What a forty eight hours it has been for Emmanuel Macron. On Monday, he gave his regal address to the National Assembly at the Palace of Versailles, a grandiose occasion during which the French president rivalled Tony Blair and Barack Obama for swaggering self-confidence. As Jonathan Miller said in the Spectator, it’s hard not to be ‘cowed by the absolute bravado of the young president’. Then, on Tuesday, Macron’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, presented to the Assembly his government’s programme for the next five years. As is the tradition, the MPs were asked at the end of the general policy speech to give the PM their backing. Of the 577 MPs in the Assembly, only 67 dared vote against the government – the fewest number to oppose a Premier Minister’s programme since 1959. So the coup is complete. Emmanuel Macron has swept to power, as has his En Marche! party, and with an unprecedented majority in the Assembly, the president has carte blanche to reform and revitalise France.
While Philippe was addressing the parliament on Tuesday, Macron visited France’s nuclear submarine base in Brittany. As is the president’s custom he tweeted the fact, declaring that ‘France has a deterrent force, guaranteeing peace’ while posting several photographs including one of himself being lowered onto a submarine from a helicopter. As one magazine noted, he really does believe he’s Jupiter, descending from the sky to save France. But before the president goes too overboard with the man of action meme he should perhaps ponder recent events in France. It has been anything but a peaceful few days.
On Saturday, a brawl broke out among an estimated 100 Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants in Calais, the latest in a growing number of violent incidents at the Channel port; a fortnight ago, a driver was killed when his van collided with a makeshift barricade. On Monday evening two masked men opened fire outside a mosque in Avignon, wounding several people including a young girl in what police said was a gangland crime. Twenty four hours later, a man disguised as a woman wearing a niqab pulled an assault rifle from the pram his was pushing in Toulouse and shot dead one man and wounded six others. These stories don’t make the global headlines in the same way as the Islamist attacks on the Champs-Élysées but they continue to corrode the morale of the French. That was evident in a poll published this week that revealed 65 per cent of the population think there are too many foreigners in France, and 60 per cent judge Islam to be incompatible with the Republic’s values.
With Europe’s migrant crisis deepening by the day those percentages will only increase in the coming months, particularly as a growing number of Africans are making their way to the Italian-French border. In the first six months of 2017, nearly 20,000 were intercepted as they tried to cross into France and the local police are struggling to cope; as are their colleagues in Calais, and in Paris, where one district in the north of the capital has reportedly become a no-go zone to women because of the number of sexually aggressive young men.
Something else happened this week of which the president will be aware. Marine Le Pen announced that she will consult with her party’s members to discuss ‘refounding’ the National Front. In other words, changing its name to attract the millions of voters that Le Pen believes share her anxieties but are fearful of voting for a party called the National Front. Le Pen also seems to have accepted that she got her strategy hopelessly wrong in the presidential campaign, focusing too much on leaving the EU and too little on immigration, Islam and ‘insecurity’. That was the fault of her vice-president, Florian Philippot, loathed by most grass root supporters of the FN, but whose influence is now on the wane after his failure to win a seat in the National Assembly.
So Le Pen is returning to the party’s core issues, regarding them as the best means to attack the government. Asked by reporters for her reaction to the Prime Minister’s address, Le Pen expressed her incredulity that ‘there wasn’t one word on security, one of the very important concerns of the French people…[and] not a word on how we’re going to tackle Islamist fundamentalism’.
Emmanuel Macron is clearly a man who likes to be in control, and already in his short presidency he has exerted his authority on his party, his parliament and his people. But can he control the flow of migrants coming to Europe? Since Angela Merkel invited the world to come to the continent two years ago, no-one has shown the remotest sign of getting a grip on the gravest crisis to face Europe since 1945. Maybe Macron can work a miracle. France has given him five years, and while the clock ticks, Le Pen waits.