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Sunday 28 April 2019

after notre-dame

French phoenix

  • Paris’s ancient cathedral caught fire on the day President Macron was planning to steal the thunder of the Gilets Jaunes
  • His speech was cancelled as he grappled instead with how best to use the moment to appeal for national unity
  • It turns out the French are not so easily united, but Macron’s fightback is still gaining ground

By John Lichfield

The most significant speech of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency might turn out to be the one that he never made.

At 8pm on 15 April, the young president was due to address the French people on television. This was to be his “I have understood you” speech – a list of social, fiscal and democratic reforms which would shut up the Gilets Jaunes and relaunch his presidency.

The 20-minute address, recorded in advance, was never broadcast. All copies have since been destroyed. By 8pm that night Macron and the rest of the French nation were staring in bewilderment as flames besieged the north tower of Notre-Dame cathedral.

When the blaze began the president cancelled his broadcast and drove the three kilometres from the Elysée Palace to the Ile de la Cité. He had little choice. He could hardly appear on television talking about proportional representation while the nation was watching 850 years of history go up in flames.

Macron also espied an opportunity. This would be his “Ground Zero” moment – his chance to re-emerge as the Young Man of Destiny, a can-do, energetic leader capable of healing a fractured but grieving nation.

President Macron addresses the nation in December of last year

“He loves drama and great events,” said one senior member of the government. “He saw immediately that he had been handed an opportunity to appeal for national unity. He jumped at it.”

Almost two weeks later, France is as fractured and as fractious as ever.

The Gilets Jaunes protested, and rioted, again in Paris the following Saturday for the 23rd Saturday in succession. Macron’s handling of the Notre-Dame catastrophe has been criticised on the left and the right and even by some of his own centrist supporters.

The president has scarcely shifted in the opinion polls. His approval rating, in the upper 20s or the lower 30s, is slightly down in some surveys, slightly up in others. So much for his hopes that the Notre-Dame fire might in some sense mark his political rebirth.

Did he muff his chance? Not entirely.

A president who is often accused of being a heartless technocrat and trop Anglo-Saxon in attitude spent more than a week engaged in sacred communion with France’s past. His cancelled TV address would probably have been dismissed as a series of grudging concessions. When he unveiled an amended plan at a 150-minute press conference on Thursday, he framed roughly the same ideas as a resurrection of “the art of being French” – an opportunity for an eternally self-renewing France to build on and surpass its best traditions.

He may get away with it. The European elections on 26 May will be the big test.

French national unity post-Notre-Dame was never likely to last for long in any case. France in the early 21st century can do togetherness – but only briefly.

The Notre-Dame fire caused the abandonment of a presidential broadcast

The joyous glow from victory in the World Cup last summer lasted three days. Unity-in-sorrow after the great cathedral fire lasted for 48 hours.

The former interior minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, said this week that France no longer has politics. It has “cold civil war”. Angry or polite disagreements have long ago given way to insults and fabrications, denigration and loathing.

This is not just a French phenomenon. It could as easily describe post-referendum Britain or post-2016 America. In all three countries in the social media age, accepted facts of debate and a common language of politics have evaporated.

It should be no surprise that 12 days after the great fire, multiple and overlapping rows are still blazing in France.

Should the cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it was, part medieval Gothic and part 19th-century pastiche? Should it have a 21st-century glass spire and a fire-resistant roof?

How is it that €1bn can be raised in three days by the nation’s super-rich to rebuild Notre-Dame when France can no longer afford rural hospitals and schools?

On the far right and the not-so-far right, a mumble of fact-free conspiracy theorising has grown into a drum-beat. Was the fire started deliberately? Was it an act of Islamist terrorism?

Macron’s post-blaze performance has been at times uncertain. He gave a short TV address on the day after the fire which contained much of the required political music.

Macron and his wife Brigitte outside the burning cathedral

“The fire in Notre-Dame is a reminder that our history never ends,” he said. “Even those things that we believed to be indestructible can be threatened… France is a living thing but all living things are fragile…”

The music was right but the president played the notes poorly. François Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac or even François Hollande would have been more convincing. It is hard for a 41-year-old man with a nasal voice to be taken seriously as father of the nation in a time of national crisis.

