In the vastly solemn interior of Amiens Cathedral, a setting sun projected the colours of the painted glass in window after window onto the plain, pale vaulted stonework soaring 150 feet above us. Certainly magical, almost miraculous. It would have seemed that way to any poor artisan of the town or peasant of the neighbourhood who got the chance to enter that church when it was built in the 13th century. Now, it is other miracles that the unemployed of this once industrial town are hoping for.
We were there to see a dramatisation of the Holocaust novel The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. It was doubly moving because the drama was being staged in Amiens’ Maison de la Culture over Holocaust Memorial Day and because the verbose and overlong novel had been stripped down to its essentials of revulsion against the racist violence of the Nazis, presented with incredible intensity by a brilliant troupe of Dutch actors.
One might even say the performance was triply moving as the Maison de la Culture had just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its opening as the first of the custom-built cultural centres around France, imagined by the French League of Intellectuals against Fascism in the 1930s and then put in place by the Gaullist Minister and author André Malraux in the Sixties. For Malraux they were ‘modern cathedrals’.
The previous play at Amiens had been a powerful staging of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by the Comédie Française that is currently touring some of those ‘modern cathedrals’. This production culminates in a vicious parody of the final open-air election rally in Paris in 2012 by the outgoing right wing President Nicolas Sarkozy: flags waving, crowds chanting and the leader launched into a harangue playing on themes of identity, fear and prejudice, so Arturo Ui. The Maison de la Culture occupies the space left when the municipal theatre was obliterated by Nazi bombs during Hitler’s May 1940 blitzkreig.
All this – the Maison, the politics on the stage, the caringly restored medieval heritage – is part of what, to some, is a now unsustainable survival from the past, a public expenditure that needs to be pared back to allow private capital to have the profitable air in which to breathe. Their message to the people of Amiens is brutal: if you want jobs, then accept cuts in public budgets, longer working weeks, lower pay and lower skills, weaker trade union rights, and lower taxes on capital and on the rich.
This message is offered one way or another by both the right, the centre and the current government in France: by François Fillon, the candidate for Les Républicains of Sarkozy but also by President François Hollande, and by his former adviser and minister, the centrist presidential candidate, Emmanuel Macron.
We can leave Fillon twisting in the wind of the daily revelations of the staggering amounts he, his wife and his children slyly secured from public or private funds. In the jostling between the five principal presidential candidates, the immediate impact of the scandal has been to help Macron augment his image as a possible winner. But, as his programme will not actually be announced until late February, he’s best left for future discussion.
Superficially pleasant, but calculating and careful, focused absolutely on getting to the top, with a million in his pocket from having helped negotiate Nestlé’s 2012 purchase of Pfizer’s food interests, Macron represents that 21st century PR magic: publicity-fuelled politics, the nearest thing to Tony Blair in France at the moment, combined with a straightforward prolongation of the measures he promoted in the outgoing government of President Hollande. The ‘new’ is the smile and the charisma, not the policies.
The book of Hollande’s presidency, A President should not say that, giving us the content of 61 private, tape-recorded sessions with two journalists from Le Monde, has quite a bit on Macron: “He wants to move things, that’s the role I assigned him to.” But there is also a phrase about someone else, about Benoït Hamon, the long-standing left activist in the Socialist Party who won its presidential primary last month with 1,200,000 votes behind him.
Hamon was among those MPs who last May put their names down for a censure motion against Hollande’s government after the President and his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, used special decree powers to force through the National Assembly legislation turning France’s labour laws on their head. “Today, Hamon, he is abandoning the Party. He is what? Not much,” Hollande had said into the microphone.
Valls and the rest of Hollande’s supporters have tried to paint Hamon into the corner labelled “unelectable dreamer”. A handful have jumped ship to join Macron, but most, and that means a majority of the party’s MPs, have so far restricted themselves to saying that Hamon will have to move the centre of gravity of his programme much closer to theirs for them to consider really supporting him.
It is a familiar story of the voters and members out there wanting something different to that on offer from the leaders in office. But then, as Hollande also intoned into that microphone: “I have lived five years of relatively absolute power. I impose on my people, who doubtless would not naturally be in agreement, policies that I consider are correct.” Back to Amiens: Hollande took 60% of the vote there in 2012 but, after two years of his government, its electors returned just nine councillors for the left and 42 for the right.
So, when Valls tried to get the last word in the final primary TV debate between him and Hamon, saying a candidate needed above all to have realistic policies, Hamon lashed back saying the first thing a candidate should make sure of is that they deliver on their promises to the electorate. Why? Because the massive tax cuts for companies, ‘liberalisation’ of the economy and that labour law, some of the key things for which the Hollande presidency will be remembered, are the opposite of what was in his list of election promises.
The Socialist Party machine, reshaped by Hollande to keep those like Hamon on the outside, now finds itself having to run an election campaign in support of a candidate opposed to those key planks of the government programme that that machine has been supporting. Hamon must have relished his post-victory visits to the current Premier Bernard Caseneuve and then to Hollande himself, but building a powerful campaign for the left on the record of France’s most unpopular government in 60 years is not going to be easy. Building it with the people responsible for that record is hard to envisage.
Hamon, like Hollande during his campaign, is arguing that France should spend rather than be restricted by the European Union’s 3% deficit limit. But what would he do when the EU says “No”? With Greece’s Syriza government once again being put through the debt wringer, such a question is obvious. The left candidate already in the field, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has a direct answer: go ahead anyway and defy the powers that be in high finance and the EU. If you do not do that, he asks, what is left of democracy?
For Mélenchon, a Hamon who is not prepared to go down that road and who tries to run his election campaign on the back of the Ministers and MPs responsible for the very policies Hamon is opposed to, such a candidate would not be worth standing side for.
As it happens, the latest polls offer an interesting perspective. If you put together the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, Hamon and Mélenchon you get a proportion of the vote that is higher than that currently being assigned to front runner Marine Le Pen of the racist National Front, or for Macron or Fillon. Remember, under the French system everybody stands in a first round but only the top two go into the final vote. So will a single left candidate turn the tables on Fillon and Macron and face Le Pen in the final May vote?
That’s the miracle many want in Amiens. The week before we were there the American giant Whirlpool announced its factory in the town would be added to the long list of local closures. The sense of being under pressure, of facing communal ‘burn-out’ – one of the themes that Hamon has made his own – of being the plaything of global forces, will push some from Whirlpool into voting Le Pen. Most want a candidate capable of offering a very different perspective to that put on their local stage in Arturo Ui or The Kindly Ones.
Macron, it so happens, chose Amiens, his birthplace, for the launch last April of his ‘En Marche’ movement. But the last word to Hamon. The law ‘liberalising’ business, the 2015 ‘Macron Law’, also forced through by decree, has opened up the motorways for express bus companies. Macron predicted 22,000 new jobs by now on routes like those between Amiens and Paris. Hamon pointed out the other day that less than 1,500 had in fact materialised as a result of this “aggressive commercialisation that ignores all social costs”. But when did the facts ever get in the way of a good bit of PR magic?