‘Enough gloom, France is an amazing country’

The bad political and economic news has seemed endless for the past weeks in France, so The Local hit the streets in search of some balance. Here's what the French love about their country.

A stagnant economy, political parties embroiled in various scandals, a humiliated president — it seems those are the only facets of France the world’s been talking about recently.

And while no one can say France isn't going through tough times, the recent turmoil has overshadowed a few things. So The Local went in search of what still inspires the French people about their country.

For some it’s kind of a long list.

“No need for gloom, there are still things to be thankful for,” Loïc Barbier, a 24-year-old drama student told The Local on Monday.

“French cinema is among the best in the world. I particularly like director François Ozon,” he said. “We have an amazing country, one of the only places in the world where you can find beautiful beaches, mountains, and a nice countryside, all close to each other.

“We have great food as well. When I lived abroad, I really missed eating cheese. That and ‘gratin dauphinois’. I could kill for ‘gratin dauphinois.’ If you need another reason, just take a look at the works of our brilliant authors” he added, holding up the copy of “Voyage to the End of the Night” by French author Céline he was reading.

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‘Quality of life’

His feelings about France’s “cultural exception” were echoed by Ludivine, who declined to give her full name.

“I am proud of French history, of our architecture, our gastronomy, and our landscapes,” the 34-year-old bank employee said. “There are a lot of things I disapprove of about France, but I think we are really lucky to have such a nice place to live, such a nice quality of life”.

Of course not everyone agrees, including Ludivine’s friend, who was sitting with her on Monday.

“I’m a good French citizen, I love France, but apart from what Ludivine says, I can’t say we have much going on for us,” 52-year-old shop worker Lisa, who declined to give her full name, said.

She recognizes however, that French people still have a strong sense of solidarity, “except for Parisians, we French generally support and help each other. Maybe we can be proud of that”.  

‘Plenty of help’

That solidarity, which has taken the form of the country’s comprehensive social welfare system, is also a source of pride.

For Antoine Lefèvre, 30, a hotel receptionist, living in France is “just like heaven”.

“I lived in London for five years” he said. “There I truly realized how lucky I was back in France. You can do nothing, and get social benefits in return!” he said. “In London, I worked a lot, I discovered what it meant to get things done, but I’m much happier here, as I get more help”.

It’s a system the French are lucky to have while other countries have scaled back endlessly on social spending in the past decades.

“We are lucky because we have a good welfare system that still works well. We also have universal values to be proud of,” Chrystelle, a 40-year-old office worker, who didn’t give her full name. “After all, we live in the country of human rights, of democracy, even though this is not specific to France.”

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Intellectual resources’

And even though the country’s education system seems to catch all sorts of criticism, Chrystelle thinks it's great because “it is free and accessible to all. France is a country in which people can climb up the social ladder and change their lives, thanks to school”.

It’s the brain power that system produces which 46-year-old computer engineer Benoit Baradat believes sets France apart.

“We have a lot of intellectual resources, we have prestigious universities. We have an education system which works and which integrates people,” he said.

He added: “We are a tolerant nation, open to different cultures, with a generous welfare system which avoids widening the gap between social classes, like that could happen in the United States, where the middle class is slowly disappearing”.

And he walked away, Baradat, struck by one more point of pride turned and said: “Best of all, we have a lot of young people, with a lot of potential and I think that they are a reason to be hopeful”. 

By Léa Surugue

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OPINION: France has two presidents – one is confident, the other weak and directionless

France has two Emmanuel Macrons: one is strangely depressed and directionless, the other confident and clear, writes John Lichfield. But which one will emerge in his second term as president?

OPINION: France has two presidents - one is confident, the other weak and directionless

There is a global Emmanuel Macron, confident and clear; and then there is a domestic Emmanuel Macron, who sometimes appears petulant and indecisive.

Global Macron is admired by many people outside France for his eloquence and his intelligence. He is also mocked and feared by some people abroad (especially in the Brexit camp in Britain) for his alleged pretentiousness and arrogance (in other words for his eloquence and intelligence).

For Global Macron, it has been a good couple of weeks. 

His speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week was the best given by any world leader.

He placed the Ukraine war in a sweeping, global and historical context, lambasting allegedly “neutral” countries for failing to stand up for the core UN principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The “fake” non-aligned countries were, he said, betraying not just the values of the UN but their own interests.

