It’s Macron’s Destiny to Be Hated

The French president can make all the concessions he wants, but he can’t make the public like him.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a special address to the nation, his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide 'yellow vest' (gilet jaune) protests, on December 10, 2018 in Paris. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a special address to the nation, his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide 'yellow vest' (gilet jaune) protests, on December 10, 2018 in Paris. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

When it comes to classical French tragedy, the fifth and final act always ends badly. In the plays of Jean Racine, Phèdre poisons herself or Eriphile stabs herself, Oreste goes mad or Nero goes even madder. The curtain then comes down, the lights come on, the audience leaves the theater and real life goes on.

Five centuries later, as France prepares for its own Act 5, Racine still has tragic lessons to teach.

Last night, President Emmanuel Macron spoke to the French nation. Looking haggard, he locked his gaze on the camera and declared an “economic state of emergency.” By way of measures, Macron vowed to raise the monthly minimum wage by 100 euros—a significant gesture, as only yesterday his labor minister vowed that it would not be raised—and to cancel the planned tax increases on those earning less than 2,000 euros a month. Equally significantly, however, he also declared the “wealth tax” he eliminated when he came to office would not be reintroduced. To do so, he declared, would cripple efforts to attract business investors to France.

It’s unlikely, however, that the speech will heal Macron’s crippled presidency. To say that his address was eagerly, even anxiously awaited would be an understatement. Since mid-November, a vast movement known as the gilets jaunes—the name reflecting the yellow traffic vests they wear—has held center stage in France. On Saturday, they marked what they called “Act 4”—the fourth consecutive Saturday of mass protests. This time, more than 100,000 yellow vests gathered in dozens of cities, with 10,000 converging on Paris alone.

They had come to express, once again, their displeasure—indeed, their hatred—for the government and for President Macron. Countless protesters have used this word to explain why they have taken—many of them for the first time—to the streets. In part, the hatred has been sparked by several official measures, ranging from a now-canceled hike in the gasoline tax and lowering of the speed limit to an increase in withholding taxes and elimination of the wealth tax, coupled with a decline in buying power and persistent unemployment.

Yet these policies alone fail to explain fully the social and political passions now burning. There has been no shortage of commentary, from observers and participants, on the ways in which Macron has turned himself so quickly into so reviled a figure. He had barely settled in the Elysée when he took the residence’s name all too literally, presenting himself as Jupiter-like figure. In fairness, Macron did not use the word to describe himself; instead, he applied it to his predecessor, François Hollande, whose failure he attributed to his refusal to be a “Jupiterian president.”

But he certainly tried to rule as a Jupiter, insisting on what his advisers called “verticality”—namely, that not only orders come from the top, but also reasoning and reflection are limited to the top. This held true not just for Macron’s specific actions, but also his general attitude. Earlier this year, for example, he exclaimed during a meeting on social security that the poor were “raking in the dough” (the French phrase, un pognon de dingue, is much earthier).

Or, again, there was this summer’s “Benalla Affair.” When videos eventually surfaced of Macron’s bodyguard Alexandre Benalla pummeling protesters in Paris, the Elysée sought to deny and deflect. Though Benalla was finally fired and charged, Macron maintained radio silence. When he finally broke the silence, he struck a note of lèse-majesté, declaring that he and he alone was responsible for what took place in the government. Fatefully, he added that if others had a problem with this, “Let them come and get me.”

Monday’s speech is proof that some French are willing to take up that challenge. The price, in terms of casualties (four dead and several hundred wounded) and money lost (hundreds of millions of euros in material damages, store and office closures, and overextended security forces), qualifies as an utter disaster for Macron.

From the start, he showed he did not understand that even Jupiter—or at least Homer’s Zeus—rules as primus inter pares: first among equals. While the mightiest of gods, he still abides by the norms of Olympus.

Yet, Macron said little in Monday’s speech that suggests he now grasps this nuance. Erect and rigid, he recognized he had “wounded” others with his words, but he failed to apologize for those same words. More importantly, while he tried to change his tone, it is not clear whether he changed it enough.

