After the French army liberated Mali in 2013, the Malian people offered President Hollande a camel in thanks. Attempting to avoid an awkward photo-op back home, Hollande donated the animal to a Malian family. The family promptly turned it into camel soup.
The story epitomises the outgoing President’s woes. Five years ago he was “Mr Normal”; the man who would restore intellectual civility to the Élysée after the Sarkozy years of sunglasses and affairs with supermodels. Last year Hollande’s approval ratings dipped to 4 per cent, and he thus announced he would not stand for re-election. Fast forward to today and for the first time in the Fifth Republic’s history the two leading presidential candidates are outsiders. Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, is physically and politically a washed-out copy of Donald Trump in drag. Emmanuel Macron, who founded the one-man party En Marche!, is an untested baggage-free liberal in the mould of JFK or Tony Blair.
Either candidate would have been a long shot, until recently. So what changed? France’s two traditional parties, the Republicans and the Socialists, have helped by respectively nominating an (alleged) embezzler and a loopy left-winger. On a deeper level, France faces the same hormonal obsessions that gripped the UK and US last year: a hankering for strong borders and homogeneity. Over the last 30 years France has endured the slow bleed, as military power shifted to the US, monetary power to Germany, manufacturing to the Far East, and entrepreneurs to London. National pessimism remains persistently high. But tellingly, when asked about their personal rather than national future, the French are more optimistic than the British, with our supposed higher GDP per capita. What gives?
‘Over the last 30 years France has endured the slow bleed’
France is in the difficult position of enjoying the largeness of its state at 57 per cent of GDP, while detesting the elites who built and run it. The French pay higher taxes on incomes, dividends, wealth, profit, and most goods, and still their government has run a deficit every year since 1971. All that spending has bought them serious perks: one of the densest transport networks on the planet, six weeks of paid holidays, subsidies for young parents, carbon-free power stations, free university, public libraries, museums, viaducts, state-funded UFO hunters, well-preserved town centres, and a functioning domestic car industry. It’s not a case of public riches and private poverty. France has more millionaires than the UK and some of the most profitable and globalised companies in the world. They export electricity, Daft Punk, bullet trains, Chanel No. 5, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, jumbo jets, while we sell them… management consultancy services.
Goodhart’s Law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. On paper, France seems to be lagging, with high unemployment and low growth. But perhaps the French have realised that chasing those measures is futile; that they are a civilisation first, and an economy second. They have traded a high spot in the economic league tables for a productive and independent alternative. The average French worker produces by Thursday, what would take their English counterpart all week. Daily life remains among the best on earth, their country is clean and well-maintained, and on the world stage they are seen as the only nuclear counterbalance to American cowboyism. “When France is on our side, somehow whatever we want to do becomes more legitimate in the eyes of the world”, said a US diplomat. The UK’s pandering to Washington affords it no such influence.
The thesis that France wants change is wrong. They want the opposite: for France to stand stoic in a swirling world of uncertainty. Immobilisme, as they call it, is not a problem in need of a solution; it is the solution. The status quo is terrible, and it must never change. Furthermore, I think Le Pen’s candidacy is a good thing. She will probably get through to the second round, where she will lose to Macron in a landslide. The catharsis afforded by such a victory will (for a short period) put the French electorate squarely behind their president. And it comes at a crucial time.
‘The status quo is terrible, and it must never change.’
France’s war hero and ex-president, Général de Gaulle, described a future where “France would sit in a position of authority on the old Continent, while America would find herself back in her hemisphere and Britain on her island”. Perhaps, with Brexit draining the life from Westminster (and the value from the pound) and Trump withdrawing US power from the world, the Gaullist vision can come true.