Macron gambles on majority choosing his way over GJ’s

After President Macron’s address to the French people on 25 April – delayed by 10 days because of the terrible fire at Notre-Dame de Paris – only one question needed to be asked: had he done enough?

1 May 2019
By Nathalie Nicolas

The answer has to be that only time will tell, and it may not require too many weeks before it does tell.

Mr Macron spoke to his country rather than the gilets jaunes, whose protests had continued unabated and have undermined his authority.

His hope must be that, even if the gilets jaunes won’t see reason, most French will, and will marginalise the extremist fringe. They might not, in which case the Macron presidency could go into free-fall.

Many of the things offered after France’s “great debate” were for the benefit of those who have not gone out and caused disruption, Saturday after Saturday – notably the promised middle-class tax cut and the indexation of some pensions.

There was a significant carrot to the protestors, however, in the recognition that the duty increases on fuel, levied supposedly in the interests of cleaning up the planet, were deeply unpopular, especially in rural France.

But one of the great initiatives trailed before the speech – the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), which trains France’s political elite, would be closed down – proved to be something of an exaggeration.

If the ENA didn’t exist, an Oxbridge or Ivy League rank of universities would soon evolve in France to take its place training the ruling class.

What, perhaps, Mr Macron should have asked himself was not whether ENA should be abolished, but whether the idea of specific training for bureaucracy is a concept that had had its day even before anyone had heard of the gilets jaunes.

For all that the catastrophe of Notre- Dame de Paris was said to have united the French people in regret at what had happened to their magnificent national monument, and in their determination to have it rebuilt, the venomous responses to the offers of multi-million euro donations from France’s main plutocrats to finance the rebuilding shows how deeply polarised France is.

One critic talked of the “cathedral of the poor” in France that could be helped by these funds if they were not spent on the rebuilding (a philosophical error, as the donors were not interested in giving money to people they feel deserve it less than a ruined international landmark).

Others suggested that it was an opportunity for the plutocrats to appear benevolent, pious and public-spirited while reaping enormous tax reliefs.

This was a sign of how France outside the périphérique differs in its views of life from France within: and it remains a country as polarised by class jealousies as ever it was in the novels of Flaubert and Balzac.

Some say that, in healing divisions, Mr Macron has to attend to polarities of view and conviction that date back to the trauma of the Occupation nearly 80 years ago; but in fact, these were ills that were not remotely cured, but in the end perhaps even aggravated, by the events of 1789, 1830 and 1848.

Which takes us back to Mr Macron’s speech, made 50 years almost to the day after the resignation from office of Charles de Gaulle.

It will play well that he admitted his tone earlier in his presidency had not been right, though he still finds it hard to admit any mistakes of policy.

The fact is that he has been in office for two years, and after a campaign in which he explicitly promised to heal France’s divisions he has only made them worse.

It did show a willingness to learn that he convened the great national debates, but his approach to government has made France a tense and unhappy place.

Only a country more at ease with itself would ever accept the reforms its needs to allow it to compete better internationally – such as reforms to working practices, to the retirement age, to the idea of reducing the role of the state in running a country.

Has Mr Macron sold himself effectively to the French people in this regard? It seems unlikely.

And if that is so, it will be for some other French president to create the atmosphere in which change can be effected, because if Mr Macron has not convinced his people now, they are unlikely to trust him after these two wasted years.

Also, it is one thing to make amends to an electorate with whom one might have been heavy-handed, but quite another to panic because one fears one is losing control.

Two of the other promises the president made could come back to haunt him. To say he would make referendums easier risks stripping power from the executive in France and handing it to the people.

A telephone call to Theresa May or David Cameron might have enlightened him about the possible consequences, especially in a country where populism shows signs of having some way further to go before it reaches its peak.

If the French find it possible to call referendums on matters that irk them – notably aspects of France’s relations with Europe and its need to conform with various unpopular European policies on, for example, immigration or environmental matters – then M Macron could start to have rings run round him.

And the extension of proportional representation in elections could also give immense power to populists.

A president only takes risks such as those when he fears he is cornered.

If the gilets jaunes keep turning out at weekends, and retain the tacit support of a substantial proportion of French public opinion, Mr Macron will still be in that corner – and have little choice but to stew for three more years before handing the poisoned chalice to someone else.

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics. Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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