The Urban(e) President Went To … The Country
Emmanuel Macron’s self-described itinérance mémorielle (‘roaming remembrance’) finally reached its apotheosis yesterday, 11 September. But, as endless commentators quipped (variously plagiarised by l’Obs, MSN, BFMTV, FranceInfo, Huffington Post, La Dépêche du Nord, 20 Minutes, Le Parisien etc etc) Macron’s itinérance mémorielle was transformed into his chemin de croix [a painful, difficult journey – from the Catholic devotional act commemorating Christ’s Passion on the Via Crucis].
Macron’s long-planned 6-day journey began in Strasbourg last Sunday. That’s the longest time the President has been away from Paris since his May 2017 Election. He had prepared for it by first taking a long weekend in Normandy. Several newspapers had referred to the President’s potential ‘burnout’. Caused possibly by the cumulative effect of too little sleep (3-4 hours/night allegedly), too many ideas … and ever-more dire opinion poll ratings [the average of ten October opinion polls gave Macron 28% support, down from 47% at the start of the year]. So he theoretically embarked on his itinérance refreshed. But reality quickly set in.
As always with the President, symbols abounded throughout the week. It started in Strasbourg: a town which, historically, has variously belonged to France and Germany, and is now the site of the European Parliament. Macron and German President Steinmeier attended a concert in Strasbourg Cathedral. Beethoven and Debussy. A French orchestra and a German soloist.
Macron visited 11 Departments of northern and eastern France, seeing battlefields and 17 towns, many small. Some sites of major French defeats, such as Morhange, had never been visited by any French President. The whole region had seen terrible World War 1 combat. Most now suffer from years of dramatic de-industrialisation.
However, even the act of homage to those who fought and died in World War 1 cannot but, these days, be political. This is, after all, the President who represents, in many people’s eyes, everything associated with metropolitan, urban values. Macron hoped his pilgrimage would allow him to re-establish contact, with people and areas which have not, thus far, seen (m)any tangible benefits of the Government’s policies. Not to mention schmoozing local politicians who feel equally unloved by Paris. This was the President meeting those for whom a few cents on the price of petrol and reduced speed limits on rural roads can seriously impact their daily lives.
Pétain: WW1 Soldier. WW2 Nazi collaborator.
No Presidential visit is complete without controversy. Matters soon went seriously wrong. Apart from encountering several discontented folk complaining about the cost of living, once again it was the elegant Presidential mouth which triggered events.
On Wednesday, Macron was in Verdun. The longest WW1 battle between the French and German Armies took place here. Lasting nearly 10 months, over 700,000 soldiers died in Verdun in 1916. There, for reasons best known to himself, Macron effectively paid tribute to Pétain, who had led the French troops defending Verdun. Less than 30 years later, that same Pétain led France’s puppet Government based in Vichy, under the Nazis, and was responsible for sending more than 70,000 Jews to die in German concentration camps. Pétain was condemned to death at the end of WW2, but that sentence was commuted by de Gaulle to life imprisonment, in view of Pétain’s age.
Responding to a journalist’s question about Pétain, Macron said ‘Paying homage to the Marshals who led the Army to victory, as we do every year, is legitimate.’ Signal for protests. Macron worsened things later, saying: ‘During the First World War [Pétain] was a great soldier. That’s a reality. Political life, like human nature, is sometimes more complicated than you want to believe. You can have been a great soldier and yet go on to make fatal choices during World War Two’.
The hard left leader of his own France Unbowed Party is People’s Tribune Mélenchon. He’s currently suffering in opinion polls in the wake of his recent bile-spitting hysteria against The Authorities. They’d had the temerity to search his home/offices, following up enquiries on (i) fraudulent employment of Euro-Parliamentary staff on national French political issues and (ii) finance of his own Presidential campaign. On 9 November it was announced that all these investigations were being passed to Investigating Magistrates, the next formal step in enquiries. ‘Good news’ replied Mélenchon.
Anyway, Mélenchon was delighted to be able to vent vociferously on a less controversial issue than ‘corruption’. Mélenchon especially enjoys giving history lessons. He tweeted: ‘Maréchal Joffre was the victor of the 14-18 War. Pétain was a traitor and an antisemite. His crimes and his treason are indescribable. Macron, this time you’ve gone too far. France’s history isn’t your plaything.’
