Show of strength is sign of government in desperation

Too little, too late?

27 March 2019
By Simon Heffer

Charles de Gaulle, someone with whom France could perhaps do at the moment, famously said it was hard to govern a country with 246 types of cheese.

According to the latest figures, France now has between 300 and 400 different types: and experts say there could even be as many as 1,000 varieties. Therefore, even if we had not witnessed the recent clashes between the forces of authority and the gilets jaunes, we could conclude that France must be harder to govern today than 60 or 70 years ago.

The looting of the Champs-Elysées on March 16 certainly failed to create an impression of a country that is capable of being governed.

France was fortunate that the eyes of the world that day were on New Zealand after the horrific massacre in Christchurch, because the footage that was shown abroad was profoundly shocking: an orgy of vandalism breaking out in a supposedly civilised democracy, ostensibly because the rioters feel the political process and the political class of this leading democracy have failed them.

Mr Macron won the 2017 presidential election by two to one; he has a majority in the Assemblée Nationale; and yet he is still unable to govern.

In the immediate aftermath of the riots Prime Minister Edouard Philippe sacked Paris’s chief of police, though what that unfortunate man had done to deserve this was hard to discern: even the world’s finest police would have struggled to contain so many people turning up hell-bent on wrecking.

When governments start hunting for scapegoats, you know they fear the game might soon be up.

Two days later, Mr Philippe offered further proof of desperation by saying the army would patrol the streets the next time the gilets jaunes turn up. It was a gesture designed to boost confidence, but may end up having entirely the opposite effect.

It is one thing to be firm; another to be brutal.

Perhaps the time for firmness passed last autumn: now, having realised they have been allowed to take a centimetre, the gilets jaunes proceeded to take several kilometres.

As a result, and humiliated by a coalition of leftists, Poujadistes, anarchists and vandals, the government has had to overcorrect.

That means it looks incompetent, is seriously enfeebled, and the prospects of M Macron’s re-election in three years’ time do not look good.

The particular nature of the March 16 protest, with the torching of the luxurious Fouquet’s brasserie, and the proximity to the most affluent part of Paris, seemed to suggest that class war had broken out in France on a scale most people thought had been consigned to history with the end of the Commune.

What is happening now is reminiscent of the breakdown of governing structures during the Fourth Republic that brought de Gaulle back from 12 years of internal exile in 1958, replacing consensual government with a degree of authoritarianism. That, though, was during the trente glorieuses – the 30 years of consistent growth after the war.

Things are not very glorieuses for many French these days, and they blame what they consider to be their aloof, elitist, roi soleil-style president.

The Fifth Republic has immense centralisation of power, despite France’s system of regions, departments, and communes that gives the impression of power being dispensed locally.

France, as its inhabitants know, is not ruled like that, and it has not been since the end of the Fourth Republic.

The Fifth Republic, with its centralised structure and enormous power vested in the president, was the answer to the perceived delinquencies of the unstable Fourth Republic. But now it appears to be a problem.

The gilets jaunes have not exactly played the game.

They claim to have been denied a voice, and to have resorted to increasingly violent protests as a result; yet they could not be bothered to participate in the grands débats that the government instituted around France.

Despite a turnout of 75% in the second round of the 2017 election, many French felt disfranchised when neither of the supposedly main parties of the left or right managed to get a candidate into that round.

In the end, more than four in 10 of those entitled to vote actually voted for Mr Macron.

His La République En Marche party was an ad hoc group that can count on no historic tribal loyalty in this period of turbulence, and which still lacks the infrastructure of a continuing party.

It is the absence of a stable underpinning to LREM that has allowed a rabble to come to the point of holding France to ransom.

Successive presidents in both the Fourth and Fifth republics sought to govern for all of France: the principal aim was to unite a country that had been riven during the occupation and polarised between résistants and collabos, even if it meant allowing the state to intrude excessively into the lives of the people, through a sometimes suffocating degree of welfarism and paternalism, to strive to even things up between rich and poor.

Yet since the 2008 financial crash, and the near-simultaneous “bling” presidency of M Sarkozy, the have-nots have been progressively alienated – and not least by the regime of François Hollande, which was meant explicitly to represent them.

To outsiders, it often seems as though no president since de Gaulle – whose reputation from the Second World War caused most of the French to regard him with instinctive deference, at least for the first term of his presidency – has told the French people that there have to be radical changes, and that to put the country on a competitive, stable course with the rest of the world some sacrifices will need to be made.

Sadly, Louis XIV, or his apostolic successor currently in the Elysée Palace, does not seem cut out to do that; and the search for someone who can does not appear promising.

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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