Macron has also been word perfect in his tributes to the Queen.

He obtained little credit for that fact from the hardest-line,  professional Macron-haters in the UK media. They preferred to concentrate on the fact that he wore posh trainers during an informal visit last weekend to the enormous queues of people waiting to file past Her Majesty’s coffin in Westminster.

King Charles has, however, seized on this opportunity to improve relations between France and Britain which Liz Truss had ignored. After a dinner with Macron in London last Sunday, the new king is reliably reported to have decided that his first state visit next year should be to France.

So much for the global Macron.

The other Macron, the domestic president, is newly re-elected but strangely weak and directionless.

His popularity in opinion polls is fading. He seems unable to come to terms with his loss of his parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in June. He has yet to give a clear road-map for his second term to his newly renamed Renaissance party and their centrist allies.

(REMEMBER: You can listen to John Lichfield discuss the crisis on the French left and the mixed fortunes of Emmanuel Macron in the latest episode of our Talking France podcast below)

He has alternated in recent weeks between Blood, Sweat and Tears warnings to the French people that they face a cold and difficult winter and a generous (but reluctant) decision to extend domestic energy subsidies for another full year.

He has alarmed some of his own allies by raising the possibility that he might use his emergency constitutional powers to push pension reform through a divided National Assembly.

At the same time, he has pressed ahead with his vague plan for a grandiloquently-named Conseil national de la Refondation (National refoundation council). This body is supposed to find common ground between Left and Right, unions and bosses, to “refound” the French welfare state created just after the 1939-45 war.

On the one hand,  Macron says that he wants to find a new social consensus for the 21st century. On the other hand, he says that he wants to charge, without negotiation, into the social and political minefield of pension reform.

In a briefing with journalists earlier this month, the President suggested that he could avoid a lengthy negotiation with unions and the parliament to increase the standard French retirement age (now in theory 62). Changes in system could be tacked onto the annual social security budget next month and then pushed through the Assembly, in effect, by decree.

This week, the government back-pedalled. No decision has yet been taken, they say. One of Macron’s principal allies, the veteran centrist leader, François Bayrou, warned that any attempt to impose such a transformation on French lives by force would be a calamity.

How can we explain the two Macrons?

Partly, they reflect the constitutional powers given to French presidents. On international affairs and European affair, Macron can go largely his own way. On domestic policy, if he has no majority in parliament, his powers are limited.

I believe, however, that the problem runs deeper. There have been reports for months that Macron suffered after his re-election in April from a “drop in energy” or a period of depression.

The second half of his first term had been brutally occupied with non-stop management of the Covid and Ukraine crises. His attempts at mediating with Vladimir Putin had been a discouraging failure.

After his victory over Marine Le Pen, Macron drifted for weeks, delaying his decisions on a new Prime Minister and a new government. He was strangely absent from the parliamentary campaign in June (well below the limits imposed by his position as head of state).

Macron’s distraction contributed to his failure to win a new parliamentary majority; his lack of a majority has, I believe, compounded his mood of indecision and depression.

What to do with five years of a second term? Should he accept that his only role is now crisis-management? After all there are crises enough to manage.

Is the career of the self-proclaimed revolutionary of 2017 finished at the age of 44?  He cannot run again in 2027. He faces the prospect of five years of managerialism and drift while attention switches to his possible successors, from Edouard Philippe in the centre to Marine Le Pen on the Far Right.

“Macron is a magician who has lost his wand,” says one pro-Macron parliamentarian. “He’s still searching  for a way forward, a sense of direction. In short, he has the blues.”

By comparison with French politics, international crises are simple. Macron has clear ideas about the place of France and Europe in the world. He can express himself, both off the cuff and in set-piece speeches, with elegance and intelligence.

Macron has had no other position in elected politics than President of the Republic. He has no background as local or parliamentary politician. The prospect of five years of grinding negotiation to achieve quarter-baked reforms is, I believe, appalling to him.

Hence, his domestic zig-zagging.

He faces three choices in the next few months. He can accept a role as a manager of crises and minimal reforms; he can risk a Yellow Vest-type revolt by using, maybe abusing, his limited constitutional powers to impose change.

Or he can hope for an opportunity in the first half of next year to call a new parliamentary election.

Which way will he go? I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Emmanuel Macron.