Poseur, poet, politician: France’s other boy wonder

PARIS — There’s something Tintin-like about François Ruffin. The comic strip hero invented by Hergé is a reporter-adventurer. Ruffin, 43, describes himself as a “reporter-politician” — a self-appointed righter of wrongs; a boy forever; a journalist who makes the news.

The left-wing newspaper editor, writer and prize-winning filmmaker is also a deliberately unconventional member of the French parliament and — if you believe the hype — a potential contender to replace Emmanuel Macron in 2022.

Ruffin’s outspoken, anti-establishment and anti-Macron persona has earned him a large and enthusiastic following on social media — his YouTube channel has more than 75,000 subscribers — at a time when the French president has been struggling to put a lid on the Yellow Jacket protest movement.

But the journalist’s growing popularity and his ubiquitous presence in the media has also sparked the irritation of fellow left-wing politicians, who see him as posing a challenge to the increasingly unpopular far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Whether he sticks to his brief as an MP or gears up for a run for the top job, it’s become clear to Ruffin supporters and Ruffin-haters alike that he’s become impossible to ignore in French politics.

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Ruffin appears to be intent on sticking around — and sticking it to Macron.

Two new projects — an autobiographical book and a documentary on the Yellow Jackets — appear designed to cement his place as the go-to critic of the presidency and a leader of the disenfranchised.

Ce pays que tu ne connais pas (“This country of which you know nothing”), which was published last week, surfs on a curious fact: Ruffin was educated in the early 1990s at the same Catholic high school in Amiens, northern France, as Macron.

The book belongs to a genre all its own, perhaps best described as “attack autobiography.” Ruffin contrasts his own career as a leftist journalist and troublemaker with Macron’s establishment-assisted glide to power from the same provincial alma mater.

François Ruffin (left) speaks to Emmanuel Macron (right) | Philippe Wojazer/EPA

Ruffin disputes Macron’s claim to be a self-made man who climbed to the pinnacle of power before the age of 40 without party machinery or personal fortune, calling him the “embodiment” of a “rotten system and a decrepit democracy, swallowed by an oligarchy so self-confident that it installed its own banker in the Elysée Palace.”

The true self-made man, Ruffin suggests, is, well, Ruffin. He made his name as a journalist by creating his own newspaper, called Fakir, with no outside help. “I built myself as a journalist, with stubborn independence, with no collusion with any source of power.”

The left-wing politician is three years older than the president of the republic, meaning they were not in the same class. His detestation of the president is, he admits, more recent.

“It’s physical,” he writes. “It’s visceral … there are millions of us who feel that way … You reek of self-satisfaction. You are convinced of your superiority … Peasants meeting their feudal lord must have felt something similar, a wounded pride that invited them to rebel.”

This self-confessed hatred of Macron distorts and diminishes the book, often making him come across as a propagandist, rearranging facts to support a two-dimensional argument. His analysis of the Yellow Jackets — a grassroots movement Ruffin claims to have “expected for 20 years” — similarly falls short.

In a television interview with broadcaster Arte last year, Ruffin described his role in French life as “spiritual.”

He simplifies and beatifies it, ignores its violent excesses, its conspiracy theories and its far-right influences. He blames the violence that’s marked the protests solely on Macron — “Behind your doll-like face … are the bodies mutilated … with your approval, without the least excuse or apology” — and in praising one of the more moderate Yellow Jacket leaders, Ingrid Levavasseur, he fails to mention she has been rejected and viciously insulted by other factions.

These shortcomings are unlikely to matter to Ruffin’s supporters, who are eager to embrace him and his version of events.

If Ruffin’s book is often over the top, it is ultimately also a passionate, poetic examination of two versions of France — the smug and successful versus the ignored and suffering — that will ring true to countless people who are similarly “driven by a desire for something else.”

At his best, Ruffin is a poet. He is often funny — a rare talent in politics. And his book contains many moving, first-hand accounts of the struggles of marginalized, sick and unemployed people he met in France périphérique.

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In a television interview with broadcaster Arte last year, Ruffin described his role in French life as “spiritual.”

“That sounds pretentious,” he said. “What I mean is that I don’t just want to change things. I want to combat resignation, indifference and discouragement.”

Ruffin — who rarely agrees to be interviewed by the mainstream media — was a household name in French cultural circles before he made his foray into politics.

His first movie Merci Patron! — a funny, ambush-documentary about France’s richest man Bernard Arnault — was an unlikely box-office triumph, earning him a César, or “French Oscar,” and the title of the “French Michael Moore.”

His forthcoming and highly anticipated documentary on the Yellow Jackets — “J’veux du soleil” (“Give me sunshine”) — is set to be released in France next month.

Since 2017, however, he’s been better known as a maverick member of the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, for the Somme département. He sits with Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left party France Unbowed, but describes himself as an électron libre — a “free spirit” or “loose cannon.”

Ruffin sits with France Unbowed, but describes himself as an électron libre | Jacques Demarthon/AFP via Getty Images

Ruffin, who refuses to wear a tie and often addresses the assembly with his shirt flapping outside his trousers, stands out among the other MPs.

He is usually unshaven and speaks in colloquial French. He reveals the content of supposedly off-the-record-briefings with the government. He refuses to be paid his full salary as an MP — which amounts to €86,880 — and instead claims as his pay France’s minimum wage of €18,254 a year.

Some colleagues, on and off the record, accuse Ruffin of being a “poseur.” He can easily afford to refuse his salary thanks to the money he made on his first film, as well as his book and later projects, they suggest.

Ruffin also faces criticism from the left for his journalism and film work, which some commentators say is really just about him — the “heroic” bourgeois leftist who stoops to help the “poor” and “exploited.”

“His work is often very effective,” a member of France Unbowed said on condition of anonymity. “He draws attention to genuine problems. But there is something about his claim to be discovering the poor as if they were a forgotten tribe that sticks in colleagues’ throats, especially politicians from a working-class background.”

“What would you ask me to do if I was president?” — François Ruffin

Ruffin’s growing popularity has fueled speculation that he might run for the presidency. The race would pit him against his nemesis, Macron — as well as the increasingly unpopular Mélenchon.

Ruffin dismisses all interest in the job, which he believes should be abolished. But, as colleagues point out, he also used to swear that he would never be a politician.

In a rough-cut version of his new film, given advance viewings in Rouen and Marseille, Ruffin is seen travelling around France interviewing Yellow Jacket protesters. On several occasions, he says to them, “What would you ask me to do if I was president?”

“He’s a liar [when he says he’ll never run],” Richard Ramos, a deputy for the centrist party MoDem and a friend of Ruffin’s, told the website regards.fr, which published a lengthy profile of the left-wing politician.

“Unlike Mélenchon, Ruffin genuinely represents the popular mood which wants to turn the country on its head … I tease him and say that one day, unfortunately, he will be president.”

John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.

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