Macron visit: how Paris is newly resurgent, despite Trump’s Jim

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron to Centre Block on June 7 during Mr. Macron's visit to Canada before the G7 summit in La Malbaie, Que. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Mead.

Macron’s election in May 2017 lifted French business and consumer confidence to record levels. And the impact continues to be felt today in terms of tourism, the property market, and law and order.

Who remembers Jim, United States President Donald Trump’s elusive, go-to guy on all things Paris?

Never accorded a surname by the White House, no reporter could trace him, but “Jim” gained a degree of notoriety for advising Trump against visiting the City of Light, because lax immigration policy and tight gun laws had made it a cesspool of foreign extremists. “‘Paris? I don’t go there anymore,’” Trump relayed Jim telling him. “‘Paris is no longer Paris.’”

So how’s Paris faring now — despite Jim’s warning — as French President Emmanuel Macron visits Canada this week, stopping in Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec City, before the G7 summit in La Malbaie?

The short answer is better, though with caveats.

Macron’s election in May 2017 lifted French business and consumer confidence to record levels. And the impact continues to be felt today in terms of tourism, the property market and law and order. Paris is not France, as the French are fond of saying, but it is a population of 12.4 million people.

Confidence is one of the great vagaries of contemporary economics (an excess of it marked the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis; a lack of it prolonged the Greek debt crisis), but its wavering hand looms large behind the economic uptick in France. Like the old market adage “a company has a problem when the markets say that it does,” Macron is perceived as pro-business, so he is.

But is France improving because of confidence in Macron? Or is France doing better, hence the confidence in Macron? His 44 per cent approval rating after a year in office is well above his two most recent predecessors. Either way, the improvement in growth, investment levels, and corporate profitability is also due to what he’s actually doing, to liberate employment for example.

Tourism to France has recovered since a slight downturn linked to the 2015 terrorist attacks, with 88 million tourists visiting last year. La belle Paris attracted 33.8 million tourists, up 2.9 million from 2016. France remains the world’s first tourist destination by visitor numbers, though it has slipped to fifth by tourism revenues behind the U.S., Spain, Thailand, and China.

Paris private property sales grew 17 per cent last year, despite price rises of about 10 per cent across the board. The mid-market east is a good overall gauge (the 11th district and nearby sections of the 12th), where prices are now a colossal €10,000 to €12,000 a square metre.

Parisians voting with their feet

The downside, aside from the infuriating recurrence of strikes—currently by rail unions, whose members are retiring at 50 when the state rail carrier is €50 billion in debt — is that Paris is expensive and congested. The city is losing about 7,500 residents a year, as populations rise in most of the developing world’s equivalent cities. Greater London, for example, has grown from 6.6 million to 14 million since 1980. Meantime, unemployment in Paris is 7.4 per cent, substantially less than the rest of France but higher than the full employment of Toronto and Vancouver, New York and Los Angeles, London, Sydney, and Melbourne.

Gentrification has grown the number of high-skilled workers in Paris (cadres in French, there’s no exact English equivalent), from a quarter of the population to almost half, according to economic historian Nicolas Baverez (up from 25 per cent to 46 per cent); the working class declining from about one in five to less than one in 10 (specifically, from 18 per cent to seven per cent). Public housing allocation by district serves to maintain a degree of social diversity, putting a brake on the kind of uniform, seemingly endless-bars-and-hairdressers gentrifying seen in some North American and Australian cities, but pressure on supply has pushed the cost of private housing up.

At the behest of the president, the new approach to law and order is marked by a return to proximity policing, with local police numbers on the increase. There are funding issues, when City Hall is already €5.5 billion in debt (on a total operating budget of €9.5 billion). But there’s a degree of cross-party consensus: proximity policing and emphatically not enabling greater access to guns à l’américaine are believed to be central to avoiding a repeat of the 2015 attacks that killed 130 people.

When Donald Trump told the U.S. National Rifle Association the Paris attacks could have been avoided if Bataclan concert-goers were armed — his hand cocked like a pistol while mouthing the “boom boom” of a serial gun-killing — former French president François Hollande called Trump’s behaviour “shameful” and “obscene.” A former terrorism victims’ association representative messaged Trump on Twitter, in English: “Go §#@% yourself (you can use a gun if you want).”

