If populism is about the reality, or the illusion, of loss, its latest manifestation in France, the election of Emmanuel Macron, a consummate insider whose polished youthfulness, education, career and connections guaranteed him a position in the country’s most rarefied elites anyway, makes more sense.
The French are not harking back to their lost Empire, or to the days of the monarchy, or to a wealth of jobs created by market forces. What they really want to see again are Les Trente Glorieuses, the three decades from 1946 to 1974. These saw the country rebuild itself at an annual growth of 5 per cent, with Marshall Plan subsidies, a Five-Year Plan, and a slew of nationalisations: coal, steel, electricity, gas, transport, the largest banks and insurance companies, and the odd business owned by notorious collaborators, such as the carmaker Renault. Les Trente Glorieuses were overseen by a dedicated, competent and largely selfless cadre of civil servants, many of whom came from the Résistance, and all familiar with the historical blueprint provided by Philippe-Auguste, Colbert and Napoleon.
Anyone looking for a lesson on successful reconstruction could do worse than study that rare moment in the 1950s and 1960s when France managed the charmed balance of private enterprise and public stewardship of the economy. French conservatives were known to joke about the perils of French planning, “because, unlike in the Soviet Union, it worked”. The first oil embargo sealed its fate: its time had probably passed anyway.
Ever since, the country has lived in the illusion that its unique combination of efficient social welfare, rising salaries, public infrastructure investment, national and foreign private investment, and comparatively tame unions can be replicated.
Ever since, the country has lived in the illusion that its unique combination of efficient social welfare, rising salaries, public infrastructure investment, national and foreign private investment, and comparatively tame unions (you could then, and can still now, prompt the fiercest Communist Party card-carrying CGT union official to outrage by describing the sabotage routinely perpetrated on British plants’ assembly lines by the unions in the 1970s) can be replicated.
Marine Le Pen promised nothing else as she raised the National Front’s share of the vote to 34 per cent last May: her platform included a generous dollop of state intervention, social protection, even some nationalisations. The French, in the grip of dégagisme (kicking any incumbents out), might have voted for her if the choice had been between her and the tired old men of yesterday: Hollande, Fillon, Juppé or Sarkozy.
But Macron, with his brand new party, brand new look, and insolent youth, seemingly disdainful of old hierarchies and old practices, appeared to offer a an alternative both safer and somehow more exciting. Marine lost her chance in the fatal pre-runoff debate, in which she came underprepared, blowsy and blustery.“Elle n’est pas présidentielle,” was the verdict even among her own supporters on Twitter: faced with their own Trump, in the end, they trusted Macron better, not in spite of his past as an elite civil servant, but because of it. Which is a rational choice if you want Les Trente Glorieuses back.
Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each European nation does populism in its own way. French populism has rarely been about rough-hewn “Men Of The People” vowing to upend the social order. General Georges Boulanger, a hero of the French-Prussian war and the conquest of Indochina, ran as a militaristic, anti-German candidate simultaneously in half a dozen constituencies in 1888, and was elected in four. He led his own party, whose MPs mostly came from the Left and far-Left, while being financed by the Duchesse d’Uzès, a descendant of La Veuve Clicquot of Champagne fame, and supported by both Royalists and Bonapartist.
Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each European nation does populism in its own way. French populism has rarely been about rough-hewn “Men Of The People” vowing to upend the social order.
Pierre Poujade, the Auvergnat shopkeeper who led an anti-Parliamentarian, anti-elite, anti-Rome Treaty revolt in the mid-1950s and won 52 MPs in 1956, was the son of a solidly bourgeois architect. His slogan “Sortez les sortants” (“get rid of the incumbents”) was re-used by the National Front, Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, and many Macroniens, sans attribution, in last spring’s campaign.
Both movements, which each could for a couple of years bring out hundreds of partisans in the streets, came to early, tame ends. Boulanger himself, on the day of January 1889 when he was elected Député of Paris, refused to bow to the pressure of some 50,000 voters gathered on Place de la Madeleine, outside the brasserie where he celebrated his victory, and would not lead them to take the Elysée Palace nearby. (He died two years later in obscurity in Brussels, shooting himself on the grave of his beloved mistress.)
Poujade’s party, the Union de Défense des Commerçants et Artisans, simply vanished when General de Gaulle came back to power in 1958. Again, between the countryside upstart and the war hero, who while seemingly away from the political fray had cannily built a trans-party movement called the Rassemblement Pour La France, the French chose en masse. (Georges Pompidou, the General’s longest-serving PM before becoming President himself, cannily detailed Poujade to help draft a couple of bills aimed at keeping small tradesmen onside.)
Further back, even before the word was coined, French populism always had a distinct flavour. It’s hard properly to call the French Revolution “populist”, although figures like Marat and Hébert certainly qualify. Bonapartism, on the other hand, exhibits most of the key characteristics, from the coup-installed Providential Leader to the creation of an entire new ruling class. The after-effects of Bonapartism, long after Napoleon’s death, fuelled every single uprising of the 19th Century: the short years of the First Empire, with its mammoth legislative achievements, administrative restructuring of France and glorification of science, becoming a hallowed Vingt Glorieuses in French minds from Balzac to La Fayette, Victor Hugo and Berlioz.
Napoleon himself was in many ways replicating, in the neoclassical vernacular, an age-old tradition in which French kings, claiming a mystical direct connection to their peoples, set themselves up as autocratic popular defenders against a hidebound aristocracy. From Philip II to Louis XIV, this meant strengthening a centralised, technocratic domination over the country, and the appropriation of the fiefdoms and provinces of anyone trying to rebel. (Every noble revolt was lost in France over the centuries, possibly resulting in a largely irrelevant upper-middle class often deserving of Karl Marx’s strictures.)
Emmanuel Macron seems to believe that he can now transmogrify the populist expectations his campaign gave rise to by a judicious balance of authoritarianism and journalism-free spin.
Similarly, Emmanuel Macron seems to believe that he can now transmogrify the populist expectations his campaign gave rise to by a judicious balance of authoritarianism and journalism-free spin. In less than three months, the self-described “President Jupiter” has managed to push out four political allies and the Chief of Defence Staff, largely segregated himself from the Élysée press pack, and has announced he would not keep those civil service mandarins who disagree with him. In the meantime, he has indulged in a series of shticks, including answering the Élysée switchboard himself (filmed only by his own cameraman), dressing up in the uniform of each of the three armed services, showing off all the extra features inside the Presidential limo to a hand-picked kid, and making his wife godmother to the first baby panda born in a French zoo.
All that remains to be seen if whether this serves him well enough, or whether French populist voters decide that after all, the two extreme opposition parties, FI and the FN, appear more believable populists.