Macron is dan­ger­ously close to be­com­ing French toast

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - KON­RAD YAKABUSKI

When he quit in Septem­ber as French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s Mr. Fix-It in­te­rior minister, Gérard Col­lomb fired a part­ing shot at his for­mer boss.

Not­ing that not many peo­ple were left in the hy­per­ki­netic Pres­i­dent’s en­tourage who could still speak frankly to Mr. Macron, Mr. Col­lomb warned: “If ev­ery­one bows be­fore him, he is go­ing to end up iso­lat­ing him­self.”

Mr. Col­lomb, a 71-year-old vet­eran of French pol­i­tics, of­fi­cially left Mr. Macron’s cab­i­net to re­turn to his for­mer job as mayor of Lyon.

But his de­par­ture sig­nalled a deeper prob­lem, as sev­eral of the new Pres­i­dent’s ear­li­est con­fi­dants be­gan to weary of his con­trol­ling style.

Now, af­ter a week that shook his pres­i­dency, forc­ing his gov- ern­ment to aban­don a planned 2019 fuel tax in­crease aimed specif­i­cally at cut­ting car­bon emis­sions, Mr. Macron in­deed looks quite alone. Hav­ing mi­cro­man­aged his way into this mess, he con­fronts a cri­sis en­tirely of his own mak­ing. It is not clear that he can re­cover his au­thor­ity, much less his for­mer pop­u­lar­ity.

That has deep im­pli­ca­tions for France, Europe and pos­si­bly the en­tire free world. Elected at the age of only 39, hav­ing cre­ated his own po­lit­i­cal party from scratch, Mr. Macron had the mark­ings of a man des­tined to make his­tory. France had not seen a leader who in­spired as much op­ti­mism or pos­sessed as much je ne sais quoi since at least François Mit­ter­rand.

Mr. Macron needed ev­ery bit of po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal he could muster if he was to make France’s econ­omy great again.

His elec­tion fol­lowed two failed pres­i­den­cies, those of Ni­co­las Sarkozy and François Hol­lande, nei­ther of whom had been able to re­verse France’s relentless de­cline as high taxes and pub­lic debt smoth­ered growth.

Mr. Sarkozy did man­age to raise the re­tire­ment age to 62 from 60, al­beit at a heavy cost to his pop­u­lar­ity, but the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis un­der­mined his abil­ity to go any fur­ther. Be­sides, his abra­sive per­son­al­ity came to so ir­ri­tate French vot­ers that they sim­ply stopped lis­ten­ing to him.

Mr. Hol­lande, a So­cial­ist elected in 2012 mainly be­cause he was not Mr. Sarkozy, never did in­spire much hope out­side the cir­cle of tech­nocrats from which he him­self emerged. A weak leader, his pres­i­dency be­came a com­edy of er­rors. His in­de­ci­sion af­ter the 2015 ter­ror­ist at­tacks left the coun­try more di­vided and led to a schism in his party.

That split was, in part, pro­voked by Mr. Macron, who quit as Mr. Hol­lande’s econ­omy minister in 2016 af­ter hav­ing hatched a not-so-se­cret plan to re­place his for­mer boss. Mr. Macron laid waste to both of France’s tra­di­tional par­ties, al­low­ing him to em­bark on his five-year man­date with a clean slate.

Mr. Macron held ir­re­sistible ap­peal for a sub­sec­tion of in­flu­en­tial French vot­ers, specif­i­cally the ed­u­cated and sec­u­lar elites who dom­i­nate French pub­lic dis­course. And the aura he and the French me­dia helped cre­ate around his per­son­al­ity al­lowed him to push through re­forms that pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents could only dream of.

Now, af­ter the worst ri­ots to hit Paris in 50 years, Mr. Macron looks merely as mor­tal as his failed pre­de­ces­sors. The protests by the “yel­low vests” against his gov­ern­ment’s car­bon tax stemmed from a fa­tal mis­cal­cu­la­tion on Mr. Macron’s part and ex­posed the Pres­i­dent’s own tone deaf­ness.

Most gilets jaunes – so named for the re­flec­tive se­cu­rity vests they have donned in protest – did not vote for Mr. Macron. If they voted, they were more likely to sup­port the far-right anti-im­mi­gra­tion fear­mon­ger Ma­rine Le Pen or far-left anti-glob­al­iza­tion ag­i­ta­tor Jean-Luc Mé­len­chon. But Mr. Macron’s fail­ure to ap­pre­ci­ate the depth of their anger and alien­ation could do him in un­less he gets busy try­ing to ad­dress it.

That will mean for­get­ting about his grandiose ef­forts to save the Euro­pean Union, much less the planet, to fo­cus on do­mes­tic af­fairs. Aban­don­ing the car­bon tax will leave a hole in his gov­ern­ment’s 2019 bud­get, one that will grow if he de­liv­ers (as he must) on fur­ther tax re­lief to sat­isfy the gilets jaunes.

His gov­ern­ment may also need to re­in­state a wealth tax on fi­nan­cial as­sets that it scrapped last year. The wealth tax was a brake on in­vest­ment in France and was one rea­son so many well-off French cit­i­zens had taken up res­i­dence in Switzer­land and Bel­gium. But if he wants to rid him­self of the dam­ag­ing “pres­i­dent of the rich” la­bel he has earned, Mr. Macron will need to show he cares more about the bot­tom 50 per cent of French cit­i­zens than the top 1 per cent.

He does not have much time if France is to avoid an­other failed pres­i­dency.

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