Subscriber OnlyOpinion

David McWilliams: France's unrest shows the limits of economics

It is hard to see, from a purely economic perspective, where French anger comes from

Two huge rivers, the Rhone and the Soane which converge in Lyon, have been ferrying goods, people and ideas into this majestic city for centuries. The Greeks were here, so too were the Romans. The Romans made this place the capital of Gaul.

When Julius Caesar was assassinated, the recently subjugated Gauls revolted, prompting the Romans to move their city to the high ground over the rivers. From here the city flourished, close to Italy, Switzerland and Germany, absorbing ideas and people from each region.

Examples of these foreign incursions abound. The Gothic cathedral, a symbol of the power of the Catholic church, was extensively defaced by Calvinists from Geneva who took over the city briefly. The silk industry, created by Italian merchants, drove the bourgeois prosperity of the city for centuries.

Yet a revolt, by the same silk workers in the 1830s, emboldened a young radical German agitator, Karl Marx, to imagine a workers' revolution. In the second World War, Lyon was the centre of the French Resistance, leading to Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, to focus the Gestapo's counterinsurgency efforts here, culminating in the brutal murder of Jean Moulin, the Resistance leader in Lyon in 1943.

Yesterday, the signs of the latest French protests, the “gilets jaunes”, are everywhere. Police are ubiquitous on the streets, so too is the anti-Macron graffiti and the local reaction to Macron’s speech earlier this week, which verges on derision.

Macron, as befits a technocrat, tried to buy off the protesters with money promising higher minimum wages and no new taxes. However, the protests, at least to this traveller, appear to be coming from somewhere deeper and won’t be assuaged by financial tokenism.

On the surface it is hard to understand, from an exclusively economic perspective, where the French anger comes from. France is one of the most sophisticated countries in the world. Its welfare state is phenomenal, French companies are world beaters in engineering and aviation, education is free, public transport is excellent, and the heath service comes out in the top 10 in the world.

Culturally, the country is muscular in defence of the French way, gastronomically France has been looking down its Gallic nose at the rest of us for years, the weather’s not bad; even its football team won the World Cup without breaking sweat!

All over the world, nostalgia is becoming more attractive, simply because it can be anything to anyone

Yet its still-new president is deeply unpopular, and his efforts to placate the national protests through the narrow gauge lens of economics have thus far made things worse. Why?

The reason is that economics isn’t everything. For far too long politics has been dominated by the notion that money can solve everything. But this is not the case.

Brexit example

Look at Brexit. Every economist tells the British people that economically and financially, Brexit will cost them. The Bank of England governor explains that house prices and individual wealth will fall. British industry and commerce warns of capital flight and unemployment.

Yet the polls have hardly budged. Millions of English, a people dismissed by Napoleon as a “nation of [money obsessed] shopkeepers”, don’t care. For a supposed mercantile people, this cavalier attitude to money is perplexing, until we acknowledge that what is driving Brexit is the politics of nostalgia rather than the practicalities of economics.

Belief in economics is fuelled by a belief in the future. It’s about doing the right thing today to deliver a better outcome tomorrow. It is scientific or, at the very least, it pretends to be. It is the promise of technocracy and, more importantly, it purports to be administrable to every country in the same doses. It is the antithesis of nostalgia which is rotted in history, shared experiences and identity.

In a place like Lyon, as in Leeds, you can’t easily buy off the magnetism of nostalgia, history and identity with the promise of tax cuts, a slightly better minimum wage or lower interest rates.

It is dangerous to dismiss these identity movements as something from the past because they could become the movements of the future. In France, in the UK, in America, in Germany and, of course, in central Europe, the politics of identity are the coming force. The same goes for Turkey, Russia and India.

It is not simply nativism; it is more sophisticated. Most importantly, and rather counterintuitively, nostalgia is a powerful idea because it can be whatever you want it to be.

If you doubt this, think about what is driving people to buy tickets to Bob Dylan and Neil Young in Kilkenny. It is an exercise in recapturing lost youth; political nostalgia is the electoral equivalent but deployed on a national level.

Enemy of identity

Worryingly for the centre right, nostalgia dismisses globalisation as an enemy of identity and, therefore, something to be opposed; but for the centre left, nostalgia also dismisses environmental concerns out of hand. The French protests after all were stated as a reaction to a carbon tax, the most virtuous tax imaginable to technocrats, but a red rag to nostalgists.

It is not that economics hasn’t delivered; it has delivered enormously. In Ireland, the economy has expanded rapidly in the past few decades, the society is so much richer and on almost every metric, housing apart, life in Ireland is immeasurably better than at any time in the past.

This was delivered by the centre ground, not by the extremes. It should not be taken for granted or assumed away. It has been quite an achievement.

However, what is happening elsewhere should be a warning to us. Ireland has tried the politics of nostalgia in the past; the results were not impressive. We paid for purity with poverty.

Now all over the world, nostalgia is becoming more attractive, simply because it can be anything to anyone. It is an ephemeral memory not an exacting target. It makes for simple slogans and evocative images, but what can it actually deliver?

Watching the French protesters, with their myriad of grievances and front of the barricade solutions, it is easy to explain what they want, harder to figure out how they get it.

But these days, as culture is trumping economics every time, the centre ground needs to come up with a big idea to galvanise people, that appeals to all and unifies the middle ground.

This is one of the challenges for the next decade.

Macron, the master of the campaign, doesn’t seem to have it. He appears to be a man from a different time, somewhere in the mid-1990s. The brilliant moderniser will need to become relevant and, to do that, he needs to face down his biggest enemy: nostalgia.