Coming into Paris by coach from Beauvais airport, there’s a stretch of road which backs onto a kind of shantytown. Temporary shed-sized structures form a scrapland between the motorway and the business parks. In fact, the strip is immediately succeeded by a massive office building with a blank postmodern steel and glass facade. When my daughter points out the disparity to me, I tell her it’s like a metaphor. Then we both notice that the name of the building in a sign on the roof is Meta4.
Meta4 is, of course, a young start-up software company, the kind that hopes to represent the face of the new Europe, a continental power which following the catharsis of Brexit and the desertion of the USA is enjoying a modest surge in popularity. With the populist wave breaking on the shores of Holland and France, the newly elected President Macron had the nerve to invite Donald Trump to the Bastille Day military parade. There was a fly by, military helicopters, tanks, and the armed forces out in their finery. Of protesters there were a few but this can’t come as a shock. The security was so tight a deaf old lady was refused access to the streets adjacent to the parade because she had a small scooter. Bags were searched and pedestrians patted down, bridges closed and the presence of the non-parading military was felt on every other street corner. Post-Nice, this is the new normal in France. I attended the Cannes Film Festival this May and the same was true there. It was hard to see how any protest could have been launched.
In a way, Trump’s invitation bolsters Macron’s prestige more than the embattled President. Trump’s gratitude was obvious. Although any prestige he hoped to accrue, he almost simultaneously shed like unwanted skin with his gratuitous ogling of Brigitte Macron. Her husband reveals himself as the bigger man who can put aside Trump’s gaucheness and support of Marine Le Pen as easily as he can deliver a crushing handshake. Unlike Teresa May, Macron has a strong and stable government and, despite Trump’s almost universal unpopularity in France, the invitation caused less ripples also because it was a trolling of Trump’s America First. The date was a commemoration of a hundred years since the first American troops arrived to fight the First World War. Trump was being none-too-subtly taught a history lesson of one in several occasions when America first isolationism has been on the wrong side of history.
But before we get too triumphalist in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, it might be worth remembering the road into Paris and our Meta4. France has the opportunity under a new leader to take on the leadership of Europe as well, but it id going to face challenges larger than the apprentice president. Vicious inequality and a temporarily defeated but very much still there far right are two very real dangers to the whole European project. Whether Macron’s mild-centrist liberalism will deal with either effectively is yet to be seen.