France’s silent minority await the outcome of the ‘great national debate’

Paris Letter: Macron’s supporters hope unpopular economic reforms will continue

December 11th, 2018: Shuttered shops, burning cars and tear gas. The New York Times were on the ground in Paris with the “Yellow Vests” protesters as they took to the streets for the fourth week in a row. Video: NYT

 

“We are a group of 10, from various professions, and we have decided to contribute to the Great Debate,” says the introduction to a 10-page manifesto which this week joins thousands of others on granddebat.fr, the internet platform established by president Emmanuel Macron in the hope of leading France out of crisis.

On page 3 of the manifesto, the as-yet nameless group lists the consequences of nearly three months of revolt: 13 dead, 2,800 wounded, €5.5 billion in losses (according to the Banque de France) and attacks on toll booths, public buildings, 150 tax centres and 2,000 traffic radars.

As demonstrations and rioting by gilets jaunes took hold last November, my neighbour Michel Lemaire began meeting regularly with his friends to discuss their horror at what was unfolding. Their group includes men and women from academia, the private sector and the top echelons of the French civil service.

It wasn’t fair to expect Macron to reverse France’s decline in 18 months

“No one listens to the shopkeepers whose shops are looted,” Lemaire, a retired business executive and commercial court judge, told me. “If you want to go viral, you have to be vulgar, hateful and against something. If you are for something, if you are polite and make coherent arguments, nobody is interested. The minority who support Macron remain silent, so we’re expressing ourselves.”

Lemaire accepts with a tinge of sarcasm that he and his friends “are the elite, undeniably”. This is not a good time to be the elite in France. The super rich decamped years ago to London and Brussels. People like the Lemaires worked hard and paid high taxes.

“Now we are seen as responsible for all the ills of French society. But we’re ‘the people’ too. We are no more responsible than anyone else for this situation. But they claim we’re crooks who don’t pay taxes.”

Lemaire is appalled by what he sees as the ignorance of gilets jaunes and their uncritical coverage by French media. The plumber-electrician who looks after his holiday home, for example, is “a good guy, who’s been successful. But he told us the most absurd thing, that [the far right-wing leader] Marine Le Pen was paid to throw the second round of the presidential election . . . He doesn’t read anything. He doesn’t listen. He spends all his time on conspiracy websites.”

A poll published on February 5th shows Macron has risen 11 points in opinion polls to a 34 per cent approval rating, higher than before the gilets jaunes crisis

It wasn’t fair to expect Macron to reverse France’s decline in 18 months, Lemaire says. He believes the French “lack understanding of the basic rules of economics”.

The answers

The mayors from small towns who met with Macron in the first debate in Normandy on January 15th were hostile at first. After seven hours, they gave him a standing ovation. Similar performances have followed.

“They call Macron arrogant because he is intelligent and knows all the answers,” says Lemaire, who has watched several of the debates. “Well, he has all the answers because he works hard and reads all the dossiers.”

Lemaire cites an article Emmanuel Macron: Why Such Hatred? in which the political scientist Dominique Schnapper says Macron “feeds the resentment and sense of social injustice of those who do not succeed”. In such an egalitarian society, where all positions are open to everyone, Schnapper writes, “There are many disappointed and humiliated people”.

A poll published on February 5th shows Macron has risen 11 points in opinion polls since the beginning of the year, to a 34 per cent approval rating, higher than before the gilets jaunes crisis.

The authors of the manifesto urge Macron to forge ahead with his reform of the unemployment and pension systems, the civil service and multiple, overlapping levels of government. “It’s always complicated,” Lemaire admits.

“France allegedly has strict equality in everything. But it doesn’t exist. There’s always the appendix, the codicil, which means that so-and-so is an exception, that so-and-so ‘has a right to’ ... It’s incredible.”

The national debate “has relieved pressure and injected a measure of reason into the situation”, Lemaire continues. But he remains pessimistic, because of France’s runaway debt, which stands at nearly 100 per cent of GDP, and costs €45 billion in annual interest. “Nobody gives a damn,” he says. “My grandchildren will be asked to pay it.”

Macron has suspended his reforms until the debate closes on March 15th. “His survival will depend on what he proposes,” Lemaire predicts. “My fear is that nothing will happen, that the system will freeze up, whatever he proposes.”

Has it been worth all the hours of meetings to draft their manifesto, I ask. “At least we’ll be able to say we tried to do something,” Lemaire replies.

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