Ex-President Hollande also weighed in with some historical theory: ‘However glorious a military career may have been, history doesn’t just single out one element. History judges the immense, disgraceful responsibility of a Marshal who deliberately used his name and prestige as cover for treason, collaboration and the deportation of thousands of French Jews.’ [Interestingly, when then-President Hollande commemorated the Battle of Verdun centenary he never once mentioned Pétain during his speech. Hollande may not have been an entire waste of space.]
The President of Crif (the body which represents France’s 400,000 Jews) described Macron’s comments as ‘shocking’: ‘The only fact we remember about Pétain is that, in the name of the French people, he was found guilty of indignité nationale in his July 1945 trial’ [that’s the crime of ‘national unworthiness’, created in 1945 to condemn behaviour under the German Occupation and Vichy Régime]. He continued: ‘Honouring Pétain is denying [France’s] responsibility’ in the deportation of Jews.
There was confusion between President and Presidential staff for some hours. Macron, appeared to believe that, during yesterday’s Invalides ceremony, all France’s Marshals (including Pétain) would be honoured. But his staff were transmitting a different message: ‘As has been stated several times, only the  Marshals buried in Les Invalides will be honoured.’ Non-communication between President and Presidential spokespeople was the order of the day, as well as (perhaps) some back-pedalling. Above all, it was Macron’s thoughtless language that aroused this virulent controversy.
Although, perhaps it was the disfunctional Government’s fault all along. Last September, the press were told about the coming memorial events. Then, there was no doubt that all 8 Marshals were being honoured (including Pétain) AND, what’s more, that the President would be present at the ceremony as well:
Macron will have hoped to bring this ‘debate’ to a close through his France 3 TV interview on Thursday. But has he done any more than extend it by insisting on his refusal to ‘view history’ the way others do?
‘We are celebrating peace’, Macron began, ‘and celebrating the victory of a combatant nation, as well as of our Army. It’s right that our forces celebrate their heroes. [A recurring Macron symbolic theme is the need for France to identify and cherish its heroes.] One of the French Marshals was Marshal Pétain. He was a Marshal and a great soldier. That’s a fact of history. History must be looked at full in the face. But, self-evidently, that same Marshal Pétain, the 14-18 hero, became a terrible leader of the French State and carried out unpardonable acts in the name of France. Those acts were deservedly condemned as the crime of national unworthiness [was this the first time Macron mentioned Pétain’s guilt?]. There will be no individual homage to Pétain. There was never any question that there would be … You cannot police history.’
Presidential footnote: It was conservative President Chirac – in his first year in office – who was the first President to refuse to decorate Pétain’s grave on Remembrance Day.
It wasn’t only military history and ignominy which caused controversy
On Thursday, at a Renault factory, an ungracious trade unionist shouted that the President was not welcome: all this while Macron announced a €400M investment in the plant. But the President ploughed on regardless with mild-mannered politeness: ‘I know some people are angry, I know some people will always seek division, but I’m responsible for one thing. I will keep going. On and on and on.’
Then there was a pensioner who asked the President why he was ‘massacring me and my husband?’ Back came the reply ‘I’m not massacring anyone.’ And the 57-year-old kindergarten assistant who told the President she ‘had never been on a street [demonstration] … but on the 17th [see below] she’d be there.’ And the leather-jacketed man who shouted ‘You’re crushing the people’. And the ‘Nothing is ever your fault … But we’re being hit every day. And we can’t take any more.’ Each and every insult, every exchange, recorded live, re-broadcast almost immediately, reprinted by newspapers. Lots and lots of anger: not big demonstrations, just individuals expressing themselves. Again and again. On and on.
Capped by another famous Presidential rebuke. In front of a retirement home (he met a worker there who said she had to drive 100km every day for her work) Macron delivered a patronising, scornful put-down to the assembled journalists: ‘You create these controversies by yourselves mes enfants. I don’t inhabit the same bubble as you.’
Yet overall – despite every journalist reporting on their finding discontent and anger on the streets – the Elysée let it be known that, in their view, this ‘roaming’ had been a great success. It allowed the President to ‘take the country’s pulse’ and ‘break the glass which separates the President from the people’. And Emmanuel Macron said he’d ‘remember the people who were pleased to welcome him’.
