The Region That Explains France’s New President
In France, most presidents have a stronghold, a city or region where they win the lion’s share of the votes. Nicolas Sarkozy had Neuilly-sur-Seine, one of the most bourgeois suburbs of Paris. François Hollande had Tulle, a city in central France haunted by the memories of the Resistance during World War II. Looking at these regions can give a sense of the style and values that the president will bring to the Elysees Palace. Having never been elected to any political office before Sunday, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, is a man without a stronghold. Along with the fact that he ran as head of a new movement rather than an established party, this has made it hard to assess what “Macronisme” will look like in practice.
Macron’s hometown is Amiens, in northern France, and he votes in Le Touquet, a very fancy seaside town for rich Parisians nicknamed “Paris by the sea.” But he has few links to local politics there and lost the town by 20 points in the first round of voting to the conservative candidate François Fillon. Yes, he won almost 90 percent of the vote in Paris, but Parisians do not really exist: They are people from all parts of France attracted to the capital. If you want to understand what Macron embodies in French politics, and what his presidency might look like, you have to go west and take a look at Brittany, a region where 3 out of 4 people voted for him, 10 points more than his national average, making it, behind the Great Paris area, the most “Macronian” area in France.
Brittany has become a symbol of the political re-alignments in France, which tells us quite a bit about the mutations of French socialism towards center-left. Half a century ago, it was one of the most conservative parts of the country with almost two-thirds of the voters supporting Charles de Gaulle when future Socialist president François Mitterrand tried to unseat him in the 1965 presidential election. It is now one of the most reliably leftist regions in France’s national and local politics: 31 out of 41 members of the congressional delegation are on the left, as well as the biggest cities and the regional council itself.
This political mutation was recently analyzed at length by two French scholars, the historian Emmanuel Todd and the geographer Hervé Le Bras, in a book called Le Mystère français (“The French mystery”). They write about “the unbelievable revenge of Bécassine,” in reference to a very naïve stereotypical Breton housemaid trying to earn her living in Paris featured in a French comic strip from the beginning of the 20th century.
At that time, Brittany was seen as a region resistant to the French Revolution, where de-Christianization, alphabetization, and urbanization happened later than elsewhere. In 2017, in a country where crisis has become more or less a permanent state of things in the last 40 years, it has become a territory where you find a lower unemployment, more people with college degrees, lower income inequality, and fewer single-parent families than the rest of the country.
It is a region that embodies a more optimistic France (even if it had its share of layoffs and social turmoil in past years) and has not gone through what Todd and Le Bras call French “post-communist depression”: the void left by the collapse of the communism at the end of the ’80s that cleared a political space for Jean-Marie, and later Marine, Le Pen’s National Front to fill. It is also an area with a very strong regional identity, which only became part of France in the 16th century and looks forward toward Europe: It is one of the few French regions that approved ballot issues on the enlargement of the European Common Market (the “Brentry”) in 1972, the creation of the euro in 1992, and the European Constitution in 2005.
Le Bras and Todd explain this metamorphosis through a religious phenomenon branded “zombie Catholicism”: the fact that Catholicism, weakened as a religious practice, remains active in the collective consciousness. One century ago, Brittany was conservative because of Catholics; today, it integrates its populations better and deals with crisis with more solidarity because it was Catholic. Here, wrote Le Bras and Todd, “everything has moved in a positive direction since the war: education, transition from farmer to worker, employee, teacher or manager. […] Social ascent and cultural advancement are a reality in short-term memory which still gives an optimistic meaning to the present despite the crisis.”
According to Marc Endeweld, one of his biographers, Emmanuel Macron—born in a secular family, baptized at his own initiative at 12 but not a regular churchgoer—is himself a kind of “zombie Catholic,” a symbol of “those territories of Christian tradition that benefit from social structures and economic systems capable of counterbalancing globalization, in contrast to the more Jacobin territories that have lost the protection of the state.”
The zombie Catholic territories have been very resistant to the right turn of prominent politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy in 2012, or François Fillon during the last presidential campaign with his conservative, somewhat anti-gay marriage platform. They warmly embraced, in 2007, the candidacy of the third-party Christian democrat François Bayrou, who 10 years later became one of the most prominent supporters of Macron. They also massively voted, in 2012, for Hollande’s center-left platform.
It is not a coincidence that the outgoing president chose to surround himself with Bretons officials during his term, from his very popular defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to his personal adviser Bernard Poignant, nicknamed “the ear of the president.” Both men decided during the presidential campaign to back Macron instead of the candidate of their party, the Socialist Benoît Hamon. Macron himself chose Richard Ferrand, a Breton congressman who worked with him on a liberalization bill in 2015 as his campaign manager
During the 1980s, Le Drian and Hollande, then in their 30s, led a group of young socialists who met every summer in Lorient, a Breton seaport on the Atlantic Ocean, to think about the future of the French left. The ideas of those men who labelled themselves transcourants (a French word for a bridge between tendencies inside a political party) is sometimes read as a blueprint for Macron’s platform. They argued for a “modernized: French left, openly social-democratic or even social-liberal, not excluding, for example, initiatives on labor market flexibility. They dreamt of a party looking “beyond the left-right divide” with a possible alliance, instead of with the communist left, with “those who in the opposition are committed to civil and public freedoms, attentive as much to social progress than economic efficiency, neither xenophobic nor protectionist … ”
What the transcourants lacked was a candidate for the French presidency. At the beginning of the 1990s, it should have been their model Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission whose main adviser, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, later became Macron’s mentor at the beginning of his career. But Delors finally chose not to run. When Hollande became president in 2012, it was a posthumous victory for the transcourants, but the new president refused to follow their logic when he chose not to make a formal alliance with the centrist Bayrou—the same alliance that Macron chose to make this winter when Bayrou formally endorsed him.
At the end of April, a few days after the first ballot, Hollande chose to go to Brittany for one of his last official trips as president. There, alluding to the rise of Marine Le Pen and the worldwide populist wave, he warned against the “bad winds of nationalism, withdrawal, and fear,” and asked his country to always look “towards the open sea.”
“I wanted to end my term in Brittany,” the president then said to the press. His presidency might have ended there, but the future of French centrist politics is also being written there.