Macron’s credibility was dented by more than the yellow vests
French president will have to work hard to salvage reputation at home and abroad
Emmanuel Macron. For 10 days this month, the French president hunkered down in the Élysée Palace, pondering where it all went wrong. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg
Looking back on Emmanuel Macron’s election and inauguration in May 2017, one cannot help feeling a little sad for Macron and for France. One remembers a proud young man’s solemn walk across the courtyard of the Louvre to the tune of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. How the rain clouds parted as he rode up the Champs-Élysées in the back of a command car. The Irish Times gently mocked the new president with the front-page headline, “By Jupiter, the sun always shines on Macron.”
Fast-forward 19 months, to December 2018. Macron was booed when he sneaked out of the Élysée Palace to survey the devastation of the Champs-Élysées by rioters, and during a furtive trip to a prefecture they’d set fire to in the Loire. For 10 days, the president hunkered down in the Élysée, pondering where it all went wrong.
When he finally spoke, on the night of December 10th, Macron made a startling admission. He had known about the “distress” of the most disadvantaged. “It doesn’t date from yesterday,” he said. “But we got used to it, in a cowardly manner, and at the end of the day things went on as if they were erased and forgotten.”
Macron’s oubli was all the more tragic because he had analysed the situation accurately in his 2016 autobiographical manifesto, Révolution. He wrote of the “peripheral France” made famous by geographer Christophe Guilluy, where people rely excessively on cars.
Macron wrote about the lack of basic infrastructure in rural France, and France’s “visceral attachment” to equality. Digital technology, he noted, “cruelly reveals social injustice, the differences in standards of living. It shows the poorest how the rich live, which can feed frustration, or even revolt.”
Two years before the gilets jaunes burst on to the scene in their yellow high-visibility safety vests, Macron had diagnosed their problems. Yet his administration relentlessly taxed the vehicles they need to work and live. Motorists had to pay for two rather than one MOT test for older vehicles. The speed limit was lowered from 90 to 80km/h on country roads. Yellow vests vented their anger over the harassment of motorists by sabotaging half the country’s traffic radars.
A 3 cent carbon tax per litre of petrol, 6 cent on diesel, ignited the revolt. Tax had been the root cause of the 1789 revolution. Now mayors of small towns have opened cahiers de doléances or registries of complaints, as they did in 1789. Yellow vests wear Phrygian caps to demonstrations. Macron is compared to Louis XVI.
Much of the hatred of Macron as “president of the rich” derives from three acronyms: APL, CSG and ISF. The APL is the basic housing allowance, which Macron cut by €5 monthly. The CSG is the social security contribution, which he increased for old age pensioners.
The ISF was a wealth tax on capital and property. Macron abrogated the part on capital, on the grounds it discouraged investment. The left says that cancellation was Macron’s “original sin”. Re-establishing the ISF has been a consistent demand by yellow vests, but Macron refuses.
When Macron’s bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, masqueraded as a policeman to beat up demonstrators on May 1st, the president failed to grasp how bad it looked. His environment and interior ministers showed how little respect they had left for him by resigning without warning in August and October.
Macron’s gaffes were magnified by social media and the 24-hour news cycle. His repeated praise of “lead climbers” pulling others behind them on the same rope was seen as justification of privilege. His critics were allergic to Macron’s portrayal of France as a “startup nation”.
They seized on the slightest gaffe to accuse him of arrogance, condescension or inappropriate behaviour. In a video posted by the Élysée, Macron said France spent “a crazy amount of dough and people are still poor”. A youth called Macron by the familiar tu and the nickname “Manu”. Macron lectured him with the words “You call me ‘Mr President’ or ‘Sir’.”
In Copenhagen, Macron called the French “Gauls resistant to change”. A photograph of Macron with two West Indian youths created a scandale. The bare-chested youth gave the finger to the camera. The other had just left prison.
All of the above might have been forgiven, if Macron had delivered results. But economic growth remains slow, unemployment high. Taxes rise while public services diminish.
The December riots made Macron realise that ordinary French people need tangible improvements, fast. He promised a €100 monthly rise in the minimum wage, a cut in social security taxes for the elderly and overtime free of tax and social charges. These measures will cost at least €10 billion, meaning France cannot comply with the EU’s 3 per cent ceiling on budget deficits.
In September 2017, Macron made an impassioned plea for reform of the EU. France would show the way by reforming its own economy, he promised. He proceeded to reform the labour code and the SNCF railway company – feats his predecessors only dreamed of.
When he resigned, environment minister Nicolas Hulot said Macron was not doing enough to fight global warming. The cancellation of the carbon tax, to placate the yellow vests, finished off Macron’s credibility as the “Make our planet great again” crusader.
Macron had presented next May’s elections to the EU parliament as a contest between nationalists and progressives. Polls indicate Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is likely to win in France, which would further damage Macron’s standing in Europe.
Foreign leaders who Macron criticised have revelled in his troubles. Donald Trump said the December riots proved the Paris climate accord wasn’t working. Matteo Salvini, head of Italy’s far right League, said, “Macron is no longer a problem for me or for Europe; he’s a problem for the French.”
The Iranian foreign ministry warned the French government to “stop violence against its own people.” Vladimir Putin and Recip Tayyip Erdogan made similar statements, while Erdogan warned of a wave of “terrorist acts” across France. The attack that killed five people in Strasbourg on December 11th raised the spectre of crises on two fronts for Macron.
Macron has expressed determination to move ahead with reform of the unemployment and pension systems. But the danger of antagonising the street is so great that both appear certain to be postponed.
France is at a historic turning point, Macron said on December 10th. “We will not resume the normal course of our lives, as we have done … in past similar crises, without anything having been truly understood or truly changed.” The anger of the yellow vest could prove salutary, he said.
When he called for a “new social contract” for France, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Macron had put too much emphasis on competitiveness, not enough on fairness. Macron seems to have understood that.
“If he comes out of the crisis having learned to govern better, he may regain credibility,” says the historian and former cabinet minister Jean-Noel Jeanneney.
But, Jeanneney warns, the 1789, 1848, 1871 and 1968 revolutions were followed by right-wing backlash. The revolt of the yellow vests has shown that a nationalist populist coalition similar to that in Italy could happen in France. If Macron fails, extremists will be the likely beneficiaries.