Macron needs to re­gain his pop­u­lar touch

The French pres­i­dent needs to find a way to tackle both cli­mate change and the anger on the streets

Tehran Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Al­most two decades ago a new fresh-faced leader of the cen­ter-left emerged in Europe and ap­peared, hav­ing won a his­toric elec­tion, on the cusp of chang­ing pol­i­tics in his coun­try. But as he flew higher, he lost a sense of the pub­lic mood and failed to face up early on to a cri­sis which brought his mod­ern in­dus­trial so­ci­ety to a halt. In do­ing so he re­vealed an in­abil­ity to con­trol events or win around pub­lic opin­ion. Then the coun­try was Bri­tain and the young prime min­is­ter Tony Blair. To­day the na­tion is France; and the leader is Em­manuel Macron. Then, as now, a se­ries of seem­ingly lead­er­less protests saw ag­grieved so­cial con­stituents latch on to a nar­rowly framed but pop­u­lar eco­nomic griev­ance: the ris­ing cost of fuel due to green taxes. Blair con­sid­ered bring­ing in the army. Macron weighs up whether a state of emer­gency will re­store or­der.

It is tempt­ing think plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – but that would ig­nore the broader pic­ture. Pres­i­dent Macron faces a threat far more ex­is­ten­tial than Blair did. Lib­eral democ­ra­cies are be­ing desta­bi­lized by the abil­ity of groups to or­ga­nize and crit­i­cize on so­cial me­dia with ar­gu­ments that pre­vi­ously would have taken longer to en­ter the po­lit­i­cal blood­stream. The gilets jaunes (yel­low vest) un­rest saw 170,000 take to the streets of Paris at the week­end. Ri­ot­ers torched cars and build­ings. Scrib­bled on the Arc de Tri­om­phe was “Macron res­ig­na­tion”. Macron’s pro-busi­ness rhetoric and tin ear for the street have seen him cast as the em­bod­i­ment of the na­tion’s elite, dis­con­nected from the coun­try, and will­ing to fa­vor the rich.

Macron was right to sug­gest that higher fuel taxes are needed to fight cli­mate change. Pro­mot­ing green poli­cies is cru­cial in the week that cli­mate talks be­gin in Poland. We have just a dozen years to re­duce emis­sions and cap global warm­ing at 1.5C above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els. Blair ended above-in­fla­tion in­creases of fuel prices. This was a mis­take: the long-term sur­vival of this planet rests on politi­cians mak­ing the right call. But while higher taxes can be use­ful to change peo­ple’s be­hav­iors, they are not suf­fi­cient when so many peo­ple feel they are an ex­tra bur­den in pre­car­i­ous times. Macron ought to re­call the words of Louis XIV’s fi­nance min­is­ter, Jean-Bap­tiste Col­bert, who re­marked wisely that “the art of tax­a­tion con­sists in so pluck­ing the goose as to ob­tain the largest pos­si­ble amount of feath­ers with the small­est pos­si­ble amount of hiss­ing”. The sound of gilets jaunes hiss­ing is now ring­ing in the French pres­i­dent’s ears.

Seen as aloof and well-off, Macron needs to re­gain his pop­u­lar touch. His party, La République En Marche, will square off against the far-right Rassem­ble­ment Na­tional (the re-branded Na­tional Front) in the Eu­ro­pean par­lia­ment elec­tions next May. Macron staked his fu­ture on win­ning over Ger­many by de­liv­er­ing pro-mar­ket struc­tural re­forms in France, which would put an end to EU rep­ri­mands over Paris’s bud­get plans. His bet that tax cuts would be more pop­u­lar than more spend­ing has not paid off. What­ever their ben­e­fits, the only tax cut peo­ple re­mem­ber is the one for the rich. Macron’s big ideas have also been rel­e­gated by Berlin in fa­vor of smaller mea­sures. It would be smarter now to steer Europe away from mar­ket-heavy poli­cies and put a greater em­pha­sis on growth in France’s stut­ter­ing econ­omy. The un­em­ploy­ment rate is still stub­bornly close to 10%. Macron is right that the euro­zone would op­er­ate bet­ter with a fed­eral fis­cal ca­pac­ity and a full bank­ing union. But he can only make those ar­gu­ments by be­ing canny enough to win over vot­ers at home.

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