Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Winning trust in the Fifth Republic: an uphill struggle

From vaccines to cuts, benefits, low wages, policing and the environment, how is growing skepticism and gathering criticism to be managed?

Chris Myant
Chris Myant
9 December 2020, 12.05pm
French Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer after a President Macron spreech, October 2, 2020.
Eric Tschaen/PA. All rights reserved.

France is way down the list of those countries where people are prepared to be vaccinated. Judging by some recent survey responses, it could mean that only half the country’s adult population will actually step up and get a jab. And that is way below the proportion required to beat the virus. Just as Emmanuel Macron was hoping that he could preen his reputation as a sage head of state, successfully leading the country out of the purgatory of the epidemic, things got a little bit tricky for the self-proclaimed genius of the art of communication. The return of L’art de vivre à la française may have to be pushed even further into the future.

If more than 5,000 new infections by SARS-Cov-2 are being recorded each day across the country in the run up to 15 December then his promised further relaxation of the lockdown controls will be postponed: museums, theatres and cinemas will stay shut and the French families may have Christmas, and the New Year, each in their own home. Not good for someone who likes to win every battle. Naturally, he personally prefers it that way. But it is also that succession of victories which will give him the momentum to win the next election for the presidency in 2022, allowing him to complete the free market, deregulated, low wage transition he seeks for the country.

Doing as one pleases

Hence the importance of those survey results. The Fifth Republic’s way of resolving such things is to make them mandatory. For many years, just three vaccines were compulsory (polio, diphtheria and tetanus) but soon after Macron arrived in the Elysée another eight were added for everyone born after the start of 2018. Without these eleven vaccines, a child cannot go to a crèche or school.

This knee jerk reaction of those at the top of the French state may not work when it comes to the early spring vaccination campaign promised by Macron. For why should any member of the French public bother with his appeals when there is a deeply rooted tradition of doing things as they please among those at the top of French public and commercial life?

Just five floors below the row of courtrooms in the spectacular new central courts for Paris where people lifted at demonstrations and rushed through “comparution immédiate” make their brief appearances, is the one where former lawyer Nicolas Sarkozy, President for five years up to 2012, is on trial for corruption. He, and two legal figures charged alongside him, have used every procedural trick in the book to stall the moment when the actual evidence could be considered.

Maybe at the end of this hearing he will escape conviction – as he did in a case a few years back – but he has three other trials in the queue. The previous appearance concerned the country’s and the world’s richest woman, the late Liliane Bettencourt, inheritor of the L’Oréal fortune. Leading figures from Sarkozy’s party played court at her residence in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in the hope of coming away with hefty donations for the party’s election campaigns. Sarko himself started his political career as mayor of Neuilly.

The current case stems from taps on a mobile phone he was using under a false name (“a way of remaining discreet, nothing more”) while discussing with his personal lawyer how they might get an update on the Bettencourt case from the third one, an appeal court judge. The accusation is that Sarkozy offered to help this judge get a fancy sinecure in Monaco in return for the information. Heaven forbid, said Sarko. The idea is “grotesque”, we were just swapping “gossip”.

“There was no pact. It never existed. It was just a chat with a brother who asked me for a favour. . . just a little helpful nudge to please . . . If had known that I would have problems with the courts over it, I would have said ‘That’s crazy’ . . . If WhatsApp had existed, I would not have needed Bismuth” he told the judges, Bismuth being the name of a student he was at school with and that he pinched to use to register his other mobile. “I have spent my life giving helpful nudges. For 40 years . . . And besides it’s not those I have helped the most who have been the most faithful to me.”

Courtroom 32

The towering glass, concrete and Formica building only opened a year ago and was christened with a quick protest by thousands over the police violence that has taken the lives of Black French citizens. It is going to host a whole raft of cases around corruption at the top of the political pile. Sarkozy, himself, should get to know the décor in Courtroom 32 very well. As well as a brace of his closest colleagues who joined him over the past week in being charged for taking Libyan money to fund his 2007 presidential campaign.

