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The Ins and Outs of French Politics #12

Stefan de Vries
Stefan de Vries
Bonjour !
In this week’s Newsletter: congratulations to Emmanuel Macron (or at least, to his party), a look at new political books, and a real war is coming soon to a theatre near you.
Bonne lecture et joyeux dimanche !
(🦠😷Even though this newsletter is not vaccinated yet, it is still entirely corona-free)

Exactly five years ago, Emmanuel Macron started the En Marche ! movement in his home town of Amiens. The club, with the (very modest) founder’s initials, promised to be neither left-wing nor right-wing. Enfin, a fresh, modern wind would blow through the entrenched French politics. The promise appealed to many. In the summer of 2016, a real buzz arose around EM ! He resigned as minister (thereby sticking the dagger even deeper in the back of his mentor, President Hollande) to devote himself to his campaign. A bit later, Macron surprised friend and foe alike by entering the presidential election as a debutant and then winning it. The rest is history.
Politics as a cash cow
The party is now called La République en Marche (LREM) in full, but it is not doing very well. One lustrum later, the lustre of its beginnings is gone.
Politically speaking, LREM has lost its way considerably by now. Is it indeed a Centre Party, or is it just the equivalent of a conservative Emperor’s new clothes? The party has not succeeded in renewing French politics, partly because many new members and parliamentarians were already in the old politics. No less than 95 per cent of the members from the beginning have disappeared. Even Macron sometimes distances himself from the largest party in the Assembly (which has already lost at least 44 MPs, and therefore its majority). In the polls for the upcoming regional elections in June, the party is in 3rd or 4th place.
Not all is gloomy though. Financially, LREM is doing pretty well: since the elections in 2017, no less than 112 million euros in subsidies have slipped into the party’s coffers. Among other things, the party bought a €35 million building in the Rue du Rocher in the posh 8th arrondissement, which will become its headquarters after the summer. The office is not too far from the Elysée Palace, apparently in the expectation that the party founder will remain there for the next few years.
A lavish party was out of the question because of corona. The President had no time to attend the modest celebrations. Many media though did miss the occasion to ask festive questions such as ‘What is LREM good for?’ and ‘Is the movement going to disappear?’.
Bonjour - The Simpsons
Bonjour - The Simpsons
The proverbial cheese-eating Surrender Monkeys are, in fact, some of the most belligerent people in history. France, therefore, has a name to uphold (and we are not even counting the ‘war against covid’.) According to The Economist, France is preparing for a large-scale, classic war. Early January, the French military staff set up ten working groups to prepare for a major battle in ten years or so. The threat has been given the abbreviation HEM, short (in French), for a ‘major engagement hypothesis’. This hypothetical war would last at least six months and would be waged in a coalition. Potential opponents are a North African country, Russia and possibly Turkey, currently an ally as a member of NATO. A memo on the 2021 budget already states that the army must get ready for a serious war. The first step is the largest military exercise in decades, Operation Orion. It will be held in 2023, probably on a vast terrain east of Reims.
Star Wars
The defence budget for 2019-25 received a significant boost, bringing annual spending to €50 billion by the end of the period, 46% more than in 2018. France is currently designing a new aircraft carrier to replace the Charles de Gaulle in 2038. Price tag: probably more than five billion euros. Many countries are preparing their armies for cyber warfare. France is now taking an opposite direction by looking at ‘real’ war with soldiers on the battlefield. France’s military ambitions, however, are not limited to this planet: last month, for the first time in Europe, the country simulated a space war.
Of course, all this could also be a cunning diversionary tactic: perhaps France is secretly planning an invasion itself. That would certainly not be a first…
The French Army preparing for a major battle
The French Army preparing for a major battle
If you walk into a random hypermarché (in many sparsely populated regions, often the only bookshop), chances are that you will see a few books written by politicians. What always puzzles me is that people actually buy them. They are rarely literary masterpieces. But a political book in France is never just a book. One will always have to read between the lines, looking for half-hidden ambitions or barely concealed attempts to undermine competitors, especially in books by ministers or (ex-) presidents.
Two-tone beard
This week, former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, together with a friend and MEP Gilles Boyer, is publishing Impressions et lignes claires, about his three years as France’s Prime Minister. The French media can’t get enough of it. Not so much because of its artistic qualities, but more because everyone wants to know whether Philippe will be running against Macron next year. Alas! “I am not a candidate unless Macron does not stand,” said the man with the two-tone beard.
