The writer is a professor at Queen Mary University in London and author of “What Ails France? ‘
Voters across France are heading to the polls this month regional council elections. The results will be scrutinized for clues as to the outcome of next year’s presidential and legislative elections. elections. Yet this national political focus, captivating as it is, may miss important broader lessons.
This is not to deny the “dress rehearsal” value of these regional elections. For many voters, the candidates put forward by political parties will serve as proxies for President Emmanuel Macron or for Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, who seems to be once again his main opponent – or for “neither one nor the other”.
In municipal mayoral elections, the political affiliation of candidates – if any – often matters less than their position on hot local issues. But the reverse applies to those who want to exercise the transport, business development and public health responsibilities assigned to the 13 regions.
In a typically verbose interview published on May 27 in Zadig, an intellectual quarterly, Macron spoke of the widespread fear and anger in French society. In a vision resolutely turned towards the future, he saw such a feeling stimulating (French) civilization towards a new Renaissance. Naively wading further into hostile terrain, he described on 2018-19 yellow vests protest movement as a revival of “one of the founding ideas of our country”: the violent Jacquerie, or peasant revolt.
Such a “heritage” fantasy circumvents this central event of the Macron presidency – the enormous mobilization of the working poor, mainly from economically and socially marginalized small towns and villages. The geographer Christophe Guilluy nailed this problem of the “periphery” left behind in an influential book published seven years before yellow vests burst onto the scene.
Recent political headlines in France have been dominated by further breakdowns of Law and order in and around the suburbs with concentrated populations of predominantly Muslim immigrants. The controversy erupted in April after an open letter from a group of retired generals civil war warning. Although they received a sympathetic mention in this letter, the yellow vests The movement is not nativist: its fundamental grievances are social and economic.
The roots of the predicament on the periphery lie in deindustrialisation, which now dates back half a century. But as they earn a meager living today yellow vests blame their difficulties not on economic history but on government – for raising taxes and deteriorating public services.
Critics of Guilluy’s thesis counter that the poorest areas receive per capita government spending more than a third above the national average. I don’t see any real contradiction here. A reorganization of regional governance in 2015 consolidated local public services in a smaller number of population centers supposed to serve a hinterland of rural towns and villages. Instead of feeling the effects of the expenses recorded as being directed at them, those who are stuck in more sparsely populated areas see only the closure of schools and post offices as well as small shops and cafes which often play a socializing role.
Getting into a pre-election provincial tour in early June, Macron seemed eager to demonstrate how much he identifies with troubled areas – instead of sharing what the writer Christian Bobin describes the haughty and insecure vision of the Parisian oligarchy of the periphery as “a dark pool of threatening grievances and revolt”.
A cold-blooded political activist could undo this historian Pierre Vermeren calls the abandoned territories an irrecoverable “Le Pen country”, starting from the apparently certain assumption that the inhabitants of the periphery are a numerically smaller group than the metropolitan populations. Yet such assumptions do not seem secure enough for comfort. Unlike the last presidential election in 2017, during the Macron second round against Le Pen a landslide for two, the last Harris Poll shows that the president’s potential winning margin has now shrunk to 54-46 percent. This finding certainly indicates widespread fear and anger, but perhaps not so much a new French Renaissance.
Macron told Zadig that France’s fundamental problem is not the centralizing bureaucracy, but corporate interests. I am of the opposite opinion: overcoming the French impasse must begin with a much more radical decentralization. While this is only a start, such a result of this month’s election would bring a liberating explosion of responsibility and competition.