It might be concluded that a new division between the confident nation and the anxious nation has replaced the old ones of class, religion, ideology and regional identity.
Almost half a decade has passed since the Mauritian academic, Sudhir Hazareesingh, wrote these words in his superlative study of contemporary France, 'How the French Think', but they have rarely seemed more perceptive than in the past week – a week which has fostered fresh fears that France is becoming ungovernable. Mind you, people have been saying that
since the Third Republic.
On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron commandeered a remarkable two-and-a-half hours of national media time to set out his measured response to five long months of gilets jaunes protests, as garnered from the public's inputs to his massive public consultation, the 'Great National Debate'. The measures were wide-ranging and presented as radical, while the president's tone was uncharacteristically conciliatory and even (up to a point) self-deprecating.
He did not have long to wait for a reaction. On Saturday, marshalled by the formidable CGT trade union, the protestors took once more to the streets of French towns and cities as they had on the previous 23 Saturdays, lobbing smoke canisters, smashing windows and exchanging abuse with a tooled-up counter-force of riot police. Le plus ça change…
Even before Saturday came round, the commentators were all over the airwaves to talk about what Macron did not
say, rather than what he did. There was, most conspicuously, no restoration of François Mitterand's wealth tax, Macron's repeal of which last year was widely seen, and still is, as a cynical bonus from a former investment banker to his fat-cat friends. Macron, who insists the cut was needed to lift a flat-lining economy, has instead promised to review the decision next year, and in the meantime promised everybody else a €5bn cut in income tax. But for now it stays.
The long list of rebukes for things the president didn't talk about – from farm subsidies to speed limits – bears powerful testament to just how disparate and unfocused (some would say, grab-bag) the criticisms of his policies are. Here is Hazareesingh's 'anxious nation' writ large, and tumbling out its anxieties on a president whom it sees as personifying Parisian over-confidence.
But it would be wrong to miss perhaps the bigger point, which is how many things Macron did
say. In both its specifics and generalities, this was a dense and intricate package, and its proposals range far and wide, though not always with much detail yet attached. Key elements include:
• The income tax cut will be financed by a mix (unspecified) of spending cuts and a drive against corporate tax avoidance.
• Index-linked basic pensions will be reintroduced, but workers will be expected to contribute over a longer period. The French will 'have to work more', though there is as yet no explicit threat to the 35-hour standard working week, mostly now enjoyed by public employees.
• There will be deep reforms in government, involving a new decentralised accessibility to national institutions; fewer MPs; and an extension of proportional representation, expected by many to benefit the outer fringes of both Right and Left.
• Macron announced a lower threshold of signatures for requiring parliament to consider bills for procuring referendums, but he rejected calls for citizens' referenda and for deliberate abstentions to be counted towards ballot results.
• In response to demands for tighter immigration rules, he called for better controls at borders, including reforms of the EU's internal borderless Schengen Area. He also promised staunch opposition to 'political Islam' and a crackdown on overseas funding for organisations judged hostile to France's integrationist approach.
• Perhaps most colourfully, he promised a less rarified and protected civil service, including 'putting an end' to the École Nationale d'Administration, the ultra-elite postgrad finishing school for France's governing classes, distinguished alumni of which include one E Macron.
Remember, this comes on top of a €10bn bundle of reforms last December, plus postponement of the fuel tax hike that was the (now largely forgotten) initial casus belli of the protests.
But it was in the tone, rather than the substance, of his talk that Macron encapsulated the tensions between his confidence in his own convictions about the need for radical reform, and the anxieties these have exacerbated out in La France Profonde.
There were unmistakeable notes of chagrin and humility seldom heard before from Macron. The protestors, he said, had made fair demands, he regretted that his personal style had come across as inflexible and arrogant, and he acknowledged a collapse of trust in the governmental establishment. He had, he said, 'learned a lot' from the grand débat (quite how many of the million-plus submissions he has read personally was left unspecified) and he recognised the need henceforth to 'put the human at the heart of the agenda'.
Yet at the same time he told them that his reforms had been too slow rather than misguided: 'I am fully convinced that it was right not to give in over these first two years on the issues that are still at the heart of our project… I will not give in to those who want to destroy institutions, and who want to riot'. So, an agenda with people at its heart, but the same agenda nonetheless.
Will it work? What is for sure is that, with each passing week of mayhem, the numbers of high-viz tabards displayed on car dashboards in solidarity with the gilets jaunes movement has steadily shrivelled. The armchair malcontents are the ultimate audience at which Macron's speech was directed, and his promise to get tough with those who have hitched a propensity for violence and vandalism to the gilets jaunes bandwagon was as shrewd as the carefully-crafted penitence.
All the same, trying to get across central Montpellier on Saturday aboard a delayed and diverted tram, I watched the familiar ranks of day-glo tabards form up, and heard the familiar tattoo of whistles and horns and thumping drums. 'Macron, gros con' proclaimed a newly-sprayed tram shelter. The authorities say that demonstrator numbers across France were the second lowest since the movement began five months ago, though that may be down more to Easter holidays than presidential persuasiveness. As a writer friend of mine once sagely remarked, whenever you hear the word mouvement in France, you can be sure that things are about to grind to a halt.
To this observer, Macron's performance was well-judged and polished. I know of few British politicians who could mount such an assured appeal to hearts and minds. Yet Macron is like Gorbachev or Obama: appreciated much more abroad than at home (and both, worryingly, were followed into office by dangerous buffoons). At root, the age-old dilemma remains of a country that knows it needs reform, but dreads the price of it. Hearts and minds are one thing: an anxious nation is a whole lot harder to win over.