Five days in Paris

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 11 Jul 2019

French President Emmanuel Macron has recovered his self-confidence, but this may not be enough to tackle the French malaise

I shall return to Louis Blin’s magnificent anthology of texts on Jeddah, discussed in this column last week, in a further installment next week. This week I shall discuss the five days I spent in Paris last week.

Of course, this is not sufficient for a correct grasp of the situation in the country. But I met with some old friends who are knowledgeable, brilliant, and subtle observers of the scene. Some excerpts from what they said might be helpful.

Let us start with politics. French President Emmanuel Macron has regained his self-confidence and poise. He is slightly more cautious in his statements, as they had previously cost him dear.

Some people told me that he had convinced himself that German intransigence on budgetary issues was the main cause for his terrible ordeal last winter.

This, of course, is not groundless, but it remains a gross exaggeration. Many observers are therefore wondering whether he has learned anything from this episode.

My answer is yes, but either he has learnt the wrong lesson, or he feels he has no choice but to follow the same track even so.

Opinions vary on Macron. Those who admire him and his programme are in a minority, but a significant one. Many hate both. What is more interesting is the fact that others say he is doing the right things and doing them bravely.

But, they add, there is a significant problem with his personality and his ego. He is arrogant, impulsive, and dislikeable, they say. 

Others put the matter differently. Likeable or dislikeable, this young French president has exceptional gifts, they say. He is highly intelligent, works hard, reads a lot, and has an impressive “culture” and a robust philosophical background.

The main problem is that he underestimates the depth of France’s social problems and the uneasiness of half of France with globalisation, migration, multiculturalism, and so on. Or at least he behaves as if this is the case.

He has also committed some unnecessary mistakes. “Nobody in politics hires clients and candidates for parliament through interviews,” one friend said, adding that “two things have magnified this mistake’s consequences, the first being that a recent law now forbids combining membership of parliament with being a mayor.

Therefore, newcomers do not have the chance to root themselves in their constituencies. The second problem is that there has been nobody to teach the newcomers the art of politics or how to interact with the grassroots and negotiate.

Macron should have hired some old heavyweights to do this with the specific mission of teaching the young.”

Another friend said that Macron was keen to avoid former French president François Hollande’s mistake of trying to have different people with completely incompatible views in the government at the same time.

This considerably complicated policymaking and offered a terrible spectacle to outsiders. But Macron may have committed the opposite mistake in having too much of the same. 

One observer said that he did not agree with those who consider the “gilets jaunes” to be thugs. First of all, nobody can claim that those who participated in the riots during the first week of the disturbances were not average French people, though it is true that after that the movement was infiltrated from outside.

Second, a huge and ominous development also occurred that few people took notice of. For the first time, the extreme left and extreme right participated side by side in demonstrations, and many people who usually despise both joined them.

Nobody can now say that a coalition between these two extremes is unthinkable.

Another friend of mine, an able security professional, said that he thought the Rassemblement national, the new name of the National Front, would win the presidency before he died (he is 57 years old).

Many experts share this diagnosis. My friend was appalled by the deterioration of security in France and by the failure to deal with the rioters. He was shocked by the way that some French people could wreck the Arc de Triomphe and still retain the public’s sympathy. By the way, he is on the left.

Moreover, from time to time an international crisis acts as a wake-up call and proves once again that Europe is increasingly powerless and even irrelevant in world affairs.

The latest crisis, of course, is the stand-off between the US and Iran in the Gulf. On paper, Europe should be a giant and Russia a pygmy. However, in fact it is the other way around.

How to describe Paris? Let us behave like Parisians and start with the complaints. First, the weather while I was there was awful. Second, two of the city’s most celebrated monuments were in poor shape.

Third, the city’s metro and public transport are not as efficient as they were, and I almost suffered from two problems with them every day.

Either the ticket machines were not working, or the last train was cancelled without prior notice and without explanation, or the metro was stopped for an hour as somebody was sleeping on the rails.

Many other improbable scenarios also occurred. In one case, the train remained for several extra minutes in each station to compensate for “the fact that few trains operate on this line”. 

Fourth, construction work being carried out to prepare the city for the Olympic Games was a constant irritant. Walking in Paris used to be a pleasure, but in many areas, including parts of the Champs-Elysées, this is no longer the case.

The same goes for taking the buses. Some years ago, the greens lobbied against air-conditioning the Paris buses and won. Today, they are very crowded and for old fellows like me unbearable.

At least two of my friends told me they were considering leaving Paris. It was too expensive, and living conditions were slowly but surely deteriorating, they said.   

However, the food is as refined as ever, though I must admit I was exceptionally lucky here thanks to friends. The architecture is as magnificent as ever, and the bookshops are as exciting as ever they were.

Conversation in Paris is a refined art, and I would not be surprised if the French turned out to be top of the world in this discipline. The Parisians are more often than not helpful, nice, and agreeable.

The cultural life of the city is as radiant as ever. It is difficult to deny that there is something called “French talent”. I hope my friends will not be tempted to leave.

The US tennis player John McEnroe once said that Paris is a wonderful city but that unfortunately in Paris you meet Parisians. I would say the contrary. The Parisians save the day.

*The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Five days in Paris

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