And Jim? Given Trump’s wont to confuse fiction with reality, perhaps Jim was only ever a narcissistic president talking to himself, a kind of reassuring imaginary cohort, as Trump sought to adapt to the alien surroundings, not to say foreign policy challenges, of his big new job at the White House.

In any case, Jim has made no comment on what might be called the Parisian renewal. Trump, meantime, has visited the great city.

Australia is about to get a dose of French president Emmanuel Macron’s charm

AMERICANS have just witnessed and Australians are about to get a taste of Emmanuel Macron’s big-vision thinking, not to say the galvanising effect of it, when he arrives in Australia today.

Galvanising by dint of what it is — multilateral, pro-European, inclusive — and by what it is not: acutely divisive, Donald Trump-type rough-talking.

China’s role in the Pacific, defence ties, climate change, economic issues — and cuisine — will be high on the agenda when Macron meets with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Officials said the French president would also discuss security in the South Pacific on his first bilateral visit to Australia. Australia has a $50 billion deal to purchase 12 next-generation submarines from the French. Cuisine will be discussed at a lunch on Wednesday with Australian and French chefs.

In international diplomacy, Macron has shown that flattering morally tainted hands doesn’t mean entering into a Faustian pact with their owners.

He combines a certain pride in the office of president — receiving Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles, President Trump at the Eiffel Tower, while lending the Bayeux Tapestry to the Brits — with a cool kind of sleeves-up communicability.

Check out the laid-back style, what a young French colleague of mine calls the “coolitude”, of Macron’s Twitter videos.

The key concept chez the French president, though, has been coherence based on principles. He was elected on a program to shake up France and is implementing it.

In the workplace, he’s introducing enterprise bargaining (moving away from branch-based negotiations) and making the French industrial appeals court faster and cheaper, and so more proemployment.

Elsewhere too, reform is on the cards. Reform of education and training at the state-owned railway company — 50 billion euros ($80 billion) in debt with train drivers retiring at 50; a law to “moralise” politics; tax reform for pensioners (they will pay more), and the wealthy (dead capital stuck in highend real estate will be more heavily taxed). These changes have dizzied the electorate.

But the bottom line is that France has to be fixed. Those who are working should be taxed less and those who are no longer working must contribute a bit more.

The IFI (formerly ISF) wealth tax in fact brings in little revenue for the government, but it’s a symbol. Again then, there’s coherence.

The result is that by the usual indicators, the French economy is improving. The key will be whether the positive impact of reforms flows through to ordinary people by the next elections in 2022 (hence the speed of their implementation).

Unless sustained, the current barely 2 per cent annual growth rate won’t be enough to boost wages or create jobs, or help the middle class into housing when city prices are elevated.

But the stakes are high. Macron’s election torpedoed the traditional parties. Since then, the mainstream right has moved further to the right as Macron siphons off its traditional base.

Macron himself rose from nothing to the presidency in a year. So there’s every reason to believe someone else could do the same, if Monsieur Macron does not deliver.

Those newcomers, even if mutton dressed as lamb, might very well come from the populist space.

French national elections mean Macron’s ‘revolution’ is now complete

The shorthand on June parliamentary elections in Europe looks like this: newly-elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, 350 seats; British prime minister, Theresa May, minus 12 seats.


Will Macron’s fledgeling political movement break out and fly, or die in the egg?

Just as the fog was beginning to clear for France, with the election of positive-thinking reformist President Emmanuel Macron, old demons of the French political culture have again reared their ugly heads. And the consequences could be dramatic.

Two ministers have become enmeshed in ethics scandals that risk compromising weekend legislative elections for the government, rendering Macron’s revolution stillborn via the ballot box. Whatever his successes out-tweeting — out-smarting — Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the international stage, his first weeks have been sullied at home, and he will be blamed. But to what extent?

