The Fifth Republic’s Darkest Days?

The Parisian political elite has lost touch with reality and the public

Dispatches France
Marine Le Pen: Despite her father's racist legacy, her rhetoric resonates with voters (photo: Bruno Vigneron/Getty Images)

When Valérie Trierweiler’s Thank You For This Moment hit the supermarket shelves in September, exposing the “hypocrisy” and “cynicism” of her long-time partner, President François Hollande, the book was greeted with a tumult of outrage. Many French booksellers refused to sell it. Instead their shop windows displayed posters denouncing the work as a cheap tale of kiss and tell. But if ever a story exposed the writhing nerve ends of a nation in crisis, it must surely be the sad affair of the First Lady scorned.

The French media and the ruling elite, often regarded as one and the same, immediately embarked on a campaign to portray Julie Gayet, the President’s new “favorite“, in the best possible light. The gamine actress appeared on the front covers of most French magazines (including Trierweiler’s employers, Paris Match), while ridiculing the latter’s book.

So November must have come as a slap in the face to those bien pensant censors when the UK rolled out the red carpet for Queen Valérie. Indeed, their indignation and anger boiled over. Jacques Séguéla, a famous publicist, accused her of “committing a crime against her country” and demanded she be stripped of the title “Former First Lady”. France 5 TV pundit (and Hollande’s cousin) Hélène Pilichowski called Trierweiler a “madwoman”. Many more joined the bandwagon of latterday tricoteuses, rolling into town to sit at the guillotine of public opinion.

This repudiation of a woman (“planetary humiliation” is how she memorably described it in a BBC television interview) represents a form of moral violence which for many must call into question one of the central tenets of French society, namely “les droits de l’Homme“. For a country which prides itself on defending the rights of man, France has instead become “le pays des droits de l’homme“, in which the rights of women, particularly of the unmarried variety, are another matter entirely.

What the Trierweiler affair demonstrates is that what the public thinks does not tally with what their rulers and proxy-rulers think they should think: the books flew off the shelves as the “toothless poor” (Hollande’s alleged phrase) bought it by the tumbril. The President’s popularity, meanwhile, continued to plummet: his approval rating was only 2 per cent higher than that of ISIS, according to polls last summer.

If this is an apt illustration of how the French elite’s view of the world has in recent years fallen out of kilter with reality, then another must surely be the £950 million Mistral warship deal with the Russians, signed in 2010 when Nicolas Sarkozy was President. The whole business, still being played out, has been shrouded in a cloud of duplicity and immorality.

Following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its stealth invasion of Eastern Ukraine, discerning observers of French politics found themselves baffled and dismayed when some of the proudest defenders of national sovereignty — especially the Front National — voiced their full support for the delivery of the warships, even visiting Moscow in early autumn to pay homage to President Putin and bang the drum for French trade. In fact the whole political elite, right and left, appeared eager to continue trading with Russia, as were — bien sûr — the arms industry, the food producers and the farmers. The latter stood to lose at least €1 billion from the tit-for-tat Russian embargo on food imposed last August in response to Western sanctions.

Despite the mounting Russian threat in the Baltic region and the subsequent growing anxiety among Nato allies, not once, it seems, did these French interest groups question the fact that the Mistral warships would provide Russia with an entirely new military capability to use in future adventures against Europe.

Where does such wilful blindness stem from? What has happened to France? After a glorious past, is it realistic to think that it has fallen into mediocrity? Quel cauchemar for the Fifth Republic’s only giant. “All my life I have had a certain idea of France,” wrote General de Gaulle in his War Memoirs in 1954. It was then his profound conviction that France was dedicated to an exceptional destiny.

Indeed, some of France’s grandeur does linger on. Almost seven decades after the Yalta Conference, the nation is still one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with a veto power, along with the other nuclear powers (the US, Russia, China and the UK). On the diplomatic scene, France has 181 ambassadors and 91 consuls, forming the third biggest diplomatic network behind the US and China.

France’s armed forces are deployed in no fewer than 27 operations and are currently fighting on three fronts (in the Middle East, the Central African Republic and the Sahel region). France still has the world’s fifth largest economy. In October the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to French professor and economist Jean Tirole, while the Swedish Academy awarded last year’s literary gong to a French writer, Patrick Modiano.

However, pursuing his reflection on the country’s exalted destiny, General de Gaulle also said that if mediocrity ever showed in the acts and deeds of France, this predicament should be imputed to the faults of individual Frenchmen, but certainly not to the inherent genius of the great nation.

