December in the country of the year - according to British magazine The Economist - was eventful and memorable. It was the month France lost two cultural icons, with the deaths of singer Johnny Halliday and writer Jean d’Ormesson. Both received an emotional national farewell from the public while the press paid tribute to the two ‘legends’.
However, it was not long before politics returned to the top, with Les Républicains’ leadership election and one last weighty controversy flying over Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
In the first days of the month, France woke up to news of the deaths of novelist d’Ormesson and beloved rock star ‘Johnny’ in the space of two days. Despite having little in common, both had been household names for generations. The media aired special programmes; newspapers and magazines published old interviews and photographs. Tributes and comments poured in to the press.
Le Figaro dedicated its front page to the writer who was also directeur général of the newspaper from 1974 to 1979. Along the headline “Thank you and goodbye”, Alexis Brezet, the newspaper's current assistant editor-in-chief penned a stirring editorial. “He had all the gifts and talents but predominantly the gift for happiness. Jean d’O embodied joy. Today he is no longer here and the whole of France is in sorrow.
“He was the one everyone loved to love, equally the young and the old, both right and left as well as the well off and the poor alike. Jean d’O was at home at Le Figaro and forever will be, this is the privilege of immortals.”
The former was an erudite author who once sat as the youngest member on the Académie française, France’s most prestigious literary institution whose members are deemed 'immortals'.
While President Emmanuel Macron paid a last solemn tribute to the ‘prince of letters’ by putting a simple pencil on his tomb, Nicolas Sarkozy also took his up pen to pay his respects to the author in Le Figaro. The former president insisted that France had lost a major literary figure, while himself lost a friend. He wrote: “Jean d’Ormesson tirelessly celebrated our language. For more than half a century, the aristocrat reigned over the Republic of Letters as well as over the hearts of his readers and admirers.”
In the catholic daily La Croix, Guillaume Goubert also pointed out the sheer happiness of the author described by Mr Macron as “an antidote to the greyness of days”.
“When Jean d’Ormesson was approaching his 90th birthday, the writer said in an interview that ‘nobody can claim to be happy before being dead’. It is therefore safe to say that if happiness consists in bringing joy and pleasure around ourselves, this man has been happy.”
Patrick Chabanet explained in the North-eastern daily Le Journal de la Haute-Marne that the number of tributes to the writer “show the extent of the mark left behind by the academicien. The various adjectives used to describe him: elegant, beguiling, sparkling, epicurean, distinguished demonstrate his qualities that made him unclassifiable.”
Over the following days, the French paid a poignant farewell to a star who popularised early rock-n-roll in the country, Johnny. While the Anglophone press opted to allude to him as the ‘French Johnny Cash’ or ‘Elvis’, the national press wholeheartedly saluted the man who “knew how to speak to all generations”, according to Culture Minister Françoise Nyssen.
Bodin from the regional newspaper L’Alsace, sought to compare Elvis and Johnny and explained that both were part of the musical Pantheon in their respective countries. Bodin concluded: “Johnny may be gone, but he is not really dead. This legend is immortal.” Similarly, Saint-Vincent of Le Figaro said that Johnny was not Elvis, given that fame outside the French-speaking world eluded him. However, the book reviewer and journalist insisted that Johnny is “a national treasure”.
The pioneer of rock-n-roll was held has a ‘French monument’ by Laurent Joffrin in Libération. However, in another editorial, the historic editor of the left-wing newspaper let fly at Mr Macron, who asserted that Johnny was ‘a French hero’ and reminded his readers that “the singer had an exotic conception of taxes”, allluding to the singer's alleged tax-avoidance.
Even the economics and finance daily, Les Echos focussed on Johnny in an editorial usually devoted to the ups and down of the stock-exchange. Cécile Cornudet said, “No matter whether we are fans of Johnny or not, it was difficult not to be part of the people’s tribute Macron had called for.”
Hervé Chabaud from a Reims' newspaper believes that “Johnny will be sung for a long time as he enters history”. After 60 years of career, 1,000 songs and 50 albums, the singer was given a a well-deserved honour by every observer.
Seven days after the weekend of tributes, opposition party Les Républicains elected young right-winger Laurent Wauquiez as their new leader.
The blunt-speaking politician, who won with nearly 75% of the votes, promised to bring the divided party together. But his nationalist policies as well as some of his arguably populist stances unsettled some opinion writers.
Le Monde said, “beyond the proclamation of several values and principles, the new LR president will have to build a credible alternative project in order to seriously attempt to compete for the presidency in four years. If Wauquiez has taken an important step, the hardest is yet to come.”
Le Figaro's Yves Thréard considered the internal election a success given the high turnout (100,000 voters). According to the right-leaning political commentator “The turnout additionally proves that the French right did not lose its will to fight for its ideas”. Thréard concluded that, “for Les Républicains the year finished off in a better way than it started”.
The final controversy of the year belonged to the government, when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe chartered a private aircraft at a cost of €350,000 (£311,000) to fly him and a delegation back from Japan earlier this month when a government plane was also available. The decision - from the man in charge of fighting wasteful spending – unsurprisingly met with criticism from most media outlets.
Didier Rose from Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace argued that “this move undermines the credibility of the public discourse promising to send back to the past any practice that fails to be justified by the general interest”. By the same token, Jean-Marcel Bouguereau from La République des Pyrénées bemoaned the fact “The New World promised by the government resembles the old one and that old habits die hard”.
Philippe took responsibility for his decision on RTL radio. He said: “I understand both the surprise and the questions that French people are asking themselves, it is complicated to move the Prime Minister around and it is expensive.”
Guillaume Tabard from Le Figaro was one of the few editorialists who argued for deeper consideration. He said, “that the real problem was the increasing propensity to judge our leaders on so-called exemplary symbols and no longer on the efficiency of their actions.”
No doubt that the press will keep judging and tracking every move of the government next year.
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France