Editorial – The Guardian
In a speech in Versailles, France’s centrist leader seized his moment. The contrast with Theresa May’s agenda is a sobering one
Emmanuel Macron went to the Palace of Versailles on Monday and proclaimed a French revolution. For those with a feel for French history, this juxtaposition of venue and idea was rich in irony. But the French president’s speech to the newly elected parliament and the senate was one that matters in the here and now, not just in the republic itself but across Europe – and in Britain, too.
In one sense, Mr Macron’s address was familiar for those who have studied his rise. There were few new policy commitments. Those that he made – they included a reduction in the size of the national assembly and other state bodies plus, importantly, the lifting later this year of France’s post-Bataclan state of emergency – were familiar from his presidential campaign. There will be more detail when France’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, outlines the government’s legislative programme on Tuesday.
But Mr Macron’s purpose on Monday was not to steal Mr Philippe’s thunder. It was to set a tone and send a message. The difference between the president’s speech and that of the prime minister is the difference between a US state of the union speech (Mr Macron intends to give one of these every 12 months) and the start of the UK debate on the Queen’s speech. The president and his new party have won large mandates (albeit in elections with relatively low turnouts) and Mr Macron is determined to make his reforming intentions and seriousness clear from the off. That he is promising a “veritable revolution” of values and approaches in a country which, as he said elsewhere in his speech, has so often failed to reform itself indicates the scale of the task he has set.
Mr Macron’s speech was full of French pride, with successive appeals to France’s scenic loveliness, great history and human achievements. He needed to do this because, according to a new survey, 69% of French people think France is in decline (this is, though, an improvement on last year’s survey, in which the figure was 86%). But Mr Macron deliberately cast his patriotic vision wide. Whereas Theresa May bases her vision of a “global Britain” largely on the country’s trade potential, Mr Macron invoked, among other things, France’s writers, painters and musicians who “put politics in its true place by making us see beyond everyday things to a place that gives the human condition its grandeur, beauty and even its tragedy”.
These were, however, the foundations of an address that was very explicitly progressive, with France at the centre of “a new global humanist project”, and very explicitly European, too. Mr Macron is cutting with the grain of French opinion, which has turned decisively against the country’s political class. But he did not deny that the EU is also in need of reform and is too bureaucratic. He attacked its “tyranny of agendas and calendars” to which he saw the Brexit vote as a reaction. But he insisted that the European vision of social justice and humanist values can and must be reanimated in the face of the extremist threat. These words brought the deputies to their feet. The message that France is back was hard to miss.
It is also hard to miss the cross-Channel echoes and contrasts. Both France and Britain are, in different ways, countries in historic decline and denial. But they seek very different routes out of their crises. While France has elected Mr Macron, embarked on progressive reform and anchored itself in a reformed Europe, Britain has voted for Brexit, re-elected a damaged Tory government and now seeks to cut itself off from Europe’s rules, values and people. While Britain has a weakened prime minister, France has a president who seems to have chosen the grand manner of Charles de Gaulle as his model, but in pursuit of a goal that aspires to be both high-minded and practical at the same time. Mrs May’s attempt at strong leadership in pursuit of an anti-European policy lies in tatters. Mr Macron’s pro-European version survives and prospers, for now at least. The contrast is a sobering one. Monday 3 July 2017