the evening of November 13, 2015 [date of the infamous massacre by Islamic terrorists] in order to organise an evening meeting between Eric Zemmour and his followers.
Things will only get nastier as Zemmour’s candidacy gathers steam.
Macron, meanwhile, will continue to campaign at public expense, promising billions to the humongous parastatals and banks that are his natural constituents. What his ambitions might mean for smaller and mid-sized businesses, or even for ordinary workers whose jobs he promises to robotise, remains to be seen.
He’s not without arguments. Unemployment has fallen to 7.8 per cent, albeit higher than Germany and much higher than the UK. There’s visible economic growth, although largely it’s a consequence of the recovery from the slough of Covid. France might end up clinging to Macron as nurse, for fear of something worse. But French voters haven’t yet bought the suspiciously well-edited vision of the future he is selling.
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