Has there ever been a time when the leaders of France and Great Britain are so diametrically opposed in character and style? One is weak and indecisive, a Prime Minister who avoids confrontation, the other is forthright and forceful, a president who relishes a fight. Emmanuel Macron seems to take a perverse delight in upsetting his compatriots; one can detect in his behaviour a healthy contempt for a section of French society. These are the slackers to whom he referred in a speech last year, the coasters, the self-entitled, the people he believes have grown up believing the state will look after them, whatever.
Last week he railed against a social security system that throws “crazy amounts of dosh” at the poor but offers them no long-term incentives or solutions to better themselves. Most on the left were outraged as they were last year when he told striking workers to “stop wreaking bloody havoc”. The latest target of Macron’s ire was a teenager who made the mistake of addressing the president as “Manu” during a walkabout on Monday in Mont Valérien, where French resistance members were executed during the war. His response, which has gone viral, is priceless, a presidential rebuke for a young man who, judging by his initial cockiness, was in need of some straightening out. Deference still matters in France and Macron’s lesson in etiquette has been appreciated in a country where the ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ distinction ensures a hierarchy of respect.
Many feel that more respect needs to be shown by the young to their elders and betters. A friend of mine, a teacher in one of the toughest districts of Paris, approved of Macron’s reprimand, not least because from her experience even the unruliest of children secretly crave discipline and authority. This is all part of Macron’s long-term strategy, to restore respect for the police and the teaching profession, and instil in the young a pride in themselves, their country and its institutions, hence his wish to bring back some form of national service. This strategy extends to school uniform, which hasn’t been seen in French state schools for half a century, but which is making a comeback later this year in one region with the possibility it will be extended across the country. Nothing illustrates better the death of the spirit of 1968, the year that ushered in the era of hedonistic individualism in place of the country’s innate conservatism.
Macron’s enemies accuse him of arrogance, a president whose ego is out of control, but from the day he was elected he has striven to restore dignity to his office and authority of the state, both of which have dwindled alarmingly in the last decade.
Nicolas Sarkozy cheapened the image of the presidency with his vulgar immorality, for which he now faces charges of corruption, while Francois Hollande turned France into a global laughing stock the day he was photographed travelling to an assignation with his mistress on the back of a moped. Four years of French-bashing followed, a humiliation that hurt the French deeply. Hollande wanted to be the people’s friend, and assumed his avuncular style of leadership would appeal to the French. It appalled them and he ended his five years in office as the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic.
Macron doesn’t court popularity, as the opinion polls prove, but while the country doesn’t like him, they respect him. Perhaps Macron’s greatest political attribute is that he knows his people so well; which buttons to press to excite or arouse them, to anger or inspire them. This was best demonstrated in his response to the death of two different figures: the pop icon Johnny Hallyday and the policeman Arnaud Beltrame, when he struck just the right tone in addressing the nation.
It helps, of course, that Macron is in such a position of strength with his political opponents in more disarray now than they were when he took office. This week, the leader of the centre-right Republicans, Laurent Wauquiez, sacked his vice-president because she publicly criticised his swing to the right. Macron must be enjoying their implosion, as he must the Socialist party’s, and the National Front’s, or whatever it is they call themselves these days in a last desperate attempt to remain relevant. As for the people, they can’t say they’re enjoying having Macron as president but he’s the dentist they’ve put off seeing for too long. Now they’re in his chair and it’s hurting but when the pain wears off most believe they’ll feel the better for it.