“We needed a revolution, but we got Macron!”

an interview with Emmanuel Todd

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

Mr Todd, in the presidential elections last May, Marine Le Pen won votes in the rural areas of eastern France, Emmanuel Macron in the big cities and in western France. Is there a gap in France between the metropolises and the periphery?

Oh, the division between Western and Eastern France goes back a long time. Twenty years ago, when I was working on many election analyses, I liked to talk about "une France calme" and "une France de tempête." In other words “quiet France" was western France, where modernity had arrived late. People enjoyed all the benefits of development without putting in too much of an effort themselves. They are still satisfied with their situation because they can still remember that their grandparents were poor farmers. Until the Second World War, "stormy France," eastern and especially north-eastern France, was economically the most important part of the country. However, the old industries were destroyed by globalisation. When people there look back to the past, they see working class grandparents doing well, while their own situation is often marked by unemployment.

So is electoral behaviour influenced by France's economic structure?

Look at the last elections: They tried to present it as a choice between left and right. But this has been a joke for decades because both the left and the right are pursuing the same economic policy, they barely differ. We have the euro and therefore we must reduce the public deficit. To be honest, the government has no power over the economy at all, except that it is obsessed with lowering the cost of labour – but that goes for the right as much as for the left.

Now you sound almost like the Front National who claimed in the election campaign that there was no difference between the conservative UMP and the Socialists (PS) and therefore insulted them by calling them one single party, the "UMPS."

The amazing thing about the last election was that Macron took the Front National at its word. He said: True, there is no difference between the parties, let's get rid of them! The reason why democracy is currently collapsing in France is because of the changes in the structure of society: we come from a world where a minority was in charge at the top and a large majority was underprivileged. But now we have an inverted pyramid. There is still a tip, a very privileged tip, but on the whole two-thirds are at the top and only one-third at the bottom. And that explains Macron's great victory and the fact that the Front National will probably remain a minority party forever. If you try to find the underlying social and mental structures, then you see that the best explanation is the different levels of education. In France, around 40 percent of the population have a university degree, 40 percent have a higher secondary education and 20 percent have a primary education, a lower secondary education or nothing at all.

With this stratification in education, is there a danger that France will lose its belief in equality?

French society is a complex system:  In the centre of the country, including Paris, and along the coasts, egalitarian values and a genuine preference for independence and freedom are deeply rooted, but there are also places where the Church is traditionally strong and where there is not a strong belief in equality. The paradox is as follows: In the three great Western democracies - England, the United States, France - we now have a problem with a new stratification in the educational system. Michael Young predicted this in his book, "The Rise of the Meritocracy." This emphasis on education as the only path to success threatens the idea of equality. Because in the end, society is ordered according to the merits of the individual: for example, according to their achievements at school. Thus one gets a society in which belonging to a certain class seems justified on the basis of one's own achievements: those who are above think that they are actually superior, and those who are below start their adult lives with inferiority complexes.

But France has always attached great importance to higher education ...

This is no longer the traditional French obsession. It’s a new phenomenon. The media may talk about the economy, export rates and unemployment rates, but people in families around the world are obsessed with their children's education. But we still have a problem: although the French have a strong concept of equality, Emmanuel Macron was elected with a typical upper-class programme. That is the central paradox. Macron was actually not a particularly popular candidate: he spoke like a banker. And in the first round of the presidential elections he was only just ahead. In the run-off he was elected because Marine Le Pen of the Front National was even less popular.

Recent polls show that Macron has lost a lot of support among French voters ...

He has lost what he never had - support! We are witnessing something like the last stage of the decline of French politics. The French president is traditionally the most powerful head of government in the Western world; he is more powerful than the German chancellor. But the euro has made this office a joke. And the French president has become powerless, because ultimately he will ask Angela Merkel what he should do.

Did the impression that the French President can do little in the eurozone lead to such a low turnout in the parliamentary elections last June?

This is a completely new development. We have basically had a right-left divide since the revolution, with a strong underlying religious opposition: Catholics against atheists. And there seems to be nothing left of it. Macron was elected with not much more than an economic programme. Perhaps the French voters have realised that elections are unimportant. They no longer care about them. People in a society that is divided into many different strata become post-political or post-democratic. However, at least as long as the unemployment rate remains below 10 percent and two thirds of the population is doing well, this system will remain completely stable.

Do you think Macron can push through his labour market reforms?