And, of late, things have looked distinctly mediocre for France. Since Hollande came to power the average quarterly growth in the French economy has been around zero; unemployment has hit its highest level ever (3.46 million); foreign investment in France fell by 77 per cent in 2012, to €4.58 billion, down from a high of €77 billion in 2007. By contrast it rose across the rest of the EU, with even Spain attracting €29.8 billion. Most ordinary people have seen their tax bills rise, while Hollande’s 75 per cent tax for the super-rich was initially deemed unconstitutional before being redrafted, and has now succeeded in driving business out of the country. The President might care to note that no one has ever taxed their way to prosperity.

But of course there is nothing mediocre about a €2,000 billion national debt. (Admittedly €600 billion of that was incurred on Sarkozy’s watch.) And how was anyone to know that legalising same-sex marriage would attract such powerful antipathy? Or that so many young French would opt to fight in Syria (ISIS had approval ratings of 27 per cent among 18-24-year-olds, according to an ICM poll in August). Or that there would be so many scandals involving ministers and MPs? Or that in August Hollande would be forced to let his economy minister Arnaud Montebourg go after he fomented rebellion over prime minister Manuel Valls’s attempts to impose discipline on the moribund economy?  Hollande famously admitted that he doesn’t like the rich. According to Trierweiler he also despises the “toothless” poor. So whom does he like? And who, moreover, likes him? It is quite possible that he likes Ed Miliband: Britain’s Labour leader has declared his admiration for France’s first citizen on more than one occasion, though is now understandably adjusting the stage lights. Miliband, who could win the general election in May even if he polls fewer votes than David Cameron, has openly compared himself to Hollande, as well he might. Similarities between the two are initially striking. Both come from privileged political backgrounds and went on to study politics in their respective countries’ top institutions. Both have been cocooned in the world of politics, having little experience of work in the outside world, so both lack the hinterland inhabited by the big political beasts of the past. Both have worked their way up, and both espouse high-tax radical-left policies.

The first obvious pitfall facing Britain’s putative PM is the so-called mansion tax (on homes worth more than £2 million), drawing parallels with Hollande’s disastrous supertax on the rich. In February 2012, just two days after Hollande announced the 75 per cent tax, Miliband described his bold proposals as something “sorely needed as Europe seeks to escape from austerity, and it matters to Britain”. It is feared that Miliband’s proposed tax hikes could have a similar effect. The Labour leader was subsequently greeted with enthusiasm on the steps of the Élysée Palace, ahead of David Cameron, when Hollande came to power in May 2012.

“The agenda of Ed Miliband is very similar to that of François Hollande at the beginning of his tenure,” comments Gaspard Koenig, president of the think tank Generation Libre. “So I think you should be very careful in the UK not to replicate the same mistakes.” The Labour leader has let it be known that he is keen to dictate to energy companies what they should charge their customers, part of a French-style dirigiste economic strategy which seems to lack any support from business leaders.

Over the years only a handful of commentators in France have dared make a diagnosis of what was going seriously wrong, as the state actively discourages such disrespect. This, however, could never be said of Britain and it is unlikely that Miliband will get such an easy ride if he becomes PM. Notable exceptions in France are Natacha Polony, who wrote on the fall of the once outstanding state school system, now dubbed “the idiot factory”; her husband, the food critic Perico Légasse, who dared to detail the fall of French gastronomy; Pascal Boniface, who chronicled the corruption and decline of the French intelligentsia; Pierre Péan, who wrote about France’s unholy alliances abroad; and Alexandre del Valle, who examined France’s failure to grasp the Islamist threat at home and abroad. All have tried to urge French leaders to get a grip, only to be treated with anything from condescension to outright hostility by the ruling elite. In the economic field, writers such as Nicolas Baverez have been dismissed as “declinologues” (theorists of decline).

However the publication in October of polemicist Eric Zemmour’s controversial 534-page book The Suicide of France: The 40 Years That Defeated France struck a resounding blow against the establishment and sold 500,000 copies in the first month.

One aspect of the book has stirred up outrage in the media: Zemmour, like the founder of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has come out as an apologist for the  wartime Vichy government. Le Pen père notoriously claimed that the Holocaust was a mere “point of detail” in the Second World War and that the collaborationist regime was not responsible for the deportation of Jews (many of the FN’s early members, after Le Pen founded the party in 1972, were left-overs of Vichy). Zemmour’s stance is somewhat more nuanced. A French-born Sephardic Jew whose family came from Algeria, Zemmour is highly critical of France’s repentance over the war crimes of Vichy. He contends that by sacrificing foreign and stateless Jews in the deportation process they managed to save many Jewish French nationals. He disagrees with Serge Klarsfeld, the scourge of Nazi war criminals, and blames the US historian and WWII expert Robert Paxton’s work on Vichy France for irremediably damaging France’s image.

