Hauts-de-Massane is an oddity amid the stylish residential developments, hospital clinics and campus buildings that sprawl ever more expansively across the northern suburbs of Montpellier. It looked all the odder last week, when the President of the Republic came to visit.
As its name denotes, Hauts-de-Massane is up a hill. You approach it through steep streets of what we would call lower middle-class homes, though the French don't really think in quite that way. At the top is an attractively landscaped lake, formed by damming the modest dribble of the Mosson river. It is a pleasant spot, where we often go to walk among the exotic shrubs planted by a beneficent local authority and watch the turtles that guddle about in the placid water.
You might almost forget the cliff-scape of social housing overlooking the scene… until, that is, the peace is shattered by what sound like fusillades of gunfire. They are fire-crackers, let off to celebrate weddings by the people from the eastern and southern Mediterranean who populate this district. Unusually for Montpellier, there is little attempt here to blend social with private housing, or to disguise jerry-built flats with curvy balustrades and primary colours. It looks, and sometimes behaves, like the fearsome banlieus
that periodically erupt around Paris. Last month, hooded youths stormed a former drug-dealing den repurposed as a drop-in centre. Massane's reputation is not quite as rough as the Mosson quarter – where Macron went next – but it does not want for poverty, crime and their invariable corollary of violence.
An improbable venue, then, for a bain de foule
(walkabout) by a President who so exemplifies the elite metropolitan technocrat. Surrounded by the locals, he looked more than usually like the star of an aftershave commercial. But the imagery was calculated. Macron, standard-bearer of the northern centre-right, had come to the rough end of this socialist southern city to promote what is emerging as a key, possibly the
key, theme of his campaign to retain the Presidency in 2022.
British Tories call it Laura Norder. The French call it sécurité
. Macron was in town to talk tough about policing, terrorism, drugs and crime. Travelling in an unmarked car, he visited not just Massane and Mosson, but also city police HQ, where he heard of a rising tide of violent crime, linked to drugs, unemployment and constant angry demonstrations, many directed against Macron. Security is an inescapable issue. In cities like Montpellier, armed squaddies, patrolling potential terrorist targets like railways stations and shopping malls, have become a familiar sight.
The President localised his national 'daily security' strategy, first flagged up in the conservative newspaper Figaro
. He promised Montpellier 50 new police officers in the coming year, its share of an extra 10,000 nationally; a 'war school with continuing education', whatever that may mean; and increased harassment of drug-dealers and traffickers. When, later in the week, a Tunisian fatally stabbed a woman in a police station near Paris, he pledged an unyielding response to what he no longer hesitates to call 'Islamic terrorism'. The hijab is being added to previous provocative bans on the niqab and the burkini, and a bill significantly extending police powers has passed into law, shorn of its sillier stuff about not photographing coppers.
Okay, so truncheon-waving is not exactly an unusual tactic for centre politicians who find themselves under pressure from the right. Polling shows sécurité
to be one of the big three voter concerns, alongside jobs and purchasing power. Marine Le Pen, Macron's likely principal challenger for the presidency, has been making hay by scorning 'the President of chaos, of violence everywhere', and other aspirants from across the political spectrum have been raising much the same din. It is worth remembering that, in French politics, second presidential terms are by no means the norm: Mitterand and Chirac got them: Giscard, Sarkozy and Hollande did not.
Macron's tough talk on crime is interesting, though, for two reasons. The first is that no-one thinks it is the political territory on which he would have wanted to fight. Ask anyone last year where Macron's electoral strengths lay, and they would have been likely to mention his commanding vision for a new, stronger post-Brexit Europe; and his confidence in managing, and justifying, the measures to combat the early peaks of Covid. Neither topic now stands significantly to his credit. Right now, both probably count against him.
Neither the EU nor France has covered itself in glory in its handling of Covid vaccination. The EU Commission's performance in approving vaccines and negotiating supply contracts was sluggish and inept. Coupled with France's ponderous shift from targeted to mass vaccination, it has looked, and been, dismal, especially with the noisy success of British barging as a comparator.
The damage to the EU's reputation may not prove permanent, but it applies right across the 27 and there is no compelling reason to think it will subside in time for next year's French election. For sure, no-one outside Europe's political fringes (such as Germany's AfD) seriously wants to quit, not after the dog's dinner of Brexit. Ms Le Pen briskly dropped her support for Frexit after the UK referendum, and now advocates reform from within. But Macron's championing of EU development does him no current favours, and come autumn he loses his key project partner, Angela Merkel.
There is no guarantee that baddie-bashing will impress the electorate. Coming the Robocop is not exactly natural casting for this most urbane and wonkish of Presidents. To appropriate the mantle traditionally worn by your opponents is a tricky political manoeuvre at the best of times. There is always a risk that you merely remind voters of the appeal of the real thing: for every Tony Blair, there are 10 Iain Duncan Smiths.
Besides, the calculus is quite different this time. In past presidential elections, the real battle has been to emerge from the crowded first round. Come the second, whenever Ms Le Pen or her father got that far, everyone else came together to vote them down. Next year, the polls suggest, the first round will be a foregone conclusion: Macron and Le Pen are miles ahead of anyone else. In 2017, Macron beat her in the second round 66-34. Latest polls narrow the putative margin now to 56-44 or even 52-48. Plus, there are a number of, to paraphrase Dick Cheney, known-unknowns.
One such is whether the left, whose patience with Macron has worn thin, remains in its present deflated state. A meeting earlier this month to construct a United People's Front of Judea between Jean-Luc Mélenchon's hard left, the socialists and the Greens predictably failed. The Greens do well in local elections, but lack a charismatic leader. The socialists, marginalised post-Hollande, might muster some sort of revival by fielding the dynamic Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, but she may not want to risk humiliation. Mélenchon's volatile personality is the stuff of cults, not presidencies.
Meanwhile, on the right, the enfeebled Republicans, once led by Nicholas Sarkozy, have been talking policy accommodations with Le Pen's National Rally, which could lead to some sort of informal co-operation. But Le Pen suffered disappointing local election results last year and, besides, are mainstream Republicans really ready to hold their noses and vote for her? Or will they, and their counterparts on the left, stay at home?
Decisions, the saying goes, are made by those who show up. The next President of France may be chosen by those who don't.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster