Emmanuel Macron welcomed the faithful to Paris on Saturday at a rally in the west of the capital. I know the venue well; it is the home of the Racing 92 rugby club and many a time I’ve sat in the indoor arena, roaring my approval at a bone-crunching tackle.
The hollering on Saturday was for the president as he held his first and only significant campaign event before next Sunday’s election. It wasn’t quite a full house, with a few untaken seats in the 30,000 capacity arena, but the fervour reverberated around the arena as Macron made his grand entrance. It was like a boxer approaching the ring in a title fight. A warm-up act had whipped the crowd into a frenzy and as Macron emerged from his dressing room, music blasted and fireworks exploded. A bevy of bouncers cleared a path for the reigning champion, pushing back delirious fans as they reached out a hand to their hero. It was more Las Vegas than La Défense, the district in which the stadium is situated.
As usual the VIPs were at ringside: the champ’s wife, his prime minister and his ministers. In the cheap seats the fans were decked out in t-shirts – a mix of red, white and blue – emblazoned with the message ‘Emmanuel Macron avec vous’. There was diversity among them but in general they were Millennials. One might go further and describe them as Millennial geeks, the stormtroopers of the start-up nation. I doubt many of them had ever been to the stadium to drink beer and watch rugby; they didn’t look the type.
This crowd were ‘anywheres’, proud progressive citizens of the world, and one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon was when Macron mentioned what the French know as PMA – medically assisted reproduction. This bill has angered conservatives who are aghast at the idea of lesbian couples having children. Displayed as prominently as the French Tricolore in the stadium was the blue and gold flag of the EU. From his speech on the stage Macron rammed home the message: a vote for him is also a vote for Europe.
The crowd got what they came for, which was to see their champ in the flesh and hear him talk. They also needed reassurance. The rise of Marine Le Pen is spooking them, and a poll in a Sunday newspaper has her only five points behind in the latest opinion poll; a month ago the gap was eighteen.
Yet it was all so tacky on Saturday. Showbiz politics, American-style. Razzle-dazzle rhetoric and everything so carefully choreographed. But has there ever been a more unFrench president than Emmanuel Macron? This explains why he provokes such a visceral reaction among many of his people. They feel they have a foreigner as president. De Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterrand, Chirac, Sarkozy, Hollande – they were Gallic from top to toe, but Macron, the former Rothschild banker, is the incarnation of the global elite that has come to be so despised in the last decade.
This time five years ago, as he campaigned for the 2017 election, Macron famously declared at a rally in Lyon that ‘there is no French culture’. Though his team subsequently claimed the remark had been taken out of context, he does seem like a president averse to his country’s rich culture.
During lockdown he enraged the cultural world, and made it his implacable enemy, because of his indifference to their plight as they suffered financial catastrophe. The impression was that he is not a president who sets much store by the highbrow arts. Certainly his choice of guests to the Élysée over the years has been noted: Bono, Rihanna, Justin Bieber and a pair of YouTube Millennial comics called Carlito and McFly.
Someone a bit more intellectual who did receive an invitation to the Élysée was the writer and business tycoon Philippe de Villiers, most certainly not in the Millennial bracket. Earlier this year he came out in support of Eric Zemmour, in part because he feels so let down by Macron. He believed in him five years ago but he now bears the bitterness of the disillusioned. ‘This country is too old for him,’ he wrote in a book last year. ‘Not enough digital, not enough mobile, too traditional, too provincial. He wants to remake it, reform it.’
Macron has made no secret of this ambition, one which is shared by his supporters. His objective in the coming days is to style this election as a choice between his centralism and the extremism of his opponents. A more apt depiction might be: Traditional France v Millennial France.
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