Can President Macron restore France to greatness? That was the question dominating French affairs this summer. As the natives made for their holiday homes in villages littered with “for sale” signs, or pursued cheaper pleasures if they are less affluent, they were happy to explain to tourists over a glass of wine what it means to have an energetic new head of state who for a while at least gave them cause for optimism.
Expectations of the youngster Macron were sky high in early summer, it was clear. Our English hostess at a dinner party in the Ardèche introduced two of her most longstanding and most stylish friends. They are voters of the Left who hoped that Macron’s youthful energy would produce change, although there is no consensus on what that change should involve. But elections are only half the story, one of the British guests pointed out. France is also about the politics of the street, and when Macron makes his moves this autumn and winter then won’t the trade unions and the students take to the barricades trying to block him? Yes, they said.
As we listened, we drank some surprisingly enjoyable rosé, on the survivable side of toxic, that I had dreaded.
As we listened, we drank some surprisingly enjoyable rosé, on the survivable side of toxic, that I had dreaded. It had been sold to our enthusiastic Scottish co-host by the litre and poured at the local cooperative by petrol pump. I somehow came away from the conversation without a hangover, yet more convinced than ever that Macron is a Blairite soufflé in the process of collapsing.
For those of us of a conservative disposition, who perhaps all along saw Macron as a rather ridiculous cross between Tony Blair and Napoleon Bonaparte, the President’s honeymoon phase was awkward. Charismatic leaders who promise too much, and become hooked on their own publicity, usually fail in the end, but point this out too early and it comes across as overly cynical. Give the boy a chance, is the response.
And yes, although Macron emerged from the summer with ratings plunging through the floor, it is essential that he succeeds. A weak France is not in the interests of Europe or of the wider West. The creation of the euro, and the resolution (so far) of the eurozone crisis, has strengthened Germany, and Europe needs rebalancing. France does security and defence properly, unlike modern Germany, and has a close relationship with the UK on that front. In addition, if the European Union post-Brexit is to integrate further, as its supporters want it to, then it should not be along exclusively German lines.
Macron is certainly trying to reinvest the idea of France with some grandeur, always a French obsession. The event at Versailles earlier this summer where he announced, as expected, sweeping constitutional reform was quite something even by French standards. Is there another old and established democratic nation that takes such a shockingly cavalier approach to such matters? The head of state announced his regal plans to shrink the National Assembly by a third and talked pompously to parliamentarians as though they are naughty children. It wouldn’t happen in the UK or in the United States, or not without a coup.
The constitutional reform package is only, it is said, a means to an end, the end being the wholesale reform of the French economy. Macron hopes to unclog the blockages that inhibit entrepreneurialism, and to liberate the French economy with supply-side reforms. The jobless rate is at its lowest level for five years, but at 9.5 per cent for the second quarter that’s more than double UK unemployment.
Macron has his work cut out, but look carefully enough and you will see signs of hope in a country that for all its flawed labour laws has long excelled at design, aspects of manufacturing, infrastructure projects, and wine.
There are already optimists battling to build the new businesses France needs. Down the road from our friends in the Ardèche is Ruoms, a town with a centre best-avoided due to a plague of Dutch camping canoeists. We stayed on the outskirts for a few days at the Hotel Savel, which was bought last autumn by a young Swiss hotelier determined to turn a hotel rather down on its luck into a model of good taste, simple luxury and friendly service. She is already well on the way to succeeding.
A large garden leads directly to the river where you can swim and dive off the gorge. On arrival at the unpretentious Hotel Savel ask for a large room on the first floor and a copy of the wine list. The wines of the Ardèche are not famed for their complexity or sophistication, but those on offer here were excellent. Bone-dry rosé and a refined red, a pinot noir, were a steal – that is, reasonably-priced. This place is France at its best. Dinner at the Hotel Savel is served on the terrace in the summer and the cooking was as good as anything I have tasted in years.
What is remarkable about the wines of the southern Rhône is that as demand has pushed up prices of the best and most famous Chateauneuf-de-Papes, it has spurred improvement elsewhere. The market, helped by foreign demand and trade, has encouraged producers in lesser villages to experiment and to create distinctive bottlings, alongside throwing grapes into the local co-operative pot to make supermarket wines.
Your wine columnist receives no discounts. I simply recommend this spot as a paying customer because it deserves to succeed, as does the bar and restaurant a few hundred yards down the road. L’Atelier is a proper micro-brewery in an art-deco industrial space where you sit next to the production site and eat local produce.
More of this high quality, and fewer of the rip-off pizza places in Ruoms itself, and you can see how an area rather left behind could be reinvigorated by going up-market a notch and away from canoeing campers. What the best of gastropub cooking, and redesigned inns, have done for parts of rural England in recent decades can be replicated, it seems.
Several hours away, in a different price bracket, is an outstanding place that needs no lessons from the British, or from anyone. L’Oustalet, a restaurant in the village of Gigondas, below the Dentelles de Montmirail, is expensive but worth every euro for the cooking and a fascinating wine list, full of hidden quirks, rare vintages and a large by-the-glass selection that changes from day to day. It now has a wine shop and rooms attached.
What is remarkable about the wines of the southern Rhône is that as demand has pushed up prices of the best and most famous Chateauneuf-de-Papes, it has spurred improvement elsewhere. The market, helped by foreign demand and trade, has encouraged producers in lesser villages to experiment and to create distinctive bottlings, alongside throwing grapes into the local co-operative pot to make supermarket wines. Look out for full-flavoured wines from Carainne, blending Syrah (usually more associated with the northern Rhône) and the Grenache and Mourvèdre grapes used in the South. Although Beaumes des Venise, near Gigondas, is known for its dessert wines, the smaller number of reds made there are improving rapidly. Further north there is value and quality to be found increasingly in wines from Grignan.
You see, competition is healthy because it fuels innovation and improvement for the thirsty consumer and the decent producer in search of profit, as the former banker and trainee moderniser Emanuel Macron would no doubt observe. But bon courage convincing a majority of French voters of the virtues of competition.