There's a lot to worry about lads. Photo by Aurelien Morissard/IP3/Getty Images

May 17, 2021   6 mins

There’s a word much bandied about at the moment by the French to describe the aggression which has seized their country’s politics: La zizanie. Dictionaries translate it as as “mischief”, “discord” or “dissension”. It is used in the Asterix comics whenever the indomitable Gaullish village erupts (yet again) into a brawl and everyone starts bashing everyone else. Just as in Asterix, so now in real life.

The current outbreak of political zizanie in France may seem obvious. There is, after all, a presidential election 11 months away. But that, in itself, cannot explain the degree of hysteria and personal hatred — between political opponents but also between supposed allies — which has enlivened and disfigured French politics in the last three weeks.

Right at the heart of the current political turbulence is President Macron, who generates an exaggerated, blind fury among his opponents on Left and Right — largely undeservedly. He can be deeply annoying, this is true. And his record is patchy. Mostly, though, he is still paying the price for being a successful upstart and a centrist from outside traditional, political structures.

In the present zizanie (which shows no signs of abating), Macron has been both victim and a would-be aggressor. He is the intended victim of a campaign of poison-pen letter-writing by a group of retired and serving military officers who allege that France is on the verge of “disintegration” and “civil war”. They should be taken seriously for what they are: a Trump-like campaign by people close to the far-right leader Marine Le Pen to semer la zizanie or sow discord. But they should be taken less seriously for what they describe: a dystopian and vastly exaggerated picture of France’s genuine problems with radical Islam and other forms of violence.

They may succeed — or they may blow up in Le Pen’s face.

Much less has been written abroad about recent attempts by Macron himself to semer la zizanie among the French centre-right — the political descendants of Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy. Macron’s attempts to carve off another chunk of the French centre-right probably says more about the future of French politics than the generals’ letters.

To bolster his chances of winning again next April and May, Macron would like to split Les Républicains, the troubled centre-right party which has already been leaking members: both of his Prime Ministers, Edouard Phillippe, 2017-2020, and Jean Castex 2020-21, and several of his most senior ministers are refugees from the centre-right.

Les Républicains are divided and further sub-divided, often in mysterious ways, by personal animosities, jealousies and ideological differences. Broadly-speaking, one wing of the party is economically liberal, pragmatic, European-minded and compatible with Macronism. Another is nationalist-authoritarian, hates Macron’s guts and plays footsie with Marine Le Pen. There are other people in the party, both leaders and the led, who feel uncomfortable with both camps.

This split — and the lack of credible leaders — is making it hard for the party to find a presidential candidate for next year. By pushing the two sides further apart Macron hopes to colonise even more of the centre-right vote than he managed in 2017. Even ex-President Sarkozy argues (privately) that part of his old party should embrace Macron in next year’s election. He believes that the pragmatic non-Leppenist-leaning section of the party can only become a force in the land again if it merges with, and eventually swallows, Macronism.

So Macron seized an opportunity presented by two-round regional elections at the end of next month to generate zizanie within Les Républicains. The elections are for 13 French regions and Le Pen’s Rassemblement National can potentially capture at least one for the first time. Macron’s five-years-old centrist party La République en Marche (LREM) has no chance of winning in any region, the top-down party having failed to build local support and with no popular local leaders. It does, however, have enough strength — around 11% in most regions — to help decide the outcome of the 2nd round of the regional elections on the 27 June.

Macron’s people erected — or so they thought — a de facto alliance in the Nice-Marseille region (Provence-Alpe Cote d’Azur or “PACA”) between Macron’s LREM and the incumbent, centre-right regional president, Renaud Muselier. This alliance was supposed to take the form of a joint list of candidates in the first round of the regional election, including  centre-right politicians and leading figures in Macron’s LREM, including a junior minister.

The justification for the deal was simple — and a relatively normal procedure in French politics — to prevent Rassemblement National from coming first in the first round and making it harder for them to capture the region, home to 5,000,000 people, in the second. Cue an explosion of uncontrolled anger within Les Républicains, with the national leadership saying that this was not just a normal electoral manoeuvre or procedure but an attempt by Macron to destroy their party — correctly.