Should Macron decide to dismiss Richard Ferrand, his regional development minister and former campaign manager, and junior minister Marielle de Sarnez — both facing separate media allegations of sleaze — he would be charged with summoning a spectacular storm upon the government. If he doesn’t, and it appears at this stage that he will not, he could pay the price for ignoring one of the biggest lessons of the current electoral cycle: the French are tired of scandals and want exemplary behaviour from politicians.

The dilemma of France’s youth: vote fascist, vote technocrat or don’t vote at all?

As in cinema, France is home to auteur politics, where the central figure of the president is responsible for story, script and direction. Consider that he’s also perceived as the star of his own movie, and one begins to see the power and responsibility of the president as “republican monarch” in the French political system.

The French presidency is about great politics, in the Platonic sense of would-be great men facing a series of make-or-break tests in a febrile kingly court atmosphere (France has never had a female president). Seen in the these terms, Macron is the latest in a long line of great and flawed presidents, from the Olympian war leader and statesman Charles de Gaulle to the Florentine intellectual Francois Mitterrand, but also including the pre-revolutionary kings of France (on election night, Macron emerged walking sombre and solitary among the classical statues of the Louvre).

With parliamentary elections in two rounds on June 11 and 18, Macron’s next major test, as it were, is in casting. The centrist broke the back of the French party system of left and right in May presidential elections; named as promised a cabinet drawn substantially from civil society with members from both sides of politics; and reinvigorated the French trope of the “Jupiterian” president — referring to Jupiter king of the gods in Ancient Rome, though equally, if unintentionally perhaps, the distant orbiting planet that, floating above the melee, doesn’t actually touch the Earth of everyday problems. In France, the fuss and muss of ordinary, as against great politics, is the job of the hapless prime minister, also appointed by the president.

France has been in a rare, glass-half-full kind of mood lately. Macron’s win felt like relief then a rampart against rising populism in the West, with Trump pushing the US to the verge of institutional crisis and a Brexiting Britain stuck in electoral mode (Manchester and London traumatised by terrorism; the city under pressure; the currency down 15%, hurting wages and savings).

Rundle: on the troubled streets of a France that’s burning

Confidence in Macron as President is up some 10 percentage points since the poll, raising the possibility that his fledgling Republique En Marche (REM) could now win an outright parliamentary majority — meaning 289 of the 577 House of Assembly seats (one poll according REM even 320-350 seats). Alternatively, he could win enough seats to govern with the left of the right and the right of the left. Herein’s the rub, in fact, because a hostile Parliament would curtail Macron’s capacity to counter nationalism, structure European reform with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and implement the kind of liberalising economic reform France so desperately needs.

Enter the ethics controversies, with Ferrand facing “preliminary judicial investigation” for allegedly helping his romantic partner in a 2011 real estate deal with a mutual insurer he managed. He also stands accused of employing his son as a parliamentary assistant and failing to declare it. Sarnez’s name appears on a list of 19 members of the European Parliament subject to a preliminary investigation for allegedly employing party operatives as parliamentary aides.

The affairs are prosaic and complex but starkly echo the presidential campaign, when accusations of enriching family members sank mainstream right candidate, Francois Fillon. Macron has made a law to “moralise politics” his first major legislative test, with surveys constantly showing that honesty is the most sought-after quality in politicians for the French.

The current controversies have put a grain of sand in the REM machine. If this proves to the point of putting a major brake on Macron in the Parliament, his great revolution risks dying in the egg. Again the French glass would look distinctly half-empty.

France is not out of the woods yet, and these parliamentary elections will be a watershed.

Emmanuel Macron’s election will change Europe

Does the French presidential election, after the American one, confirm Friedrich Nietzsche’s assertion that “every profound spirit needs a mask”? The shallow spirit, by contrast, is usually plain to see and can be found on American reality television.

Emmanuel Macron is the moderate revolutionary France needs

The dominant sentiment is one of relief that centrist Emmanuel Macron has won through to the second round of the French presidential election. Barring some sort of political accident, it’s now highly likely he will be the next president of France.

The sorry spectacle of the French presidential election

A far-left candidate’s meteoric rise has given a surrealist hue to the already remarkable French presidential campaign. Heading toward the Sunday election, firebrand radical Jean-Luc Mélenchon is among four top candidates polling within a margin of just 4 percentage points.

