On the evening of May 23rd, a dinner was held in the Élysée Palace, attended by President Emmanuel Macron and four of France’s most prominent sociologists. The president’s guests were invited to describe, frankly, the current state of France and suggest how the country’s many problems might be addressed. They were told that the meeting would remain confidential. It did not.
Four days later, Le Monde published an outline of the discussion, apparently gleaned from some of the participants and possibly a background briefing from the Élysée itself. The article occupied a full page of the newspaper and its account of the conversation did not flatter the president, who was reported to have said little. One of the guests was Jean Viard, research director at the state analytic centre, CNRS. The evening at the presidential palace, Viard said, “will change nothing fundamental: the people who govern us don’t understand the society.”
This was a grim assessment. Macron’s government had been swept to power in 2017 on the incoming wave of the Republique en Marche movement (rebranded as Renaissance last September), which had flattened its opponents on the Left and Right by claiming to incorporate the best of both traditions. Macron was elected with 66.1 percent of the vote in 2017, and La Republique en Marche secured 308 seats, which gave them an absolute majority in the 577-seat Assembly. In an unwise moment of self-glorification, Macron described himself as a Jupiterian leader, “unchallenged and detached from trivialities, like the Roman god of the skies.”
But as dinner was served in the cabinet room of the Élysée, the Jupiterian leader was brought down brutally to reality. Noting that attacks on police, civil servants, mayors, and postal workers are on the increase, Jérôme Fouquet, head of the main polling company IFOP, said that “tensions are increasing in every part of society” to such a degree that “a process of decivilisationis now under way.” The few days before the sociologists’ dinner had been bloody ones. Three men were killed with assault rifles in Marseilles, probably the result of a drug trafficking feud; a man was shot dead on the Champs Élysées in Paris; a nurse was stabbed to death in Reims; in the town of Saint Brevin-les-Pins, the mayor, an independent conservative, resigned after months of attacks by the extreme Right, culminating in his two cars being set alight in front of his house after he agreed to the establishment of a reception centre for asylum seekers in the town.
The Élysée dinner had been planned as a lively but serious and orderly exchange of views. Instead, the president was confronted with the possibility that France is slipping into murderous anarchy. Following the meeting, Macron changed his schedule. Rather than travelling south to the Var region, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech on the environment, he went to Roubaix on the Belgian border to honour three policemen recently killed by an intoxicated driver. The president had to be seen standing beside the forces of law and order, which he had just been told were weakening, perhaps fatally. At a meeting of the Council of Ministers held days after his return from Roubaix, Macron indicated that he had accepted Fouquet’s alarmed analysis when he demanded that his colleagues be “fundamentally unyielding” in the face of a “process of decivilisation.”