Another who will come to savour his moments in Courtroom 32 is the former right wing mayor of Marseilles Jean-Claud Gaudin. He decided not to stand again in the local elections this summer just gone by: he is 81 and anyway would have lost. With five other top administrators in the city, he has just been accused of organised overpayment of some employees, part of the clientelist system that kept him in post as mayor for 25 years following 30 years as a councillor, regional council chair, senator, deputy and minister.

Rather like the boss of the Dassault company, France’s constructor of jet fighters, the Mirage and now the Rafale. Serge Dassault died in 2018 before he could face trial for directly paying electors to vote for him as mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes. His crown prince Jean-Pierre Bechter, who inherited the system and was elected mayor in 2009, is now facing trial for “buying votes” in “a generalised corruption of the electorate” in the town on the outskirts of greater Paris.

The mystery for many is not just why so many senior “respected” public figures indulge in these acts of corruption and venality but why, like Sarkozy, they remain “respected”.

This year, he was beaten in the local elections by a communist-led coalition. By this time one of the strong-arm minders operating the votes for cash scam, Younès Bounouara, had been in jail for a murder attempt on another of Dassault’s local squad. They had been arguing over 1.7 million euros that Dassault was secretly recorded as saying he had handed out: “Me, I have given everything, I settled up with Younès. If he kept the money for himself, that’s his affair. I won’t pay twice.” Bounouara’s lawyer at his appeal was Eric Dupond-Moretti, now Macron’s Justice Minister.

Through all the scandal around its patriarch, Dassault, the company has remained a crown jewel of the French military-industrial complex. It was last year promoted into the elite league of the world’s top 25 military manufacturers on the back of successful sales of its planes, all sponsored by the government in Paris. One customer is Egypt’s General El-Sisi. The loan he had to use to buy the jets being guaranteed by the French government. Macron welcomed him in Paris this week.

Remember the first scandal around the disgraced former President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma? It was the bribes paid by Dassault and the French government to get Zuma, then Minister of Defence, to buy a brace of Mirages from Dassault, planes for which the country had absolutely no need whatsoever. Zuma dodged justice that time round. His top civil servant took the rap. In the case of El-Sisi, no bribe was needed, just a lower tenor of rhetoric on human rights.

Quite why Serge Dassault was so keen on keeping control of Corbeil-Essonnes, a small sized town, may escape one, but the very latest of these political manipulators to be served a sentence had nothing else than their role as mayor. Maryse Joissains, allowed to stand for re-election as mayor of Aix-en-Provence in the summer despite being found guilty of siphoning public funds, had her appeal judgement delivered just as Gaudin was hearing the bad news of his charges. The judges upped her penalty and banned her from public office for three years.

The mystery for many is not just why so many senior “respected” public figures indulge in these acts of corruption and venality but why, like Sarkozy, they remain “respected”. It is a practice, though, that goes back a very long way.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy leaving courtroom 32, November, 2020. | Pierrot Patrice/PA. All rights reserved.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing

A former President who has just died, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has been lauded in the obituary notices as a leader whose legacy was a France reformed. Indeed, when he was in the Elysée some key advances in social rights for women, for example, were made. But Giscard had, as Finance Minister, popped his father onto the Air France board in 1969 and, in his last year in the Elysée, in 1980, had that father, by then 86, renewed in another public post.

That was just a small family favour. When his tax accounts were leaked to the media in 1979, the French people learned that their President and his partner whiled away some of their idle moments playing the stock markets with the help of the knowledge that a head of state and government could be expected to have. Only the couple knew how much they had made by this form of insider trading.

More importantly, nestling amid the media’s columns of praise for Giscard were indications of his desire to keep many a thing secret, things way beyond the obvious issues of why a former minister and close associate was shot dead in a Paris street or why an African dictator gave him bunches of diamonds. With the contemporary cries of Je suis Charlie ringing in your ears, the claim that France is the home of freedom of speech, consider what happened to the film that he had the photographer Raymond Depardon make during his election campaign, 1974, une partie de campagne.

This last week Depardon remembered the experience. Giscard d’Estaing had been “a man of the very pure right, who could give himself the airs of a monarch”. Not much has changed there then when it comes to presidents. Unfortunately for Depardon, that president had put his own money (well, money that he had acquired, let us say) into the film and so had some control. It did not get an open screening until 2002. By then, the ex-monarch had ceased to care about his public image.

Up to the present moment

No chance things like that could happen now, you say. Didn’t millions march back in January 2015 during France’s Je suis Charlie moment for the right to say whatever you want?

Go to a medium sized town with a population of just under 100,000, a town that is part of the conurbation around the northern city of Lille and where the local contemporary arts centre had been due to host an exhibition by the Italian artist Paolo Cirio as one among dozens of others featuring the theme Les sentinelles, The Sentries.

Cirio’s speciality is exposing the problems that misuse of artificial intelligence may lead to, as with the developing technologies around facial recognition. Talk about contemporary. It would be hard to find anything more up to moment given the contest over the Loi de Sécurité Globale which has among its clauses some that seek to give such technologies a prominent place in police practice in France.

Depardon’s mistake had been to allow his honest film to be controlled by its regal subject. Cirio’s was to offer an exhibition of 150 photos of French police officers, their faces partly or totally obscured by helmets, goggles, balaclavas or masks, in which spectators were invited to try to identify them using facial recognition software, to a town, Turcoing, where the local monarch of the dominant right wing political establishment is none other than the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, its mayor before he became minister.

The minister also happens to be vice-president of the arts centre (it’s how such French politicians operate, collecting every possible public position they can, conflicts of interest be damned). Back at the start of October, he tweeted out threats of legal action if Cirio’s photos were shown. On the day of the opening on 15 October, just before France’s current Covid lockdown, they were covered by wooden panels without so much as a Je suis Charlie scrawled over them.

Getting to the demo

So there we were on the first Saturday of December in the Avenue Gambetta leading down the slope from Paris’ Porte de Lilas through the capital’s 20th arrondissement toward La Place de la République for the third protest called by the coalition of media unions, professional associations and civil liberties bodies against the steamroller of a law he and his monarch in the Elysée are manoeuvring to get on the statute book. This time, it was being run with the CGT union federation that has long held an annual December rally against poverty and low pay.

You can’t get to these demonstrations by public transport as the police close the metro stations and block off the bus and tram routes. Walking up the wide boulevard that circles Paris and marks the line of its former city walls, the growl of dozens of minibuses of the gendarmerie, the motors running to keep the guys in uniform warm, almost drowned out the cheerful “Allez y, m’sieur” from the officer, a grenade launcher dangling from his shoulder, a pistol and taser at his belt, who waved me through the line of his colleagues checking the bags of others on their way to the rally. There is plenty of good policing practice to be found when out and about if you are on the senior side of things and, one might say, fashionably white.

There is plenty of good policing practice to be found when out and about if you are on the senior side of things and, one might say, fashionably white.

The day before, I had raced out of the flat to take some clothes and things to Secours Populaire. They were stuffed in a large black bin bag. Wandering in Belfast in the ‘70s, that sort of thing earned me an unpleasant search by British soldiers. It was my first thought when three officers jumped me as I was finally approaching the headquarters of the main French equivalent of Oxfam. Not at all. In the rush, I had completely forgotten about masks. All was firm, no smiles, but polite. No fine either (it could be 135€ on the spot) as long as I went to the nearest chemist and bought one immediately.

Next day, within moments of the march starting, high buildings and flats on either side closed us in. Side roads were blocked off by ranks of riot police. By chance, I was alongside CGT general secretary Philippe Martinez and some of his officials studying the map of the agreed route as the first sound of teargas grenade launchers came above the loudspeakers on the small lorry at the head of the rally. Every organisation taking part was being given time to say their piece.

