France, it sometimes seem, has been asleep for the last 20 years. Self-regarding, but hidebound, it has lain back as if the strains of the twenty first century were simply too much to bear.
But don’t count on this slumber continuing for much longer. There is an awakening in progress. A new spirit of enterprise is in the air, led by the much-mocked Emmanuel Macron
Macron, who next week celebrates his 40th birthday, has recovered from his post-election dip in the polls. His proposals for deep-seated economic reform are taking shape and have not, thus far, led to riots in the streets. It is almost as if the Left, and more particularly the trade unions, have acknowledged that change is overdue and that they are going to have to live with it. There will undoubtedly be spasms of resistance once the full programme of reform is fleshed out. France would not be France if Liberty did not from time to time storm the barricades. But the feeling in the country at large is that Macronism must have its day and that eight months on from the elections is too soon for an uprising.
Within the newly returned National Assembly, La République en Marche, the President’s grandiosely-named party of convenience, is not entirely happy with its lot, which some see as providing little more than a rubber stamp for the unfolding Code Macron. But at the same time, most of them, as political ingénues, sense that something big is in prospect and they want to be part of it.
France’s other main parties are still recovering from the drubbing given them in the presidential and assembly elections. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has all-but imploded, with Le Pen herself a battered and beleagured figure. The Socialists are trying to regroup, but have a long way to go. On the far-left, the threatened insurgency led by quasi-Communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon has failed to materialise. And while the Conservatives have finally elected a new leader, Laurent Wauquiez, a right-leaning former minister, the immediate result was a split, with Wauquiez’s arch-rival Xavier Bertrand declaring that he had “definitively” resigned the party membership.
Meanwhile, with his domestic agenda still a work in progress, Macron has not let opportunities slip on the world stage.
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Few now look to Washington for sensible decisions on the diplomatic or crisis front. Britain has no time for anything except Brexit, and Germany is hors de combat until it either forms a coalition government or else holds fresh federal elections. Macron’s decision to fill the vacuum by taking up the role of interim leader of the free world was a bold one, but it is already paying dividends. The French are a proud people. They like to feel they matter, and Macron’s ongoing global shuttle, taking in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, has offered them much-needed reassurance.
Only a man combining arrogance and conceit with real knowledge of complex situations beyond his borders could have had the temerity to do what Macron has done. Can you imagine François Hollande occupying the Grand Salon of Versailles to unveil his master plan for Europe, or telling Benjamin Netanyahu where to get off, or dominating a summit of African leaders with the message that France is ready to champion their cause? Nicolas Sarkozy might have had a go, but the result would have been embarrassing. Not since Jacques Chirac, and many would say not since François Mitterrand, has the Elysée Palace been home to a statesman of genuine stature, full of ideas and sure of his ability to see them through.
It may, of course, all end in tears. Pride comes before a fall. There is a hint of Legoland about the French leader, as if he is not quite real but put together out of a box. But for now, it is to Macron that the West and the developing world are turning, hoping for some hint of deliverance from the travails besetting us.
With this in mind, it should be noted that not all the good news comes stamped with the post code of the Elysée. French manufacturing is moving impressively forward, orders are pouring in, tourism is rebounding, productivity is rising and the banking sector is expanding. In short, business confidence has been restored and, with the unemployment rate continuing to fall, the French, to their own surprise, are starting to feel that a long, dreary corner in their recent history has finally been turned.
One area of growth in particular should be mentioned. France now has more successful high-tech start-ups than anywhere else in Europe. This unexpected effloresence is even attracting attention from Silicon Valley. Just last week, the lifestyle site My Little Paris, which daringly combines cutting edge delivery with traditional values, was visited by Tim Cook, the head of Apple, who afterwards went on to have lunch with Macron. The French Government has put in train reduced taxes on investment and is lobbying hard for the recruitment, on generous terms, of foreign tech workers. Innovation, for too long denied, is once again at the heart of the French project, which also includes stealing business from London post-Brexit.
I shouldn’t get carried away. There are still a lot of frustrated young people out there, including a generation of university graduates, who haven’t had a proper job in years. There are still hardline trade unionists who believe that cradle-to-grave state care and the 35-hour week were introduced by Robespierre and confirmed by Napoleon. Crucially, there is also the great weight of the state – a vast network of bureaucracy, the chief function of which is to preserve its own existence. Lightening this particular load will be difficult, and there are bound to be setbacks.
But, while Germany stalls and Britain looks to be falling out of contention, France is getting its swagger back. The outpouring of grief and pride that attended the death last week of rock star and perpetual icon Johnny Hallyday showed that France still has a certain sense of itself that will not be excised by something as trivial as economic difficulty or the ignorance of foreigners in the face of gallic genius. And now that the economy is bouncing back, watch out for fireworks.