A penny for the thoughts of Vladimir Putin on Monday as he stared at Emmanuel Macron from the end of a very long table. If the Russian leader has a sense of irony he might have been struggling to suppress a smirk as he welcomed the President of France to Moscow to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
Macron was in his element as he played the international statesman representing the EU, but the President will be dismayed to learn that his grandstanding has not impressed the folks back home. Of the 140,000 who have so far responded to an online poll in Le Figaro, 60 per cent considered his visit to Moscow a failure.
It doesn’t appear to have yet dawned on Macron and many other western leaders that the days of dispensing lessons in democracy to despots are over.
In the French Republic, the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, millions of people are still unable to eat in a restaurant, go to the cinema or play for their sports team, all because they believe in bodily autonomy. And yet Macron, the President who last month admitted his strategy was to segregate society, has the gall to take the moral high ground with Putin.
More and more people are questioning why France is the only country in Europe with restrictions being tightened and not loosened. They cast envious glances at Britain, Denmark, Spain and Ireland, and wonder when they will no longer be forced to wear masks and carry a Covid passport.
To use the modern vernacular, France is not in a good place right now. In truth, it hasn’t been for a while. Violence, fear and anxiety have been stalking the land for seven years. After a wave of Islamist attacks, the Yellow Vest movement erupted in 2018 and barely had that petered out when along came Covid. Since 130 people were slaughtered on the streets of Paris in November 2015, France has been in one state of emergency or another for all but two years of that time. On Tuesday the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, lost his cool in a live TV debate when he was asked to account for the soaring violent crime figures. Unable to do so, he resorted to patronising his interviewer in what many have condemned as a sexist manner.
Yet it’s been a curious feature of Covid in France that there have been no violent demonstrations against the restrictions. Those opposed to the measures are in the minority and when they have expressed their discontent in organised rallies they’ve done so peacefully, unlike the citizens of Rotterdam, Brussels and Berlin.
Inspired by Canadian truckers, some French protesters have organised a ‘liberty convoy’ this Saturday, and intend to converge on Paris to demand the return of their freedom. The starting points include Nice, Strasbourg and Cherbourg, and it’s expected that many of those participating will be wearing yellow vests. One of the organisers has said it’s ‘a new way of expressing our general despair.’
A traditional way is at the ballot box, and the French will have such an opportunity on 10 April. The opinion polls still have Macron in a comfortable lead but the fallibility of such polls has been dramatically exposed in recent years. Who are these devotees of the president? When chatting to friends, acquaintances, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and market-traders, mentioning Macron makes lips curl and eyes roll.
The number of sponsorships from elected officials collected by each presidential candidate are unambiguous though. The latest totals were released on Tuesday, and Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist nominee, and Valérie Pécresse, of the centre-right LR, have both accumulated more than 500, the figure required to stand as a candidate. Macron was the first to reach 500 and he now has 926 sponsors.
It’s not looking so rosy for Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, both of whom are struggling to persuade mayors and other elected officials to give them their backing. The leader of the National Rally has mustered only 139 sponsors, ten fewer than Zemmour. In contrast, the communist candidate, Fabien Roussel, has 326 names on his list, and even the far-left fringe candidate Philippe Poutou, who wants to disarm the police, has 127. ‘I’m worried,’ admitted Le Pen. ‘It’s more and more difficult. A lot more difficult than in 2017. We’re confronted with a veritable strike of mayors.’
There’s no doubt that a rule change in 2016, passed by François Hollande, which made it mandatory to publicise the name of your sponsors has proved inhibitive. There have been allegations that town and village mayors are being ‘blackmailed’ into withholding support for Le Pen and Zemmour by their regional and departmental authorities. Vote for them, mayors are told, and you may find funding for future projects harder to come by.
Whatever the reason for the reluctance of elected officials to support the right-wing candidates it does not reflect well on the democratic process in France. Between them Le Pen and Zemmour have the support of around 30 per cent of the population, compared to 1.5 per cent for Hidalgo and 3.6 per cent for the Communist candidate. What might Putin say if, on 10 April, two of the most popular candidates among the French electorate are prevented from standing? Vive la démocratie.
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