“Don’t turn back. Don’t let the gas deter you. Stay and keep the rally moving,” said the speaker, her voice echoing off the buildings on either side as she and the others on the vehicle disappeared in a grey, stinging, suffocating cloud that filled the roadway only some 30 metres down the hill from us.

In the streets around were hundreds of police officers. Once one advanced a certain distance, they stopped you leaving the rally. But, in front of us, a small number of provocateurs, people more interested in throwing a rock or two at the police and a few others enraged by the teargas the police doused them with rather than arrest them, this collection of less than a couple of hundred individuals set about creating enough mayhem to fill the evening’s tv screens once again with scenes of destruction.

Discouraging dramas

These are staged events, not in their details but in their overarching framework. The number of police was more than enough to put a stop to it all, to arrest those responsible, and let a democratic expression of public opposition to the government proceed. Instead, the purpose was to make the demonstration impossible and present an alternative drama for the mainstream media and its commentators, so that others are discouraged from protesting in the future.

The unreality of the whole affair is emphasised by the photo of a police officer seemingly on fire that did the rounds on the internet and world media. It was taken by a photographer for the French news agency AFP, one of the major forces in world news which gave the image added weight.

Videos, such as this one here, showing the incident sideways on, reveal that the flames were in the air in front of the officer. An aerosol can with a firework attached exploded on the pavement a couple of metres in front of the police and sent a quick ball of flame into the air for a few seconds. The unreality was that half a second before the blast a person dressed in black calmly walks along in front of the police (they did not drop the can as you can see it there before he goes past) and neither he nor they budge a centimetre as there is a bang and the flame jumps aloft.

Stanislas Guerini, the person who runs the En Marche! party machine for Macron, was on tv declaring “There was a demonstration in Paris which, in reality was a moment for vandalism, a moment where some individuals indulged in an extremely violent charge, sometimes with the intention of killing members of the forces of order.” Darmanin tweeted out the AFP image as evidence of the violence the police had to face.

The airs of a monarch

Macron himself had had to confront the wider reality the day before the demonstration. He, as is his custom, had decided to put himself up for interview regarding the protests that surged over the lengthy beating up of Michel Zecler, on the internet media site, Brut, popular among France’s younger audiences. It was a marathon at 2 hours 20 minutes.

“If it pleases you, I will say it”, he finally replied to his interviewers when it came to his past denunciation of the term “police violence”. Yet he could not stop himself from talking of “violent demonstrations”, which is not at all what I was part of in Avenue Gambetta.

The difficulty he has been presented with is that if, as he told the Brut audience, there were only 300 to 400 people there to cause trouble why could not the police, many more in number, snuff out this violence immediately? Are they not present to defend democracy, defend the right of people to demonstrate?

The danger there for him is huge. It is not only the vaccine that the public does not want to take. It is also his solutions for the after-Covid, the cuts in public services that are in the pipeline, the refusal to raise benefits for the young so that they are still prepared to take jobs at low wages, the bid to intimidate journalism, the incompetence of his management of the epidemic denounced in a long parliamentary report just the other day.

Aside from police violence, the theme that may have irritated his Brut audience the most was that of the environment. Macron has been caught out tricking those he inveigled into a Peoples Convention on the Environment. Their ideas would be put before the parliament, or in popular referenda, for voting “without being filtered”, he had declared. Instead, they are being carefully strained of their militant content.

And there he cannot escape responsibility. If you can stomach some two hours of his lecturing, you come in the Brut interview to the point where he is on the defensive over this. He gets angry, real or staged is not clear, but he is angry. He tries to reject the criticisms that he knows are supported by the majority of those watching. And he lets himself slip into showing the reality of power in the Fifth Republic. It is the repeated “I” that he uses when he talks of taking decisions. He gives himself the airs of a monarch faced by a rebellious people.

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