He will, I think. The trade unions are in a comatose state. The most important union today is the CGT, a post-Catholic union. The CGT has always been easy on the bosses in the past. But frankly, the reforms are a joke: the labour market in France is already extremely flexible. The proportion of insecure and precarious jobs is high. I don't think the French economy can function any better within the framework of the euro than it does now. The euro is tailored to the German economy – the dominant economy. The French political system denies the country’s true relationship with Europe, and with Germany. There’s never been an admission that since reunification and Germany's very successful adaptation to globalisation, we are no longer equally strong. There is only one central power left in Europe, and that is Germany. You may understand now why I’m so popular in France (laughs).

Last year people wanted to shake up the status quo. They gathered at night on the Place de la République in Paris. Why didn't the "Nuit debout" movement turn into a political party?

Oh, there are definitely connection points between the followers of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and "Nuit debout": The journalist François Ruffin was elected to parliament, representing Mélenchon's La France Insoumise party. The "Nuit debout" movement began because of Ruffin's documentary film "Merci patron!" The primary objectives of the "Nuit debout" movement reminded me of May 1968. It wasn’t about forming an organisation. It was a thoroughly anarchistic movement – its members are highly educated. The 1968ers were still characterised by old concepts of authority and traditional organisational structures. But now we see the grandchildren of the 1968ers: they have grown up with non-organisation.

Some of these young people now face the problem of not being able to secure permanent employment contracts.

The majority of young French people are only on short fixed-term contracts or worse: they do an endless round of internships. But the French system still allows some of the young people to end up in a secure job. The middle and lower tiers of the public service jobs are secure: for example, if you become a teacher, or get a job in a welfare office or a local government office. And these people marry others who belong to the precariat. Which in turn provides security for the couple. It’s sometimes difficult to say why certain things do not happen. That's the strange thing about France: we needed a revolution, but we got Macron!

Why didn't the revolution take place?

There's one reason for that: People don’t have it so bad yet. France is still a rich country. Even if you talk about the regions where people vote for Le Pen. They are underprivileged from an educational point of view, but if you go there, you will still be amazed at the country’s wealth. France cannot be described as a country where the majority of people have lost everything; but it can be described as a country where the majority of people are afraid that they will lose a lot.

But particularly in the banlieues there do seem to be people who can't find their feet anymore. What is the situation of the children of immigrants in France?

In 1994 I wrote a book, "Le destin des immigrés." At that time the situation in France was better than in Great Britain or Germany. I compared the exogamy rates of children of Muslim immigrants in Germany, France and the United Kingdom, of those marrying into a different group. In France, about 10 times more immigrant children married French people. Today, the level of intermarriage between the second generation of immigrants and the French is statistically still much better than among the Turks in Germany. There are still mixed marriages, but the number is no longer increasing. We are now in a situation where we have a growing number of children and grandchildren of migrants and even a stable number of mixed marriages would not prevent the formation of immigrant communities.

There was a period of extreme social mobility, which was associated with the development of higher education and with geographical migrations. We recorded an increase in all types of exogenous marriages. Today, we speak of the end of social mobility. The correct description when it comes to France would be of a society that is disintegrating into separate subsections. Immigrants and their children are only one part of it. Because the same applies to the petty bourgeois and the middle classes, even to the people around Macron. They are the typical example of the isolation of a community: they all come from the ENA, the École nationale d'administration. Maybe we should pass anti-incest laws for the upper civil service in France (laughs).

Has mistrust of Muslims increased in France due to the terrorist attacks?

The wonderful thing about France is its unpredictability. We have now spent a decade with our obsession about immigration, then we had the terrible attacks, many people died, the whole Hollande presidency was affected by this in a terrible way. Everyone expected the next president to focus on the "Muslim problem." But then Macron came along, who basically said: I’m not at all interested in that. And you get the impression that we have suddenly forgotten about Islam. Macron's election victory makes it possible to say that there are stable elements in the culture: the lack of seriousness and the unpredictability. The other thing that you should not forget: There is a real change. Macron speaks English, he can read the important papers directly – this is really new. I would therefore say that the person of Macron also contains an element of unpredictability. On the one hand one could describe him as a complete conformist in terms of his education, his economic ideas ... He was a banker for two years, then he worked for Hollande, then he left the government. He is still very young. Sarkozy or Hollande were elected towards the end of their political careers. They could imagine going down in history as the saviours of the euro. Macron is too young for that.

The interview was conducted by Timo Berger

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