The ‘roaming’ symbolically concluded on Saturday. Merkel and Macron were together at Rethondes, in the forest clearing where the Armistice, marking the end of the War, was signed . That was the first time since 1945 the leaders of France and Germany have met at Rethondes. Today, a ceremony at the Unknown Soldier’s Tomb, under Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. Some 60 world leaders will attend, including Trump and Putin (who may/may not meet privately, depending on which day you read the news). Then, onward to the First Paris Peace Forum with (symbolically again) an opening speech from Merkel, rather than UN Secretary General, Gutierrez.
In parallel, Paris will (at last) see a protest against Trump’s presence: people are gathering in the traditional place of protest, the Place de la République. However, Le Parisien claims to have learnt that police believe that the violent Black Bloc anarchists intend to create as much trouble as possible. Will ex-Presidential-Bodyguard Benalla try helping to maintain law and order? Especially since Benalla won Presidential encouragement (again!) on Europe 1 when Macron repeated that Benalla’s blows delivered to the demonstrators were ‘not acceptable’ but continued ‘I’m not sure he deserved to be treated as if he were the N° 1 criminal on the loose.’
One of the matters for world leaders to talk about, in their bilateral encounters, might be President Macron’s plans for a European Army and his thoughts on cyber-warfare: ‘We are affected by attempts at intrusion through cyberspace and intervention in our democratic life. We must’, Macron told Europe 1 ‘protect ourselves against China, Russia and even the United States of America.’ That remark produced a tart Trump tweet (Trump, confused, conflated two separate issues) …
… and then Macron/Trump were, perhaps, all smiles when they finally got to see each other again. Though Trump’s smile was definitely more than a bit rictus.
The Washington Post, however, felt that everything was not quite hunky-dory, commenting on their Parisian re-meeting:
‘But even as their words aimed to gloss over their differences, their body language betrayed the growing tensions. Unlike previous meetings, when the two shared lengthy power-grip handshakes and hearty backslaps and hugs, there was no visible warmth between the leaders. At the end of their brief remarks ahead of their bilateral meeting, Macron reached over to pat Trump on the arm, but the U.S. president remained nearly motionless, failing to reciprocate or even acknowledge the touch.’
Ouch. Maybe that Euro-Army is necessary. And quick.
To block the roads, or not to block the roads is, indeed, the question
After the protests of the bonnets rouges [red woolly hats] of 5 years ago – Brittany-based protesters wore red caps (like a 17th century anti-tax movement) and forced Hollande’s Government to withdraw measures to tax polluting goods vehicles …
Now, 5 years on, it’s the turn of the gilets jaunes [yellow jackets] protest movement (support is shown by placing the vehicle’s yellow emergency jacket thus … though there’s no such visible anger around chez nous)
The gilets jaunes movement is fighting the rise in fuel tax (+7c/litre for diesel and +3.5c/litre for petrol). That fuel tax price rise is all in the name of ‘ecology’, on top of the +23% on diesel and +15% on petrol over the last year because of general fuel price rises, coupled with Government intending to equalise the diesel and petrol prices by 2021. This equalisation of diesel/petrol prices deeply annoys those who, for years, have been seduced by successive French Governments into buying ‘ecologically-sounder’ diesel cars by subsidising the price of diesel.
But don’t worry, drivers, the Government feels your pain. Macron says he is ‘especially sensitive to the anger of those who have to drive to get to work’. He’s instructed the Government to ‘find solutions’, which may involve some subsidy for those who can only drive to work and must travel far.
The gilets jaunes protesters intend bringing France to a halt next week (17 November). It’s road-block time. The movement is vigorously supported by the right, the ultra-right and the populist left (though some of the latter find themselves discombobulated by their fellow-protesting bed-fellows). And there’s a Grand Petition against the fuel price rises which has (so far) got 800K (and counting) click-signatures.
[Vive La Différence note. Could there be black humour in the choice of 17 November for the protest? (The French are not renowned for ‘doing irony’ so that’s uncertain). On the self-same day that France will be blockaded with the demand (#AngryFrance) that petrol cost one-third less (a memorably round €1/litre)
across the Channel a UK group, Extinction Rebellion, is organising civil disobedience in London on that very 17 November, trying to get themselves arrested in Parliament Square. Their objective is to draw attention to the unfolding climate emergency, as 100 senior academics demand that Governments produce ‘a credible plan for rapid total de-carbonisation of the economy’.]