The French have long loved a beauty contest and this year’s Miss France was screened on Saturday night on prime time TV. While ITV dropped Miss World from its main schedule in 1988 in response to feminist protests, beauty pageants continue to pull in the punters in France, with a peak audience of 8.8 million watching Miss Pas-de-Calais win this year’s crown.
Feminist groups claim that Miss France is an offensive anachronism that should be consigned to the past. Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, spokesperson for the ‘Dare to be Feminist’ organisation, said ‘it was a shame that the only night of the year dedicated to women on TV cultivates the idea of female objectification’. But there will be no beauty pageant ban on Macron’s watch. He knows how the right would spin it, something along the lines of ‘Miss France killed off by political correctness’.
Macron turns forty today but he has a wise head on those young political shoulders. Witness how he responded earlier this month to the death of Johnny Hallyday, the 74-year-old rocker known as the ‘French Elvis’: ‘Yes, this December Saturday is sad’, the president told the million mourners who came to Paris for the singer’s funeral. ‘But you have to be here for Johnny because from the beginning Johnny was there for you. In moments of your life one of his songs translated something you had in your heart…he became a necessary presence, a friend, a brother’.
Some in France have questioned the sincerity of Macron’s eulogy, given his age and professional background, but that overlooks the president’s upbringing. He was raised in a middle-class family in Amiens, in one of the most depressed regions in France. His wife, Brigitte, his partner for 23 years, is also from Amiens, where her family still run a well-known chocolate shop. Macron’s adversaries now paint him as a paid-up member of the Paris intelligentsia but that wasn’t the case when he entered politics in 2012. Then he was dubbed ‘Macaron’, a dig at his in-laws’ provincial profession.
The writer Christophe Guilly, who chronicled his country’s marginalised in a book, The France Périphérique, wrote after Hallyday’s funeral:
‘One shouldn’t forget that the singer, an absolute icon for the working class, was for decades disparaged by the intelligentsia, who regarded him as a moron, singing for the ‘Deplorables’, to hark back to Hillary Clinton’s phrase’.
The mourners who descended on Paris were bikers, builders, shop keepers and factory workers. They saw in Johnny a bit of themselves, a salt-of-the-earth type, who got knocked down but always got back up. He had money but no airs and graces, and like most of them he leaned to the right in his politics.
Johnny’s fans, the ‘Deplorables’, are proud of their country and its culture; they despise political correctness, fear political Islam and want to be part of Europe without being bossed about by Brussels. Some of them would have voted for the National Front in the second round of the presidential election but many would have refused on principle to vote for Marine Le Pen.
So they voted for Macron, sceptical he’ll drag the country out of the mire, but prepared to give him five years to see if he can. Increasingly, they like what they see. An opinion poll in Le Journal du Dimanche this week revealed that the president’s approval rating climbed six points in November with 52 per cent of those polled declaring themselves pleased with his performance. Among the working-class his rating increased six points and among those who identified as National Front supporters it was up 10 points. There was further good news for Macron this week with a report from the INSEE national statistics agency that France will end 2017 with its best growth rate in six years. Forecasting that 2018 will see business confidence soar and the jobless total fall, the report was an early birthday present for Macron, irrefutable proof that his economic reforms are bearing fruit.
Nonetheless, the support of the ‘Deplorables’ remains fragile, their scepticism never far from the surface, and they will move to the right should Macron start ignoring their concerns between now and the 2022 election. There’s no sign of that happening at the moment. Last week, the government closed down another Salafist mosque for preaching sermons ‘contrary to Republican values’, one of half a dozen silenced in recent weeks, while the weekend newspapers reported that Macron is poised to launch a crackdown on illegal immigration. There was no comment from the president himself; he spent the weekend in the Loire, celebrating his 40th birthday with friends and family at the Château de Chambord. He found time on Friday evening to appear at a traditional wild boar hunt, the first time in forty years that a president has participated at such an event.
Macron’s political opponents, increasingly desperate to stem his rising popularity, said his stay in a château showed that he thinks he’s the king. Macron pointed out he paid for the trip himself and dismissed his critics by saying they were trying to whip up controversies that ‘don’t interest me very much’. Nor do they interest the bulk of the country, who have had enough of the petty squabbling that has characterised French politics in recent years. They want a president who speaks up for them and doesn’t talk down to them, a leader who doesn’t mock their musical tastes nor pander to political correctness. Macron understands how key the Deplorables are to his chances of winning a second term in office and that’s why he’s courting them in the hope of becoming their darling.