But Macron also suffers from the curse of all centrist politicians, the lack of a firm political base. His supporters are, for the most part, ex-swing voters who once drifted between centre-left and centre-right.

One in five French voters are reliable Macronistes. Many others regard the young president as a parvenu, an accidental head of state, an aberrant product of a two-round electoral system in which the only other choice in 2017 was Marine Le Pen.

From this muddle, the Gilets Jaunes exploded into high visibility last November. Originally, they were a strange coalition of the pujadiste lower middle-classes, the unreconstructed Left and struggling rural or outer suburban people who had not voted for years. Their anger was not just directed at Macron but at decades of political failure.

A mural by street artist Pascal Boyart, a homage to the Gilets Jaunes

They did not want a new government. They wanted to be the government. No two Gilets Jaunes groups agreed on anything much but they believed they could run the country through permanent, online, grass-roots democracy.

Macron made many mistakes in his first 18 months but he set out to do more than his predecessors to break the chain of failure which produced the Gilets Jaunes. He saw that the state-heavy French system worked well for the big cities and people in full-contract employment but less well for the “outsiders” – the young, the un- and under-employed, the struggling suburbs and the rural towns.

His great misjudgment was to allow his reforms to be front-loaded towards “incentives” for big business and the well-off. He was tarred as a president for the cities and the rich. To his credit, he fought back.

The energy and skill that France first saw in his 2017 campaign has been on show again in his contributions to the Great National Debate which he launched to answer the Gilets Jaunes in January. Over 10,000 meetings have been organised and 3,000,000 contributions received. Macron’s cancelled TV address last week was supposed to be his response to the Great Debate – and also to the Yellow Vests.

Most of the policy changes in the speech immediately leaked to the French press. Some Elysée sources said that he was furious. Others suggest that he leaked the contents strategically.

Either way, the leaks have helped rather than harmed the president. The original proposals included lower taxes for low-to-medium earners; increases for lower pensions; a promise not to close rural schools or hospitals; a dose of proportional representation for parliamentary elections; new, simpler rules for national and local referendums; and a 250-member “citizen’s council” chosen at random (an idea filched from Ireland).

The public response, except from Gilets Jaunes spokespeople, has been mostly positive. Macron was able to gauge the reaction and adjust his plans before he announced a final version to the press on Thursday.

The Notre-Dame fire gave him two bites at the cherry. In the interval, the remaining Gilets Jaunes had disgraced themselves by setting fire to vehicles and looting shops in Paris five days after Notre-Dame burned.

Public sympathy had already waned for a rebellion which has all but died in its provincial heartlands and has strayed from its anti-ideological beginnings towards the hard left.

On Thursday Macron added a few extra items to his list of reforms. Above all, he tried to give his ideas an uplifting, patriotic spin. He made no direct reference to Notre-Dame but he spoke of rebuilding the “permanences” of French society; “the art of being French”. A new “national project” would create new growth and opportunities (as promised by Macron Act 1) while being more “human” through reaching out to rural areas, the elderly, one-parent families and the left-behind (Macron Act 2).

Macron after the “Great National Debate” on 25 April

He did not change direction but he admitted mistakes and conceded that his behaviour and comments had sometimes been “wounding” and arrogant. The shrill, stiff Macron of the brief Notre-Dame TV address became the clever-clever but impressive Macron of the Great Debate.

The Gilets Jaunes dismissed it all as “blah, blah”. Only 37 per cent of French people said that Macron’s performance was convincing.

No matter. The Yellow Vests are no longer a serious threat to Macron or to French democracy. National unity is no longer the president’s only survival strategy – if it ever was.

What Macron actually needs is something more banal – a second wind, a chance to reboot his presidency with a “victory” in the European elections on 26 May.

Will he succeed? Uncertain. But his chances are better after his presentation on Thursday than they might have been after the TV address that he never gave last Monday week.

Further reading

  • Of all the musings published since the fire on Notre-Dame’s place in the French collective psyche, this one by Steven Erlanger in the New York Times is perhaps the most thoughtful
  • Macron’s response to the Gilets Jaunes is going to cost France money that he argued until recently it could not afford. The Economist explains (subscription)