The outcome is too close to call. But it’s possible that at least one extremist will reach the May 7 runoff. That both finalists will be populists — one from the radical left and one from the radical right — cannot be ruled out.

Avuncular, loquacious, with a touch of the litterateur about him, Mélenchon, 65, is in fact a soak-the-rich revolutionary who champions Russian President Vladimir Putin and whose political hero is Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan leader who ruined his oil-rich South American country — inflation is running at more than 1000% in Venezuela today).

That in a field of 11 candidates, Mélenchon — who wants a top marginal tax rate of 100% — has a following at all, together with far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, shows the farcically low level — the surrealism — of current French political debate.

France’s weak economy, squeezed wages and
high debt and deficits may solidify its voters’
embrace of populists.


This is the first time in half a century that one of the two major French parties is not certain to make the second round of a presidential election. It’s also unprecedented that a first-term president has decided not to run for reelection — a clear admission of failure by President François Hollande.

Of the top four candidates, centrist independent Emmanuel Macron is at 22%, according to an Ipsos poll (down 3 percentage points in the last three weeks); Le Pen is also at 22% (and trending slightly downward), while Mélenchon, barely into double figures a month ago, is now at 20%, having just overtaken the scandal-riven establishment conservative, François Fillon, at 19%.

Another opinion poll, by Elabe, may explain the sorry spectacle. After a television debate, viewers were asked which candidate best reflected their preoccupations: Mélenchon came in at the top, with 26% of the respondents connecting with him; Le Pen, 14%, and Philippe Poutou, a Trotskyist outlier, third at 12%.

That 52% of the French said they felt closest to one or another of these anti-establishment candidates shows the extent of what one analyst called the French electorate’s “monumental anger.”

For more than 30 years neither the French left nor the right has managed to reverse the nation’s economic decline, marked by de-industrialization, a rigid labor market, unemployment stuck at around 10% and exploding public spending. The last time the national budget was balanced it was 1974.

Britain and the U.S., countries with close to full employment, chose Brexit and Donald Trump; highgrowth Netherlands blocked the ambitions of far-right populist Geert Wilders. Now France’s weak economy, squeezed wages and high debt and deficits may solidify its voters’ embrace of populists who variously reject the European Union, banks, big business, the European Central Bank, a market economy, profits, liberalized trade and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Further complicating the mix is the possibility that Fillon may yet rise — precisely because he is at least well-placed to block the populists. France has generally been moving to the right and Fillon, a former prime minister, is viewed as strong on law and order, which resonates given that France remains in a Parliament-declared state of emergency, after 230 deaths and more than 800 injured since 2015 in
terrorist attacks.

The big trouble with Fillon, however, is that he presented himself as the presidential-probity candidate and then trashed his own moral example. After media allegations that he paid family members a million euros for work as no-show assistants, he pledged to stand aside if charged over the affair — until he was, in fact, charged over the affair. That his candidacy is at all viable seems incredible, but the threat of the populists is doubtless one reason. Another is probably that, as corruption watchdog Transparency International has pointed out, 1 in 6 French parliamentarians employ family members.

Fillon is another admirer of Putin, so if he rather than Macron should make it to the final vote against one of the populists, one wonders who Putin’s hackers will be looking to help. If two populists win, though, there will be a political earthquake in France, with major ramifications for Europe and beyond.

French PM comes Down Under

With a federal election in the offing, the visit to Australia by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls to mark the $50 billion submarine contract earlier this month, apparently couldn’t be made to last more than three hours.

Marine Le Pen is far from finished

The French hair-trigger? Just another lurching crisis from the nation that gave us the modern revolution? The media frenzy that greeted the far-right National Front (NF) winning the first round of French regional elections on 6 December, will now as with previous surges, more-or-less quickly subside.

Marine Le Pen’s National Front blunts chance for reform in France

Can the French National Front’s Marine Le Pen win the next French presidential elections in 18 months? Can the leader of an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim political party — not merely anti-radical-Islamic — take the reigns of one of the world’s great democracies?

