Macron Can Survive France’s Anger

The French will remain restive unless and until the effects of their president’s ambitious reforms kick in.

A man poses on a pillory with a French flag during a demonstration against rising fuel prices on Nov. 17, 2018 in Dole, France. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)
A man poses on a pillory with a French flag during a demonstration against rising fuel prices on Nov. 17, 2018 in Dole, France. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

France’s extraordinary experiment with liberalization is teetering. The weekly “yellow jacket” protests over the diesel tax designed to speed France’s transition to renewable energy, startling both in their complete spontaneity and in their growing violence, have emboldened opposition parties and forced the typically intransigent President Emmanuel Macron to re-consider his polices. Underneath the outburst is a broad frustration with a still stagnant economy. France’s growth rate remains modest (about 1.6 percent) and the unemployment rate stubbornly high (at 9.2 percent). Macron’s approval rate has sunk to 26 percent.

If this were happening to most leaders, they’d be cooked. In Macron’s case, though, the solemn memorials to vanished promise now finding their way into print are premature. In an interview with CNN this month, he accepted that the economic measures he had imposed had made him unpopular but predicted that the French would begin feeling the positive effects within “18 to 24 months, at least.” If they don’t, of course, then he is doomed.

Macron’s grip over his very large majority in the National Assembly has weakened in recent days as law-makers have called for a roll-back of tax hikes and a prompt meeting with “yellow jacket” leaders, at least if leaders can be found to meet with. Nevertheless, few Western leaders can depend on the legislative loyalty that Macron still commands. I called some of the same freshman legislators with whom I met in May and found them fazed but scarcely panicked. Gaël Le Bohec, a representative from Brittany, said that he saw in the protests a “crisis of representativity” brought on by the collapse of institutions through which criticism was once channeled, including unions and opposition parties, but not a direct repudiation of Macron’s policies.

Of course, this may reflect the self-delusion of the true believer. In one recent poll, two-thirds of respondents asserted that Macron’s tax policies, including rate reductions on individual assets and on corporations, had aggravated social inequalities. That harsh reception may have been unavoidable in a nation that regards equality as a sacred principle, but Macron’s effort to offload more withholding payments onto employers, and thus to increase take-home pay, also proved unpopular. Macron keeps promising to more “buying power,” but most French aren’t feeling it. The diesel tax, which falls hardest on small-town and suburban workers with modest incomes, was just the last straw.

Liberalization is not popular, but that’s no surprise. President Nicolas Sarkozy, a notorious hard-ass, was forced to retreat from his efforts to make it easier for French firms to hire and fire first-time workers in the face of mass protests. The French recognize that they are stuck in a low-growth, high-unemployment rut, but they resist the labor-law and tax reforms that have worked in Germany, Denmark, and other northern European welfare states. Voters never gave Macron a mandate for reform; the collapse of the traditional parties made him the sole alternative to Marine Le Pen of the National Front (now renamed the National Rally). The French voted for republicanism, not liberalism.

The demise of the usual alternatives constitutes Macron’s other structural advantage. Laurent Bigorgne, head of the very pro-Macron Institut Montaigne, pointed out to me that the self-appointed leaders of the gilets jaunes protests have been at pains to distance themselves from parties of either the left or the right. So far, the protests have hurt Macron without helping any of his rivals. The acid test will come in elections to the European Union Parliament in May. Le Pen’s party has edged ahead of Macron’s in the most recent polls of voter intentions for May. Such an outcome would be a crippling blow for Macron. Despite his calls for the patience required for the harsh medicine of reform to begin working, the economic timescale may turn out to be more protracted than the political one.

It has become increasingly clear that Macron is a strong leader but a tin-eared politician. He has stuck to his guns where Sarkozy and Hollande did not. He has so far refused to cancel the diesel tax, though he has proposed a rather complicated reform allowing the figure to be periodically adjusted through a vote in the National Assembly. One wonders if he thought such a finely calibrated turn of the dial would calm the public mood. Macron seems to completely lack the gifts required to make his reforms palatable. He famously dismissed a young unemployed gardener with the claim, “I can find you a job just by crossing the road.”

Macron thought the French wanted a reincarnation of De Gaulle. He has said that the French still feel the absence of the king, and has spoken [] almost wistfully of a doctrine of “democratic heroism” in which the leader incarnates the spirit of the people. He has sought to find that space between technocrat and monarch; one can only observe that so far, the French have not been persuaded by the technocrat or seduced by the monarch. The French regard him as an elitist who carries out policies that benefit the elite at the expense of the squeezed middle class. They repudiate both his manner and his views, which stipulate that France must encourage investment by diminishing the regulatory and tax burden on companies and on the rich.

Macron will not change his policies. One wonders how far he is willing or able to recast his political persona, or how hard he will be pushed to do so. Dominique David, an En Marche legislator from Bordeaux, told me that the president needed to change not his manner but his “method.” She was thinking of the vow he made earlier this week to conduct a grassroots national debate on the “ecological and social transition” to renewable energy. In any case, Macron’s supporters believe that he ushered in a new model of consultation with the local discussion forums he established during the presidential campaign. David also believes that Macron will address the problem of “representativity” with a series of proposed constitutional reforms that would open seats to smaller parties and prevent politicians from holding several elective jobs at once. In short, one should not expect a Macron 2.0 to emerge from his trials.

Macron is hardly the “ultra-liberal” his critics make him out to be. Like U.S. President Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the champions of the 1990s-era “third way,” he combined a faith in market mechanisms with a belief in targeted state spending. Macron has either made or proposed major investments in energy transition, primary-school education, basic science and research, and job training and re-training. But as one yellow-jacket protestor told a reporter, elites worried about global warming “talk about the end of the world while we talk about the end of the month.”

In short, even if Macron were to make his path a little smoother with a more human touch, there’s no getting around its thorniness. The diesel tax was just the sort of painful measure that leaders must take in order to reduce carbon consumption—but have generally avoided. Macron has called for a stronger EU at a time when most voters say they want a weaker one. Amid rising nationalism, he is an unwavering voice for multilateralism who refuses to campaign against refugees and immigration (though his subsequent policies on the subject have been notably cautious).

This is why Macron’s fate matters so much. His insistence, at the same time, on restoring French “sovereignty,” and French glory, offers a path between liberal universalism and reactionary nationalism. Indeed, in the CNN interview, Macron described his “three pillars” of increased competitiveness, investments in innovation and human capital, and a faith in sovereignty—in Frenchness—as “the best answer to nationalists.”

Emmanuel Macron is the only leader of a major Western country who is trying to do something brave, and whose fate is worth caring about. It is true that he is often his own worst enemy. One can only watch this experiment nervously and hope for the best.

Updated on Dec. 3 to clarify the extent of Macron’s support.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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