France is the one place where democracy works broadly as we would expect it to. Political parties that fail their voters collapse and disappear. Politicians who are hated seem upset at the fact, and do not hide their hurt behind forced smiles. The ‘angry mob’, a fixture of our political imagination, has on more than one occasion in French history actually succeeded in deposing the Government. France has a flourishing extreme Left, but also a flourishing extreme Right. Politicians openly steal from the treasury instead of laundering their theft in opaque ways. The military, which has all the weapons, does actually threaten violence from time to time. One British cliché about France is its love of street protest. But this speaks more to Britain’s strangeness than to France’s. In France, all factions in public life are allowed to take to the streets – as we would well expect in a liberal democracy. In Britain, by contrast, crowds are selectively policed.
Other democracies seem haunted and lunar by comparison. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has held power for 63 of the past 67 years. German politics is dominated by immovable Grand Coalitions that last for decades. Everyone of importance in American politics is over the age of 75. British prime ministers are bundled from office by quangos and civil servants.
If democratic gravity seems to apply only in France, then we can assume that politics there still turns on votes, coalitions and appeals – not, as it does here, on the mysteries of the Ministerial Code. Judging by recent events, this is a brute lesson that Emmanuel Macron has yet to learn.
Another British cliché about France is that its current President wants to keep a ‘Jupiterian’ distance from the din of party. Otto von Bismarck was the only democratic politician who has ever carried this off. He famously had no party of his own, and held the Reichstag in contempt. Macron’s great failing isn’t this conceit, but that he hasn’t been remotely conceited enough. Bismarck was convinced that he was Germany’s indispensable man, and would not stoop to ally himself with anyone else for very long. He first played the liberal, then the anti-Catholic, then the reactionary. He built up allies only to destroy them; he would careen first to the Left and then to the Right, a wild political see-saw that he always managed to straddle.
Macron does not have this room for manoeuvre, despite his boasts of independence. He is above all the representative of those who elected him, and could not abandon them even if he wanted to. The social base of Macron’s presidency is the country’s class of civil servants – spendthrift, obstinate, and comprising around a fifth of the population. This class is the defender France’s current economic model, in which mass migration is used to pay for a system of pensions, venal offices and direct cash payments. This senile pyramid scheme, which is not unique to France, does not even work as advertised – a 2018 study showed that the contribution of migrants to the French treasury was either negligible or slightly negative.
The ruin of the old parties, the centre-Left Socialists and the centre-Right Republicans, left this class by 2017 with no organised political force except for the neophyte Macron – something that Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, was quick to grasp. It fell to Macron not so much to bring about his own programme of reform, but to simply fulfil the old constitutional role of blocking the National Front every five years.
Beyond performing this simple task, the French governing classes are not interested in Macronism. His liberal ideas are at best secondary, at worst an annoyance – hence the exaggerated sighs when it comes time for them to collude with him to thwart the nationalists; a manoeuvre that relies on a quirk of the voting system especially designed for this purpose. Macron’s project is contradictory; he speaks of a rotten economic system, but his support is made up of those who prosper under it. With his pension reform Macron invites France’s bureaucratic class to abolish its own privileges and then thank him for it. Calonne, another would-be French reformer, once invited the country’s nobility to do much the same – with similar results.
Any reform of France, then, means war to the knife against its civil service. It by definition sets one on a populist course, if not a demagogic one. France’s current pension entitlements are unaffordable, and there is something grotesque about the surprising number of young people who have been called out onto the streets to defend a system that will enslave them with debt. Macron now needs a crowd of his own, and this means a popular programme. An end to the policy of mass migration would not only earn support from France’s Right, but is the logical conclusion of pension reform. Macron’s task is not one of reform, but destruction – the destruction of a class that is ruining France. When Louis Napoleon crowned himself as Napoleon III in 1852, one of his first acts was to steal all the property of France’s defunct monarchy. The Countess Lehon quipped that this was “the first vol of the eagle”, vol meaning both ‘flight’ and ‘steal’. So too for Macron, and he would be stealing from all the right people.
J. Sorel is a pseudonym.
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