Reporter's Notebook: France's Unexpected Political Revival

Jul 28, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 4:24 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As our foreign correspondents pass through NPR headquarters for home leave, we like to catch up, usually informally, on what's transpired on their beat over the past year. But this summer, with Eleanor Beardsley back from Paris for a spell, we thought we'd have that catch-up conversation on the air because her beat has witnessed some of the most dramatic changes of the past year.

Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: People, do you remember France harried by terror attacks, its socialist president weak and unpopular, the far-right on the rise, the future of the European Union in doubt? That was last year. This year...

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

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SIEGEL: Emmanuel Macron, the new president, on election night declaring that France had won. Eleanor, how different is the France of 2017 from the France that you were covering a year ago?

BEARDSLEY: Robert, very different. There's a leader in power who seems like he's just been training for this job his whole life. France has a historic role, he says. As a leader among nations, the world looks to France. And France will be there to provide answers to lead on climate change, Middle East peace, fighting terrorism, dealing with the migrant crisis. France has a role to play everywhere now.

SIEGEL: And a year ago, we wondered, wow, if the far-rightist Marine Le Pen wins, then for sure the European Union is done for, the Brits having voted to leave the European Union already. Instead, not only does France seem to be thoroughly inside the EU, but very much a leader within the EU again.

BEARDSLEY: Yes. You know, the Brexit vote was a body blow to the EU. And people felt across the continent if one more country, even a small one, would vote to leave the European Union, that would be it. Now there is this feeling that France and Germany are going to work together to make the EU stronger than ever. And it's going to play a positive role in Europeans' lives and lead on the world stage, maybe a counterbalance to China and the U.S. And there's really a feeling that you want to be part of the EU. It's a great entity. It's a powerful bloc. And there's sort of a feeling, at least in France, that they look to the Brits and they look at the mess they're in, and they're feeling sorry for them.

SIEGEL: I mean, one thing that's very interesting about Emmanuel Macron's victory - and he created his own movement to get elected. And as you've pointed out to me, En Marche, in - what is it? - on the move...

BEARDSLEY: One the move, yeah.

SIEGEL: ...Is EM, just like Emmanuel Macron.

BEARDSLEY: His initials, yeah.

SIEGEL: En Marche is now the party in charge. It threw out the two traditional parties that have been vying with each other for decades right now. But it's not a party of either the extreme right or the extreme left.

BEARDSLEY: It's not. It's a new way. And it is amazing what happened. It would be like if a candidate came in, beat the Democrat and Republican candidates and sort of destroyed the parties along the way.

Emmanuel Macron has talked about France being blocked for decades between two camps, the left and the right. And they can't work together. And certain ways of doing things belong to the left, certain to the right. He says, no, we can be progressive, work together, find new ways. And it doesn't have to be categorized. And so he's pulled people from the left and the right. And they seem ready to build a new way of functioning.

SIEGEL: It sounds like Macron's honeymoon is still in progress with the French republic. Has he actually - any examples, any concrete examples of this new way of approaching politics to show for his efforts?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Robert, the test is to come because Macron has said he will reform, loosen up the rigid French labor market. And this is always associated with a right-wing thing to do. And he says he's going to do it. But the left-wing unions say they'll be out in the streets. So this will be a test coming up with his party and with his government. Can they pass these reforms? But you know, there are cracks starting to appear.

His critics say his party is about him. If he weren't there, what does it consist of? The media says Macron treats them in an imperious way, keeps them at bay. He's not very accessible to the media. He canceled the traditional Bastille Day interview with two top journalists because, as his spokesman said, his thought process is too complicated for journalists' questions. He's a little bit alienating the French military. There was a general who resigned. And so we're seeing a bit of an authoritarian streak in Macron. So I think this fall will be the real test.

SIEGEL: Eleanor Beardsley, thanks for talking with us, and enjoy the next year in Paris.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Robert.

(SOUNDBITE OF FETE'S "THE ISLANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.