In France, the seasonal break in politics around Christmas and New Year is known as la trêve des confiseurs. It’s a cultural reference to the period of truce between confectioners once they had finished preparing their treats for Christmas and before the post-New Year efforts to prepare the traditional galette des rois with which the French mark Epiphany by breaking their teeth on the fève hidden in the marzipan.
Political life begins again with les voeux, literally the act of conveying your good wishes for the year ahead. (The French do not send Christmas cards, but instead send a carte des voeux and the general cut-off point for sending your wishes is the middle of the month.)
In politics, it begins with the President of the Republic, who, at 20.00 hours on New Year’s Eve addresses the whole nation and outlines his plans for the year ahead. It is, in some ways, a national route map, at one and the same time similar to but very different from the Christmas Day speech made by our own dear Queen (God Bless Her).
For his first voeux, Emmanuel Macron made a 17-minute speech from the salon d’angle. That’s a bit longer than one would normally expect, but then, as we have learned over the last few months, and most excruciatingly at Johnny Hallyday’s funeral, Macron does like the sound of his own voice. More than 11 million compatriots tuned in to watch, so about the same as Her Majesty for Christmas 2017, but fewer than watched either Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande deliver their first voeux.
As to their content, well, Macron stayed pretty much within the framework of his predecessors, underlining the successes so far, the challenges ahead and so forth. More specifically, Macron promised that there will be no let-up in the pace of reform, but he did make a series of very deliberate attempts to widen his message to groups that feel they have been neglected by his administration: local government for one, the agricultural sector for another as well as France’s poorer quartiers populaires. Macron’s autumn tax reforms saw him branded le président des riches. Not for nothing, then, did he choose for the interview to be recorded in a rather Spartan setting, with the French and European flags to one side and a bloody big image of Marianne and the word Fraternité on the other.
But it doesn’t stop there. Macron has a busy diary right up until the end of the month, presenting his voeux to various groups. Last week, for example, he addressed the press corps (3 January) and outlined plans for legislation against ‘fake news’ during election campaigns. A day later, on the eve of President Erdogan’s visit to Paris and amidst news of upheaval in Iran, it was the turn of the diplomatic corps to be given an idea of what he sees as the key drivers to French foreign policy over the next 12months.
This series of ex cathedra monologues will continue until the end of the month, interrupted only by visits of foreign leaders and Macron’s own trips abroad (to China most importantly from 8-11 January).
Other political leaders will follow suit in due course, both in response to whatever Macron says and also to put down their own markers, but for the time-being, they have been rather circumspect.
Over at the Front National, the main cause for concern is over the party’s future name (as well as a formal investigation into misuse of European parliamentary funds to support the party). As part of the FN’s programme of refondation, following the disastrous turn in their fortunes in 2017, the leadership asked the grassroots whether there should be a change of name. Last week, various grosses huiles (literally big oils, but translates as big cheeses) suggested that there would be no change in name. Then, over the weekend, Marine Le Pen announced that she herself favours a change in order to reflect the FN’s shift from being a parti de contestation to becoming a party of government. For Le Pen, the only way the FN can hope to transform itself into a serious coalition partner lies in completing the transformation with a name change. While RTL claimed that 80% of members who have responded to the party’s questionnaire are against a change in name, Le Pen says that this is fake news. No alternatives have yet been announced, but if there is to be a change, it will be put the FN congress slated for 11 March. There, too, we should expect MLP to be re-elected president of the party.
Back at the beginning of December, Le Monde put forward the names of Jean-Pierre Hottinger and Eric Dilliés as would-be challengers, before dismissing both on the grounds that they had not satisfied the (pretty stringent) criteria for standing. More contentious is the matter of who will lead the FN list for 2019’s European elections. Some observers thought that party vice-president Nicolas Bay is a shoo-in, but Sébastien Chenu (not pronounced Chez Nous, alas) might be an alternative. Le Pen herself might be ineligible to stand and Europe remains a deeply divisive issue within the FN. It’s unlikely she would risk it, should 2018 prove to be a successful year for the government and La République en Marche.
The old left and right-wing parties continue to struggle. The Parti Socialiste in the midst of a long and painful period of recovery ahead of the nomination of a new party secretary in April. And over at Les Républicains, the new president Laurent Wauquiez’s aggressive determination to put new men and women into key posts is causing tension with the old guard. LR-watchers are waiting to see just what Wauquiez’s new broom will mean. Details are expected at the end of January, but they might be pushed back to avoid getting lost amidst the furore that will be created by the government’s decision concerning the new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes, whether to pursue the project or abandon it.
And for observers of Jean-Luc Mélenchon… Jean-Luc Who?