Moreover, though he repeatedly used the words “terrain” and “territoire” to underscore his concerns for rural and provincial France, Macron’s rhetoric fell flat; it’s unlikely he will convince anyone of his sincere affection for the French provinces. (This reflects a small but telling difference between Macron and nearly all past presidents. While Chirac regularly retreated to his native Corrèze, Mitterrand to his childhood Charente, and of course de Gaulle to his Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, Macron hasn’t a hometown he wishes to call his own. Though born in Amiens, Macron never waxes poetic about his provincial roots.)

Countless commentators have, understandably, pillaged France’s revolutionary past to make sense of the present-day pickle the country is now in. Many cite 1789, while others plump for 1830, 1848, or 1870. The yellow vests have been compared both to the sans-culottes of 1792—the artisans of working-class Paris who paved the way to the Terror—and the Parisian students of 1968, who nearly toppled the government of Charles de Gaulle. Yet other commentators link the rising price of gasoline today to the rising price of bread in 1789, or set today’s upheavals side by side with the medieval jacqueries, when peasants rose up against royal taxes.

The problem is that France’s current predicament is both much newer and much older than are any of these historical comparisons. It is newer not because the yellow vests are leaderless—this, after all, was largely the case with the revolutionaries of 1848—but because the source for every revolution in France has been Paris and Parisians. From 1789 to 1968, the capital of light has been the great protagonist in France’s revolutionary narrative, as in that of the modern world.

Until now, that is. The last several weeks have turned this story on its head. The vast majority of yellow vests hail not from Paris, but the provinces. Long kept under the tutelage of Paris, the residents of these exurban and rural reaches, increasingly isolated from the state and its diminishing services, are striking back. Through their demonstrations, they have not only stolen the lead role from Paris, but they have also transformed it into a simple stage.

If it is a stage, it is a tragic one. Something far older is now at play than the government’s goal of fiscal rectitude or the yellow vests’ goal of economic justice. Instead, what is at play is what we see in Racine’s plays: the character flaw of otherwise admirable individuals who, though acting in good faith, nevertheless commit enormities. While the violence is offstage in a Racine tragedy, and onstage in France’s current tragedy, in both cases it is provoked by the blinding self-confidence, of a ruler—someone who, for justifiable reasons, commits unjustifiable acts.

This is also known as hubris. Shortly before he resigned as interior minister in October, the old Socialist Gérard Collomb used this very word to describe his boss. Whether it is, as Collomb suggested, a “curse of the gods” or more simply a curse of the École Nationale d’Administration—the grande école (a term for France’s most prestigious academic institutions) that trained Macron and the rest of France’s technocratic elite—can be debated. What is not open to debate is the predicament in which Macron now finds himself. It is damning that while Macron finally canceled the gas tax increase, Act 4 nevertheless took place and his popularity continues to plummet. According to a poll by the newspaper Le Figaro, Macron’s support has sunk to 21 percent.

Of course, the tragic dimensions of France’s predicament stretch beyond this one man. For example, the gas tax, meant to help France’s transition to cleaner forms of energy, seeks to avert the end of the world. But what, the yellow vests wonder, about the end of the month? This has become their rallying cry, and it is one that touches on the very essence of tragedy, whether staged in the Comédie Française or on the Champs-Élysées—namely, the collision of seemingly incommensurable, yet equally justifiable ends.

Nicolas Hulot, Macron’s former minister of the environment, believes such a collision is not inevitable, arguing that social justice and environmental imperatives can be reconciled. For now, though, the question is whether Macron can fully achieve what Racine, following Aristotle, calls anagnorisis. This is the moment the tragic hero, lurching from ignorance to insight, suddenly sees what had always been right under his nose. This moment, at least in Racine, usually arrives when it is too late. As a leading member of the French chorus, the centrist politician François Bayrou, is fond of saying: “When it’s too late, it’s too late.”

This week may well prove Bayrou right. Macron clearly needs to do more—and, yes, say more and with more heart—in the coming days. If he fails, and the curtain opens next Saturday on what gilets jaunes organizers are calling Act 5, those who have been rooting for Macron as liberal Europe’s last great hope will simply echo the last word of Racine’s tragedy Bérénice: Alas!

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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