France Incorporated – The Limits of the Ultra-Liberal State

What began as an attempt to save a few cents on gas has turned into something deeper and may throw up more surprises.

On the last day of 2018, annus horribilis, President Emmanuel Macron had appeared on television for his New Year’s address. Tutored by a team of image managers, he had stood up, waving his hands about, instead of sitting with fingers stuck on the table. His ‘Mann Ki Baat’, spun around his three keywords for the future – Truth, Dignity and Hope – was met with a flurry of insulting tweets about unconvincing, hollow words.

“Hats off to the artist for not once saying ‘Yellow Vest’ or ‘Benalla”, tweeted the far-Left NPA, alluding to the fluorescent, hi-visibility street protests by the formerly ‘invisible’, and the scandal around Macron’s enduring relationship with his laid-off ‘officer on special duty’ Alexandre Benalla.

Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Conference declared the president an “imposter”, echoing the title of a recent book by the ATTAC team of Left economists, The Macron Imposture, A Business Model Dedicated to the Powerful.

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The president, visibly oblivious to faults in the model, did mention in passing the suffering of people left behind, people faced with confusing waves of change and so on, but failed to convince. His own party, a ‘movement’ aptly named ‘EM’ – no one really counts except the leader, ‘EM’ – guardedly declared, “We see a president standing upright, who believes in our country, warts and all, as we face crucial choices in 2019.”

Speaking of warts, Macron had lashed out at ‘those claiming to be the voice of the people’, accusing them of really being the ‘voice of a hateful crowd going after our elected representatives, security forces, and journalists’. And curiously also going ‘after Jews, foreigners and homosexuals’, evidence for which is frankly not easy to find – the Yellow Vests having exercised exemplary restraint in expressing any homophobic or racialist impulses they might harbour.

A futile attempt

The ‘grand national debate’ launched by ‘Big-Chief’ Macron on January 15 to lend his ears to the natives hasn’t done much better, with 70 % of polled French citizens declaring it futile. Indeed, Chantal Jouanno, sitting president of the National Commission of Public Debate, resigned in haste soon after being called to lead the grand débat. Her indecent salary of almost €15,000 a month had gone public, further fueling rising popular anger against an incestuous political-administrative-business élite.

The anger of vast numbers, suffering in isolation, had exploded mid-November, and swiftly got directed at a single main culprit — president Macron. Indignation was widespread about the opulent lifestyle of a man who preached about effort, risk and daring, making smug remarks about winners and losers. All this while handing out tax relief to billionaires, auctioning off diligently built public utilities to predatory corporates, while adding new tax burdens on the weakest. A man groomed in élite schools, with little or no contact with the people or the nitty-gritty of political life, never having faced an election, who had stormed into government, and after a ‘promising’ term as president Hollande’s finance minister, and had quite suddenly become president.

The whole sequence of events was baffling. Over the months leading up to the April 2017 presidential election, Macron became the poster-boy of popular news magazines across the board, Left and Right. The star of television screens, the providential leader that France needed, to sweep away the inertia and bring in young energy and innovation. The fact that 90% of French media belongs to nine billionaires had already aroused suspicion among many. He is now clearly seen as a man identified, approved and groomed by a constellation of oligarchs for the top job, during his term as Hollande’s finance minister.

Macron was President Francois Hollande’s (R) economy minister. Credit: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

An explosive new study

An explosive new study titled ‘Crépuscule’, or ‘Dusk’, by young lawyer and author Juan Branco, ruthlessly dissects the ‘Macron system’. Unpublishable, in Branco’s own words, this study is now viral on the internet.

Groomed to be part of this exclusive élite, the highly articulate Branco comes across as a traitor to his class, unmasking the workings of the system. He chronicles in detail the profiles and strategies of the men who made Macron, almost all billionaires, to whom his policies are now committed – Xavier Niel, the IT baron who had overturned the cart of telecom services and internet providers with his Free Mobile and Freebox brands. Image builders and managers like the media mogul Patrick Drahi, the discreet Ramzi Khiroun, earlier handling the image of a likely future president Dominique Strauss-Kahn until the latter’s arrest in New York for rape. Stéphane Attal, with his image-and-influence peddling agency brazenly named Les Influenceurs. Business magnate Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe, fourth in world rankings with a fortune of $72 billion and incidentally, Xavier Niel’s father-in-law. “Mimi” Marchand, the shady queen of the tabloid press whom we saw flashing the victory sign from the newly-elected president’s desk.

The French state nobility is notorious for pantouflage, a system enabling to-and-fro movement between government and private businesses by men with old school ties almost inevitably from ‘Sciences Po’, the political science school, and the National School of Administration, the ENA, where a select few are formatted over a further two years to become full-fledged ‘énarques’.

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Macron himself, having been through this orbit, had gone from the top administrative corps of the Inspection des finances, to being a Rothschild banker for a few years, picking up a couple of million euros for himself by auctioning off 49.99 % of the flourishing Toulouse airport to the Chinese. After which he effortlessly slipped back into government as finance minister. But what is new, as Juan Branco points out, is his ability to smoothly reconcile and service rival clans earlier opposed by a left-right divide.

Apart from support from media barons to build up an image, Macron benefitted from the backing of top state functionary Jean-Pierre Jouyet, a classmate of Hollande’s from the ruling ‘1980 batch’ of énarques, who had shifted his loyalties to Sarkozy and back to Hollande, as the indispensable secretary-general of the presidency. This powerful ‘Voltaire batch’ clearly seems to have adopted Macron’s younger 2004 ‘Senghor’ batch of énarques in a subtle mutual-interest pact.

