Macron's error: politics is the art of the possible
Emmanuel Macron must find it incomprehensible. A few weeks ago, as this column observed, he considered himself the next emperor of Europe, awaiting Angela Merkel’s withdrawal from the German chancellorship before ascending his apparently inevitable throne.
Now he is humbled, humiliated, forced into a craven surrender to a traditional French mob chucking cobblestones and Molotov cocktails.
Le Figaro, during the mid-December EU summit, put it appropriately: ‘Macron affaibli sur la scène européenne’, splashed on its front page across a photograph of the president, his gaze fixed to the ground ahead of him, walking into the meeting alone and manifestly without his usual swagger.
That he had to apologise for that swagger – his arrogance, which seemed to mark him out as a self-conscious Brahmin or elitist – as part of his appeasement of the gilets jaunes was but a part of his self-abasement before a group who chose civil disobedience rather than constitutional methods to show their dissatisfaction with the Macron régime.
How did they hobble him so quickly? Perhaps the first reason lay in a central paradox of French life: that for a country which, since 1789, has prided itself on equality, it has through its system of grandes écoles created a ruling elite of which M. Macron is a poor advertisement.
It is an elite that betrays little connection with the average French man or woman, and the gulf between the two was responsible for M. Macron’s inability to damp down the feelings of the protesters. He simply did not know where to start and was being bombarded on a number of fronts.
That was a further problem. The gilets jaunes were a barely coherent force: they had no leader, or any unanimously-agreed manifesto of objections to the Macron programme. Once M. Macron settled what had appeared to be the main problem – the rise in taxation of diesel and petrol that especially disadvantaged those living in the French countryside – others, such as purchasing power and the size of disposable income – came out of the metaphorical trees and started to attack him.
The president went on television to offer his list of bribes and inducements to his disaffected people, including a rise in the minimum wage, but seemed to have had the stuffing knocked out of him aware his forthrightness in the past had done him no favours, M. Macron now seemed positively sheepish. Having been perceived as aggressive, he was now perceived as weak.
The British statesman R. A. Butler, one of the cleverest men to have held office in the United Kingdom in the last century and, largely for that reason, twice cheated of the job of prime minister, called politics “the art of the possible”. M. Macron would have done well to bear that in mind, because if you design policies to assist a minority at the expense of the many you are asking for trouble.
His fuel tax increases aimed to combat global warming, something dear to the hearts of metropolitan liberals in Paris as in smart cities the world over. If it occurred to M. Macron the required sacrifice might not play so well in the Dordogne, the Auvergne or the economically-deprived villages of Hauts-de-France, he did not allow it to affect his policy. By trying to do what was impossible, he has badly weakened himself.
He has more than three years of his mandate left; he also has pitifully weak organised political opposition, another, and under-appreciated, reason for the rise of the gilets jaunes, who were merely doing what a serious Opposition ought to do. Also, France is rich enough, in global terms, to rub along issuing the odd bribe and inducement to calm down the people without causing immediate economic collapse. But M. Macron does not have a coherent party of his own; La République en Marche, the vehicle that got him to the Élysée Palace in 2019, started to decompose almost as soon as its job was done. M. Macron was elected because he was not Marine Le Pen; he will need a more compelling argument if he is to have a second term.
What seemed his main intention when assuming power – to restructure the French economy – was right.
France is an uncompetitive nation that, and as a result (and because of being trapped in a currency union that overvalues its currency, a project M. Macron actively supports) has depressingly high unemployment and too many on low earnings.
Despite one or two victories against them – notably against the rail workers earlier this year – it remains a country in which syndicalists wield disproportionate power. Despite, also, M. Macron having begun to address the problem of the Code du travail, the massive rulebook by which relations between employers and their staff are regulated, France remains a profoundly over-regulated economy. After his surrender to the gilets jaunes – a surrender made all the more embarrassing after the massive displays of force, with hundreds of arrests, that preceded it – it defies belief that the president can achieve the sort of widespread reforms that France so badly needs.
He should have engaged the public – and not just his fellow elitists – in a proper conversation about how he needed their co-operation to change France in a way that equipped it to deal with the modern world.
His main hope must be that the gilets jaunes form a party and stand in the European elections in the spring, and take votes from his rivals – though they might just take votes from LREM, itself a protest movement. As it is, France remains trapped in the mindset of the Fourth Republic, the consensual ideas advanced after 1946 to unite a France riven by the occupation. France must, it seems, await yet another president to lead this change of mind and to take the country into the 21st century.
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