Emmanuel Macron pays price for doing the right thing

Protests over fuel price rises in France provide a salutary lesson for political leaders

The daunting challenge facing democratic political leaders in this turbulent age was illustrated once gain in recent days when doing the right thing on a major issue of global importance turned into a political disaster for French president Emmanuel Macron.

At the beginning of the week David Attenborough, probably the best-known naturalist on the planet, made an impassioned plea to world leaders at the United Nations climate summit to act immediately to counter the impact of climate change. He raised the spectre of mass extinction if action was not taken soon and his warning was greeted with a chorus of approval around the globe.

Simultaneously in France the efforts of Macron to do precisely what Attenborough and other environmentalists are demanding provoked a political crisis which forced him into a humiliating U-turn, one which threatens to derail his entire reform programme.

The Brexit shambles in the UK is another example of a public at odds with responsible political leaders

While politicians are routinely denounced and derided for their lack of vision the events in France over the past few weeks have demonstrated the hazards that lie in wait for leaders who take their courage in their hands and attempt to chart a new course for their societies.


Climate change

Tackling climate change was one of the key elements of the reform programme that propelled the charismatic Macron to a sweeping victory in the French presidential election 18 months ago, but the practical implementation of that commitment in the form of increased taxes on diesel and petrol has blown up in his face in spectacular fashion.

Understandable popular resentment at higher fuel prices has been exploited by an unholy alliance of right- and left-wing extremists who went on a rampage in Paris and other French cities which left four people dead, hundreds badly injured and millions of euro worth of property destroyed.

The president has suddenly found himself on the ropes besieged, by a range of forces who resented his spectacular ascension to power. Macron’s entire reform programme and his capacity to govern effectively for the remaining 3½ years of his term are now in jeopardy.

There are echoes of the student riots and workers’ strikes that paralysed France 50 years ago in May 1968 when the authority of the country’s greatest leader in the 20th century, Charles de Gaulle was challenged. He fled the country with his wife for a few days leaving it to his prime minister Georges Pompidou to sort out the mess by cutting a deal with the unions.

Fuel price increase

Macron has taken a leaf out of de Gaulle’s book by getting his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, to devise the climb down by putting the fuel price increases that sparked the trouble on hold. De Gaulle never recovered from the erosion of his authority in May 1968 and he resigned a year later, coming to Ireland to rest and recover his composure. The big question today is whether Macron can recover from the damaging blow his authority has received.

The setback suffered by Macron is a salutary lesson for political leaders around Europe as they try to devise the best policies to deal with climate change and other major challenges such as immigration, where the public may not be in tune with what needs to be done. The traditional tolerance in France for street violence has made this all the more difficult for Macron.

The Brexit shambles in the UK is another example of a public at odds with responsible political leaders and willing to embark on a course of action that threatens to end in national disaster at the behest of irresponsible and cynical rabble rousers.

Closer to home when Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe unveiled his budget in the Dáil back in October he was widely criticised, including in this column, for his decision not to raise the price of diesel or do anything else of significance with regard to climate change.

Looking at how events have played out in France, the conclusion must be that Donohoe was politically wise to approach the issue cautiously and wait until the public is persuaded of the need for higher carbon taxes before setting off down that road.

The Government and the various State agencies need to do much more to educate people about the realities of climate change and choices that face society before they embark on further measures to deal with the problem.

Events in France and the UK have illustrated the difficulties facing politicians who attempt to act in the long-term interests of their people by taking decisions which cause some pain in the short term.

Dealing with an immediate threat to a society can sometimes be easier than facing up to a long-term one such as climate change. When Ireland was threatened with financial collapse back in the 2008-2010 period a range of severe measures which had a direct impact on the incomes of most people were taken.

There were no riots on the streets and, if anything, a general acceptance that pain had to be endured as the price of national survival. There was, though, a massive political price and the Fianna Fáil government which implemented the cutbacks was trounced in 2011. In politics there is often no reward for doing the right thing.