The surrender of parties before ultra-liberal ideology

With the gradual decline of communist and left parties, but also the surrender of social-democratic parties before the ultra-liberal ideology – despite Hollande’s election vow to ‘fight the main enemy, the bankers’ – Emmanuel Macron seemed to ride unhindered and triumphant, but the rude awakening hasn’t been long in coming.

His brashness in handing out alms to the rich, his contempt for those left behind, the marginalisation of safety-valves like mayors, parliamentarians, unions, opposition leaders and journalists by the ‘vertical Macron system’, finally left only the option of radical rupture. This came in the form of the sudden, determined-though-leaderless Yellow Vest movement, coordinated on social media by ‘invisibles’ like truck-driver Eric Drouet, amateur accordionist and fire-fighter Jacline Mouraud, cosmetics salesgirl Priscillia Ludovsky, mechanic Maxime Nicolle ‘Fly Rider’, and others.

The most significant achievement of the Yellow Vest movement has been that people who had lost hope in mediators and media, perceived as sold out or neutralised, learnt to take matters into their own hands. Gathering at roundabouts, rediscovering conversation, they understood they were not lone individuals at the mercy of uncontrollable natural forces, each with his or her story of desperation.

They were millions in similar situations brought about by the actions of men making policy. Once out of isolation, huddled together as they blocked traffic or opened up toll barriers for all, eating, drinking, warming their hands and talking, they found the refreshingly sincere if simple words to give voice to their suffering. Wary of anyone seeking to explain, represent or “recuperate” their movement, they are honing their voices in an unprecedented adventure gone far beyond the fuel tax that had come as a last straw on their patient backs.

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Asked whether the last possible source of institutional opposition to the Macron system wasn’t Jean-Luc Melenchon’s farther-Left LFI, Juan Branco, himself quite recently legal counsel to Melenchon – and to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – opined that LFI paradoxically could have been the system’s last chance, but was now in danger of being bypassed by the movement, due to Melenchon’s continuing faith in a discredited representative democracy.

Melenchon’s calls for the firing of prime-minister Edouard Philippe or for new parliamentary elections have fallen on the deaf ears of people who know that, especially in this Fifth Republic specially conceived for General De Gaulle in 1958, a change of prime minister is simply a change of a blown fuse. It seems certain that any elections now, whether national or European, will witness a drastic fall in voter participation.

Protesters wearing yellow vests kneel on the street as they gather in front of the Opera House as part of the "yellow vests" movement in Paris, France, December 15, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Protesters wearing yellow vests kneel on the street as they gather in front of the Opera House as part of the “yellow vests” movement in Paris, France, December 15, 2018. Credit: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

A radical rupture

Radical rupture is indeed the watchword – why else would thousands of protesters invade the capital, taking over and vandalizing upscale areas like the Champs-Elysées, striking physical terror amongst the ruling élites? The push towards the Elysée Palace brought to mind images from the violent French Revolution, the very founding event of the Republic.

The Place de la Concorde through which crowds surged towards the presidential palace, is the very spot where the guillotine had been the busiest. Many top barons, imagining their severed heads on pikes, had scrambled to message the president to let go. You back off on the new taxes, we raise our minimum salaries a wee bit and we save our skins.

The real turning point had come on December 4, 2018, when Macron drove in a motorcade, accompanied by cameras, to the vandalised police head-quarters in the south-west town of Puy-en-Velay to boost the morale of harassed security forces. His motorcade was accosted by men and women hurling insults, forcing the president to turn and flee.

Today, courtiers at the palace can feel a real fear for their skins in what they see as an insurrectionary situation, some having already left like rats from a sinking ship. No wonder, on January 15, the president chose a nearby sleepy Normandy town of 3,500 people to launch his national debate, addressing the mayors of Normandy while the security forces firmly kept out unruly intruders from other parts.

A crucial year

2019 promises to be a crucial year in France and beyond, for conversations amongst the invisibles. The problems facing us are too important to be left to technocrats who think they know better. There is now an urge to steer clear of talking heads, to seriously think and speak of social inequality, at once keeping in mind the environmental crisis looming large.

Macron has been projected by his perception managers almost as an environmental visionary, even decorated, with a little help from his friends (jointly with Narendra Modi) as ‘UN Champion of the Earth’. A pat of powder to refurbish the image of two leaders in the turmoils of a persistent Rafale scandal. The ground reality – Macron’s failure or refusal to support local manufacturing, organic farming, thermal insulation of homes and so on – is far less rosy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with French president Emmanuel Macron. Credit: Reuters

The Eurosceptic Etienne Chouard – a key figure of the French ‘No’ to the proposed European Constitution of 2005 – has made a comeback, and his demand for a Swiss-type ‘Citizen’s Initiative’ referendum for law-making and recall of representatives is widely seen on placards and yellow vests as the key demand of the movement. Economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is read and heard with attention, his Manifesto for the ‘democratisation of Europe’ gathering increasing support.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s noted speech, ‘The Destruction of a Civilization’, against the 1995 Juppé plan, is topical again. Bourdieu had asserted that only a Republic (from Latin Res Publica, ‘common wealth’) really incarnating public service – access to health, education, transport, and culture for all – with cooperation, not competition, at its heart, could be fit to be called a civilised state.

It is no longer out-of-fashion to assert that the road to salvation lies away from the ‘liberal’ path dictated by rapacious corporates, a path proven catastrophic over several decades. What began as an attempt to save a few cents on gas has turned into something deeper, and may yet throw up more surprises than we may suspect.

Akshay Bakaya teaches Hindi at the Sorbonne in Paris, and is also the author of Insider’s French — An Intermediary Conversation Course, 2015, Hachette UK.