Understanding the French Enigma


Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to touch on a point that baffles many outside France about how the French irrationally behave in relation to their leaders throughout history but even more so today. 

We hear today that President Macron is unpopular unlike his departing prime minister Edouard Philippe, who saw his beard turning white in the midst of the Covid-19 fight and would enjoy an Himalayan popularity rating by Gallic standards of 57%. All while Jean Castex, his successor known for his technocratic competence at Matignon, home of the French premiers, is un-liked as he would be a “non-entity”, read not from the top of his class of the best schools like ENA and then the “grand corps” of the French state and thus the subject of a status-focused elitist rant from those who are but would never get the job as well as from those who hate those elite institutions in the first place but require leaders with top credentials. And at the same time, two health ministers are under investigation and some popular ire for what would be a less than stellar early management of the pandemic, in what would clearly have already sent Donald Trump to Alcatraz and Boris Johnson to the Tower of London in another age. Getting rid of politicians close to Macron in the latest municipal elections this past week, while the President has been struggling to find any rival that could replace him at the Elysée Palace in 2022, is so French, that there is a name  for it: “dégagisme” or “throwing out” which is a national pastime akin to eating croissants at the Paris cafés.  

The French are simply impossible people (I know being one of them). They are never happy, especially with those who govern them who are easy venting targets. The French like to rant, to demonstrate, to march and to scream as it is such a great feeling, especially post lockdown these days. The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) of the recent past were also a great example of people not liking their deal (some of them with some reason) in one of the most redistributive societies in Western history as if they did not want to look abroad. The French cut off the head of Louis XVI only as they could not bear an absolute king only to pave the way for an emperor who then wrote in a few years some of the glorious and bloody pages of French history and giving so many names of boulevards and avenues in Paris. Macron was elected as the French were fed up of what was a “normal president” as he liked to call himself. Who remembers François Hollande three years later? However when Macron invited Putin at Versailles and brought back the presidential pomp, critics started to rise as if the French live for picking fights with the established order in what they see as a rightful legacy of 1789. This is all irrational which is all the more disturbing for the country of Descartes. However this is France and the way it works. And it works well in the end when you look at where the country is in absolute and relative terms. 

The situation of that “condition”, akin to a sickness at times, worsened when France lost the battle of France (it should have easily won for those who have studied it) in a matter of weeks in May 1940. The stigma of the defeat and its underlying wound, in spite of the unlikely return to the tables of winners in 1945 due to Charles de Gaulle’s sleight of hand, would never disappear and keep shaping the relationship between the French and their leadership in modern times. Macron, who could be the son of Giscard d’Estaing, a premature leader for France given its times then, in the way he positioned himself at the centre and reshaped the French political spectrum, is the first leader who can change the country in spite of and for the French and their natural and angry, at times guilt-rooted, opposition. Macron is the only leader today who has had the courage in a humane manner to reform the jobs market while he will attack in the same way the multiple 1945 pension systems that need to live with their 21st century times. Macron is the first leader in modern times at a time of German transition, that can lead France to take the mantle of reforming the EU to make it stronger, more defence-focused and closer to its populations, a project that is key at a time of uncertain American leadership and aggressive Chinese rise. And yet, while history books years from now will stress Macron’s and France’s achievements in the 2020s, (some of) the French will have been in the street as it is what they do.  

Warmest regards,