The sun is rising again on France. The Song of Roland is in the air. In his heartfelt veneration of Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame, the Gendarme officer murdered by an Islamist terrorist after exchanging himself for a female hostage, President Emmanuel Macron showed that he was, first and foremost, a French patriot.
This has struck a chord with the nation. Last week’s events in Trèbes, near Carcassonne, in France’s deep south, were, up to the point of Colonel Beltrame’s intervention, all too familiar. A madman, obsessed with Jihad, had already murdered three innocent civilians and was bent on killing many more. Beltrame’s offer of himself in place of a woman under immediate threat of execution changed everything. He was stabbed and shot before his colleagues could rescue him, but in giving his life, unflinchingly, in the pursuit of duty he became at once an emblem of French defiance in the face of an assault on its values and heritage.
Cut now to Les Invalides, France’s Holy of Holies, last resting place of Napoleon, where Macron faced the task of honouring a genuine Christian martyr. Beltrame, in his forties, had rediscovered his Catholic faith and was planning to celebrate his existing civil marriage in a Church ceremony in June. Everyone who knew him spoke of the strength of his religious conviction, as well as of his courage.
Macron, by contrast, is almost a study in youthful arrogance. His most obvious conviction is that he is better than everyone with whom he has to deal. But he rose to the challenge. As a leader less than a year into his first term in the Elysée, he instinctively caught the public mood. His eulogy was adroit and eloquent, addressed to every level of French society. The power of his words, uttered with total conviction, brought tears to the eyes of even the most hardened cynics.
But it was the image – embodying the state as no other European leader can hope to do – when he placed the medal of Commander of the Legion d’honneur on Beltrame’s coffin, already draped with the Tricoleur, and then, with both hands, touched the casket itself, offering his final, unheard, words of homage, that will live longest in the nation’s memory.
Such occasions, born out of the maelstrom of events, can move a people. It would be naïve to believe that there will be no more Islamist assaults in France, or to assume that a hero like Beltrame will emerge each time to take charge of the situation. Nor have all baser instincts been silenced. But the unity on display on Wednesday in Paris, where crowds lining the funeral route broke into spontaneous applause as the cortege passed by on its way to the Invalides, was, I would submit, a true sign of the times.
The shadow of the last 20 years, during which France lapsed into economic slumber and millions of its young people saw no future for themselves beyond unemployment and state dependance, is lifting. Macron’s predecessors, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, were men of straw. They bent in the wind. Chirac’s 12 years in power ended in ignominy and a court case in which he was convicted of corruption. Sarkozy, the King of Bling, was arrested just this week over allegations of fraud. Hollande, meanwhile, has ridden into the sunset (on his scooter) with his current mistress, the actress Julie Gayet. The trio achieved little or nothing. If they had not existed, it would not have been necessary to invent them.
Macron is different. It is all too easy to compare him to Tony Blair – another Catholic convert – who enjoyed international esteem only to fall heavily from grace when his flaws were exposed following the invasion of Iraq. This is mistaken. The Frenchman is smarter, and considerably more agile. Like Trump (to whom he has, markedly, not been compared), he has done what he said he would do. Even the trade unions, traditionally the brick wall against which French President’s bash their heads in vain, seem to realise that they have met their match, not only in Macron himself but in the mood of the country that he has engendered.
The labour laws are changing, not without pain and not without protest, but changing nonetheless. Government spending is being reined in. The public sector is being reduced to what may eventually approach a sustainable level. And – and this is what is truly revolutionary – the French are taking it with scarcely a murmur. In 2018, 50 years on from the evenements of 1968, students and workers are not hurling cobbles. Instead, they are buckling down and looking to make the best of the emerging reality.
Will there be barricades along the way? Of course. Will the Government’s multifaceted reform programme sometime stutter to a halt in the face of vested interests? Naturally. Will Macron falter on occasion and overstep the mark? Will hubris meet nemesis at some point during the next four (or nine) years? Inevitably. For Macron is much more than Blair, he is also France’s Margaret Thatcher, aware that on ne fait pas d’omelette sans casser les œufs.
But there is much more to the country’s incipient rebirth than Emmanuel Macron. The point about France is that it has been a great nation for more than a thousand years, and it takes more than a bad economic run, dating no further back than the 1990s, to reduce it to either penury or beggary. Those in Britain and beyond who imagine that the French are somehow backward, more suited to the production of wine and cheese than twenty-first century century technology, need to think again.
The French are certainly thinking again. What happened in Trèbes first shocked, then inspired them. After years of confusion and helplessness in the face of terror, one of their own had behaved as a champion of old, and Emmanuel Macron gave him the recognition he deserved.
A word of caution: le jour de gloire n’est pas encore arrivé. And it may never arrive. But a more confident France, secure in itself and committed, despite deeply held doubts, to its role as a leading member of the European Union, is already apparent. The heroic death of Arnaud Beltrame – posthumously promoted to the status of a full colonel in the Gendarmerie – has sent a surge of pride through the nation, and the country’s youthful President has taken full advantage. A rough ride still lies ahead, but watch out for fireworks.