The question beckons after historical gains for the far-right National Front in the first round of French regional elections at the weekend. Final results won’t be known until after second-round voting next Sunday, but Ms Le Pen, 47, may be unassailable in the Picardy Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of six million people in the nation’s north. Her niece Marion Marechal Le Pen, 25 — who last month said Muslims could “not truly be French” — was a clear leader, also with 40 per cent of the vote, in the southern region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur.

According to the French Interior Ministry, the NF was leading after first-round voting in six of 12 newly established mainland administrations with 28 per cent of the vote nationally. Created in 1972, the Front has never governed a French region.

Nord-Picardy is the place of immediate implications for Australia. Under a territorial reform passed by the national parliament last year, the enlarged Nord-Picardy encompasses the French Western Front that includes such historically and spiritually important places for Australians as Villers-Bretonneux, Fromelles, Pozieres and Bullecourt, the sites of key World War I battles.

A victorious Madame Le Pen would be Picardy Nord-Pas-de-Calais Regional Council president, so a requisite invitee to Anzac Day  commemorations in the Somme and northern France. French Regional Councils are elected for six years.

The NF’s weekend electoral success completes an impressive triumvirate that began with local council elections last year. The Front won 11 municipalities — trebling its 1995 score — secured a district of Marseilles, the big immigrant city of the south, and two French towns with a population of 50,000 or more (Beziers and Frejus). Two months later, it topped European elections in France, winning 25 per cent of the vote.

Yet the Front’s most high-profile result was in 2002 when founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former paratrooper, defeated Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin at the first round of presidential elections. Both sides of politics joined forces, an emboldened electorate rallying in the streets, to carry Jacques Chirac over the line with a Soviet-type score in the second-round run-off.

The cry was jamais encore (never again) but in fact things were better economically in France then than now. In the dozen years since the social problems undoing France have shown no sign of significant improvement. On the contrary. Unemployment has just risen to almost 11 per cent and in the housing-estate suburbs that border most big French cities it is much higher than that. The jihadi attacks in Paris added a new level of anxiety. According to French political scientist Gerard Grunberg, for many voters “there is an Islamic peril in France and we have been too tolerant towards it”.

Meantime, Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s youngest daughter, has had a degree of success in laundering the party’s image. Since taking the leadership four years ago from her father — who referred to the Nazi gas chambers as “a detail” of history — she has shrewdly combined old Left protectionist economic policies with a tough line on immigration. A handful of high-profile defections by newer party officials (frequently of non-French origin) dinted her popularity, claiming that only party window-dressing had changed — at the back of the shop, the Front was still xenophobic and sexist.

But a dent is all that it proved to be. Le Pen fille and the NF were expected to surge in the first electoral test for the French political class since the November 13 terrorist attacks. However, opinion polling has also shown a double-digit jump in approval for Socialist President Francois Hollande.

Security crises usually mean a boost for political incumbents yet the irony of the fillip for Hollande may ultimately help Le Pen. If she can defeat Hollande at the first round of the elections in 2017, she is unlikely to win against a candidate of the mainstream Right in the run-off, be it former president Nicolas Sarkozy or former prime ministers Alain Juppe and Francois Fillon.

However, if Hollande is her opponent and France’s economic fortunes don’t improve, which is likely, it is by no means certain that la France profonde (deep France) would vote to return a centre-left president. This would make Le Pen president of France.

For Australia? How far Le Pen goes is in a sense a secondary consideration. The fact of her rise and rise, and the consequent loss of authority across the centre of French politics, has further blunted the prospects of serious economic reform in France. Sustained incapacity to fix the supply side of the economy, with its overly regulated product and labour markets, risks reducing the appetite of international business for trade liberalisation and investment in Europe’s second-largest economy.

Ms Le Pen is doing damage. The uncomfortable truth is that worse may still be to come.

Comeback trail: Déja Vu Sarkozy Part Deux

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy is poised to begin another comeback this weekend in a conservative party leadership election. But as a journalist who worked for the Australian foreign service in Paris argues, he must first woo France’s political center.