Muselier, 62, told a friend that in 28 years in national and regional politics he had “never seen such violent insults and accusations” as he faced within his own camp. Eric Ciotti, a member of parliament for Alpes-Maririmes (the Nice-Cannes area) accused Muselier of “stabbing his party in the back”. Asked about Ciotti — a rent-a-quote populist, whose comments are often indistinguishable from those of Le Pen — Muselier said: “I prefer to deal with honest people, people with a real vision.”

The French investigative newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé,  adores and encourages all forms of political zizanie. It  revealed that Ciotti, the man shrieking against alliance with Macron’s party, had made a secret non-aggression pact with Rassemblement National in 2017 to ensure his re-election in Alpes-Maritimes.

Ciotti and other ferociously anti-Macron centre-right politicians in the Provence region are also accused of maintaining private close links with Thierry Mariani, the Lepennist candidate for regional president. Mariani, also 62, is a former centre-right politician and was transport minister under  Sarkozy.

“Ciotti and others are appalling hypocrites,” a Les Républicains insider told me. “They act like dealing with Macron’s people is like playing cards with the devil but they are closely aligned with and have many contacts with Le Pen’s party.”

Yet is there a difference between dealing with Macron and dealing with Le Pen? Both would like to destroy Les Républicains, after all. “There is something about Macron and his people which sends some of our people crazy, and not just those on the right-wing of the party,”  the insider said. “There is a smugness about Macron and his people, a we-are-always-rightness about them. Others have not swallowed the humiliation of Macron’s victory in 2017. There is also a section of opinion in Les Républicains whose thought-patterns are little different from Lepennism — Islamophobic, Eurosceptic, authoritarian.”

Macron’s great mistake, he said, was to make his attempted pact with Muselier so transparently a pre-presidential election manoeuvre. It should have been presented as something purely local to the PACA region — an alliance to keep out the far right.

The Républicains’ national leadership withdrew official support for Muselier’s campaign, threatening to kick him out of the party. He backed down, and said he had never made any alliance with Macron’s LREM.

As a result, two senior Macron-friendly local leaders — the influential mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, and mayor of Toulon, Hubert Falco — resigned from the Républicains, with Estrosi saying that he planned to build a “wide” new party of the centre and centre-right (presumably with Macron).

And then things became confusing. Macron was originally left looking like a failed Machiavelli because his PACA alliance with the centre-right had fallen apart. Within a couple of days, Musellier announced that his list of candidates would embrace one in four from Macron’s LREM party but no senior Macroniste figures from Paris.

So there had been an an alliance, of kinds, after all. Who had won now?

Le Pen’s position in the PACA regional election may well have been strengthened by all, the Macroniste-Républicains deal justifying her old mantra: “All the other parties are just one party. We are the only opposition.”

Her man Mariani (a fan of Vladimir Putin and apologist for the Syrian regime) leads in the first round of the Provence region, according to polls — a lead which has widened since the squabble began. On the other hand, Muselier has also proved a resilient and wily politician, and may yet attract enough support in round two to hold on to the regional presidency.

The undisputed losers are Les Républicains, who have lost two important southern chieftains and appear more split than ever between the Macron-detesting and the Macron-compatible. In the medium term that should, despite his initial embarrassment, be good news for the President of the Republic.

More gyrations, and zizanies, are to come. Two centre-right chieftains from other regions — Xavier Bertrand in the industrial north west and Valérie Pécresse in the greater Paris area — hope to do so well in their own regional elections next month that they emerge as the chief rival to Macron and Le Pen. Both walked out of the Républicains party during previous zizanies. Should the party endorse one or the other? How should party members decide? And which should they choose?

The broad Left, in the meantime, is engaged in a noisy zizanie of its own. The Green Euro MP Yannick Jadot, ephemeral presidential candidate in 2017, is pushing, sensibly enough, for a single candidate of the Left. For this he has been viciously attacked by the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and accused by other Green politicians of trying to steal a march on their party primary in September.

What does this all mean for the likely outcome of the two round presidential election next April and May? Macron remains steady in the polls at around 40% approval — a high figure for an incumbent French president in recent times, although that support may be soft. His hopes depend on continued ebbing of the Covid pandemic and success of a much-improved French vaccination programme.

If Les Républicains continue to fight one another, if no credible “traditional right” candidate emerges, Macron may well feast on centre-right votes next Spring.  But so would Marine Le Pen. That is the great weakness, or great gamble, in Macron’s strategy of divide-and-conquer. He may capture part of the centre-right vote next year. Much of the rest may emigrate to Le Pen.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.