Blue Eyes
You would think that in the worst economic crisis since the War, Finance Ministers would be too busy to write a book. That is not the case for Bruno Le Maire, Minister of Economy, Finance and Relaunch. In his new book The Angel and the Beast he, like Philippe, looks back on the past years under Macron. The latter particulary enchants Le Maire: “He stared at me with his blue eyes, which had metallic shimmers on them, like a sunlit lake whose surface would have been impossible to pierce under the brilliance of its reflections.” I haven’t read it yet, but judging by this juicy passage, I think I’ll pass. With your permission, of course.
Finally, there is a little book by a Catalan refugee. Manuel Valls, the former prime minister, was booed by everyone in 2017. He then fled the country to become a city councillor in Barcelona. Valls believes he still has a role to play in defending the French Republic. His book with the grotesque and somehow startling title No drop of French blood, but France runs through my veins is on the shelves now.
A receptacle of French politicians
A receptacle of French politicians
It will be a financial disaster year for France. Last year was already the worst since 1949, but 2021 does not look good either. This week, the Ministry of Finance and Economy, known as ‘Bercy’ for short, updated the figures for this year. Growth will be 5% (instead of the previously estimated 6%), the budget deficit 9% and government debt an astronomical 118% of GDP (more than twice that of The Netherlands). The new lockdown will probably make the figures even worse. France is hoping for manna from the European heaven. Writer Bruno Le Maire (in his spare time earning some pocket money as the Finance Minister) is becoming impatient. He complains that the European Recovery Plan is far too slow to get going. Several countries (including Germany) still have to ratify the Fund, and that makes Le Maire “deeply concerned by the delay in the implementation“.
Despite his promises, Macron has not really succeeded in reforming France, and that’s a euphemism. Nevertheless, this week he did announce a small revolution: he will close the much-criticised National School of Administration (ENA). Since its foundation by Charles de Gaulle a few months after the Liberation, former students of this elite school have dominated the country’s political and economic life. The ENA produced 22 prime ministers, four presidents (including the current one) and countless ministers and CEOs. With often disastrous results as a result. According to many, the dominance of the ENA is the reason why the country is completely stuck. But whether the school is the cause or a consequence of the cumbersome state apparatus has long been a subject of debate.
Protective Caste
The énarques are considered brilliant, but all they need to do is pass the dreaded entrance exam. The only talent required is to do exactly what is expected. After all, originality and pragmatism could threaten the survival of the mighty State. Once accepted, in 37 weeks of lessons, the ENA teaches the around 110 chosen ones how to manage the country. They receive a monthly salary of €1682 gross (graciously financed by the French taxpayer) for their efforts. After that, they énarque for life, and no French door will remain closed to them. For 75 years now, the énarques have formed a closed caste that protects all members. This long tradition is now coming to an end. At least in theory.
Most of the énarques come from the upper social classes, often of families where there is already at least one énarque. Just ten per cent come from the working classes. This lack of diversity is one of the reasons for Macron to close the school. The president will now replace the ENA, and in good énarquian custom already has an abbreviation: the ISP (Institut du Service Public). Whether this will really change anything, or whether Macron is just serving up old wine in new bottles, the future will tell.
French civil servants preparing for the 21st Century
French civil servants preparing for the 21st Century
+++ 🥖 Good news for foodies who, like me, love to sink their teeth into the crunchy guignon of a still-warm baguette: the French baguette may be added to Unesco’s list of intangible heritage, just like Belgian beer. Cheers! +++ 💰💉 The number of billionaires in France has risen from 39 to 42. The most spectacular newcomer was Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna Therapeutics with $4 billion. Merci qui ? Merci Corona ! +++ 🧹 Paris City Hall is waging a communication war with the hashtag #saccageparis. For two weeks now, Parisians have been tweeting disconcerting photos of dirty streets, dilapidated street furniture and other shabby conditions. Nothing to worry about, says the city hall. The critics are “close to the extreme-right”, so don’t whine! +++
👌🏼 MERCI !
Thanks for reading and for the kind reactions you have been sending me recently. Please share this newsletter with colleagues and/or friends who are also interested in French politics. You can find all previous issues here. I welcome your questions and comments at
🇳🇱🇧🇪 This newsletter is also available in Dutch. Click here.
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Stefan de Vries
Stefan de Vries @stefandevries

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