The contrition to which he refers is the brave speech by President Jacques Chirac on July 16, 1995, on the occasion of the anniversary of the biggest arrest of foreign and stateless Jews. Chirac recognised for the first time the French state’s role in the deportation, 53 years earlier to the day, of 13,152 people — including 4,000 children — who were rounded up and dispatched by train to Auschwitz from the Vel’ d’Hiv bicycle race track in Paris. Only 100 survived. Chirac’s courageous act allowed mourning worldwide for surviving victims of the Holocaust and their offspring and so did Hollande’s decision in December to give a €60 million for US victims of the Holocaust. Zemmour foolishly compares Chirac’s “betrayal” of de Gaulle with Brutus’s betrayal of Caesar.

The author tries to prove his point in the most maladroit fashion, stirring outrage and drawing attention away from other points of interest which made him an instant bestseller, particularly the decoupling of the elite and the people. “France is dead and our elites are spitting on its grave and trampling its corpse underfoot,” he writes. According to Zemmour, the agony of France dates back to the French theory movement, launched by intellectuals such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the 1960s. The deconstruction of the traditional structures which held French society together was set in motion and has yet to stop. In the 1980s Bernard-Henri Lévy’s famous work, The French Ideology, accelerated this process.

Zemmour argues that for the past 40 years the elite has failed to protect the legacy of the nation’s great past. He claims they consciously stripped France of her ability to survive among other nations, leaving no viable collective structures (family, state and nation). Rebuilding France from its ruins will involve great future sacrifices, clearly sacrifices that recent administrations lack the moral fibre to undertake.

It is easy to see why the clique (and claque) who rule the political, economic, administrative, intellectual, artistic and media elites are perceived as a self-serving nomenklatura. Their members intermingle and intermarry, send their children to the same schools, meet in the same gatherings and parties, shop together, eat together, and holiday together in the same ski resorts, or in Marrakech.

Take, for example, the inbreeding between the media and the political elite — journalists Anne Sinclair (Dominique Strauss-Kahn), Christine Ockrent (Bernard Kouchner), Béatrice Schönberg (Jean-Louis Borloo), Marie Drucker (François Baroin), Isabelle Juppé (Alain Juppé), Audrey Pulvar (Arnaud Montebourg) and, of course, Valérie Trierweiler, to name but a few. The absence of male journalists coupled with female politicians is a fair reflection of the sexual balance of French politics.

The result of such high-profile endogamy is collusion between the media and the political executive, and inevitably this compromises French democracy. A similar collusion applies to the political and business elites. The financial scandals involving goverment ministers which have come to light under Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande do not speak well of the transparency of the executive power.

The resulting effect upon the lower strata of society is a loss of confidence and respect, not just in the governing elites but also in the institutions which are supposed to represent and defend their rights: the courts, the police and even the fire service. There is a tangible frustration which is compounded by the failure of the centralised state school system. This once-great educational edifice, which imbued every French child with a sense of national identity, now seems unable to deliver either knowledge or a job. Little wonder that Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, is way ahead of Hollande in the polls.

The inexorable construction through the back door of a federal European state by the French ruling elites, and the general impression of a lack of transparency in European matters, have left many French people sceptical about the true intentions of their political leaders. Recent scandals involving EU institutions have shattered what little was left of the average voter’s confidence in their integrity.

The latest in a long line involves the Eulex mission in Kosovo led by the French until 2012, set up to investigate graft and corruption among gangsters and politicians, many of whom are suspected of organ trafficking. It is the EU’s biggest foreign mission and has cost the taxpayer €1 billion since being set up in 2008, but leading members are now accused of taking huge bribes from the very people they are investigating, and of quashing internal Eulex probes.

While racial and social tensions rise and France stagnates, Marine Le Pen’s electoral promises of giving back to the French people a say will not fall on deaf ears in the 2017 presidential election. Nevertheless, she has yet to unshackle herself from twin legacies of her father: racism and anti-Semitism.

Now that her party is backed to the tune of a €9 million loan by First Czech-Russian Bank, a France under her leadership will be one which espouses a Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to Vladivostok, not from Washington to Brussels. At a triumphal rally in Lyons after being re-elected leader at the end of November, she said of Hollande and the newly re-elected conservative UMP leader Sarkozy: “You messed everything up. They gave you a treasure, France, and a diamond, its people. You have ruined the one and abandoned the other.”
Sadly, this is rhetoric which in these benighted times is in danger of chiming with a France that General de Gaulle would scarcely recognise.