The writer is a professor at Queen Mary University of London and author of ‘What Ails France?’
Voters throughout France are heading to the polls in this month’s regional council elections. The results will be scrutinised for clues to the outcome of next year’s presidential and legislative elections. Yet this national political focus, however gripping, may miss some important wider lessons.
This is not to dismiss the “dress rehearsal” value of these regional elections. For many voters, the candidates fielded by the political parties will serve as proxies for President Emmanuel Macron or for Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, who looks set once again to be his leading opponent — or for “neither of the above”.
In municipal mayoral contests, candidates’ political affiliation — if any — often counts for less than their stance on burning local issues. But the opposite applies to those wanting to exercise the responsibilities for transport, business development and public health assigned to the 13 regions.
In a typically prolix interview published on May 27 in Zadig, a highbrow quarterly, Macron spoke of widespread fear and anger in French society. In a defiantly forward-looking take, he saw such sentiment spurring (French) civilisation on to a new Renaissance. Artlessly wading further into hostile terrain, he described the 2018-19 gilets jaunes protest movement as a revival of “one of the founding ideas of our country”: the violent Jacquerie, or peasants’ revolt.
Such “heritage” whimsy skirts around this central event of the Macron presidency — the huge mobilisation of the working poor, mainly from economically and socially marginalised smaller towns and villages. The geographer Christophe Guilluy nailed down this problem of the left-behind “periphery” in an influential book published seven years before the gilets jaunes burst on to the scene.
Recent political headlines in France have been dominated by renewed breakdowns of law and order in and around suburbs with concentrated populations of predominantly Muslim immigrants. Controversy erupted in April after an open letter from a group of retired generals warning of civil war. Although they received a sympathetic mention in that letter, the gilets jaunes movement is not nativist: its core grievances are social and economic.
The roots of the periphery’s predicament lie in deindustrialisation, now dating back half a century. But as they scrape a meagre living, today’s gilets jaunes blame their hardships not on economic history but the government — for rising taxes and deteriorating public services.
Critics of the Guilluy thesis counter that the poorest areas receive per capita state spending over a third higher than the national average. I see no real contradiction here. A reorganisation of regional governance in 2015 consolidated local public services in a smaller number of population centres that supposedly serve a hinterland of rural towns and villages. Instead of feeling the effects of spending recorded as being directed their way, those stuck in more sparsely populated areas see only the closure of schools and post offices as well as the small shops and cafés that often play a socialising role.
Embarking on a pre-election tour of the provinces in early June, Macron appeared eager to demonstrate how strongly he identifies with hard-pressed areas — as opposed to sharing what the writer Christian Bobin terms the Parisian oligarchy’s haughtily insecure view of the periphery as a “dark pool of looming grievance and revolt”.
A more cold-blooded political campaigner might write off what the historian Pierre Vermeren calls forsaken territories as irrecoverable “Le Pen country”, on the apparently safe assumption that the inhabitants of the periphery are a numerically smaller group than metropolitan populations. Yet such assumptions now seem not quite safe enough for comfort. In contrast to the last presidential election in 2017, when the Macron versus Le Pen run-off was a two-to-one landslide, the latest Harris poll shows that the president’s prospective winning margin has now shrunk to 54-46 per cent. This finding points for sure to widespread fear and anger, but perhaps not so much to a new French Renaissance.
Macron told Zadig that France’s root problem is not the centralising bureaucracy, but corporatist vested interests. I take the contrary view: breaking the French impasse must start with much more radical decentralisation. Though no more than a start, any such outcome from this month’s elections would bring a liberating blast of accountability and competition.