Macron’s money won’t make France happy

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - David McWilliams

Two huge rivers, the Rhone and the Soane which con­verge in Lyon, have been fer­ry­ing goods, peo­ple and ideas into this ma­jes­tic city for cen­turies. The Greeks were here, so too were the Ro­mans. The Ro­mans made this place the cap­i­tal of Gaul.

When Julius Cae­sar was as­sas­si­nated, the re­cently sub­ju­gated Gauls re­volted, prompt­ing the Ro­mans to move their city to the high ground over the rivers. From here the city flour­ished, close to Italy, Switzer­land and Ger­many, ab­sorb­ing ideas and peo­ple from each re­gion.

Ex­am­ples of these for­eign in­cur­sions abound. The Gothic cathe­dral, a sym­bol of the power of the Catholic Church, was ex­ten­sively de­faced by Calvin­ists from Geneva who took over the city briefly. The silk in­dus­try, cre­ated by Ital­ian mer­chants, drove the bour­geois pros­per­ity of the city for cen­turies.

Yet a re­volt, by the same silk work­ers in the 1830s, em­bold­ened a young rad­i­cal Ger­man ag­i­ta­tor, Karl Marx, to imag­ine a work­ers’ rev­o­lu­tion. In the se­cond World War, Lyon was the cen­tre of the French Re­sis­tance, lead­ing to Klaus Bar­bie, the Butcher of Lyon, to fo­cus the Gestapo’s coun­terin­sur­gency ef­forts here, cul­mi­nat- ing in the bru­tal mur­der of Jean Moulin, the Re­sis­tance leader in Lyon in 1943.

The signs of the lat­est French protests, the “gilets jaunes”, are ev­ery­where. Po­lice are ubiq­ui­tous on the streets; so is the anti-Macron graf­fiti and the lo­cal re­ac­tion to Macron’s speech ear­lier this week, which verges on de­ri­sion.

Macron, as be­fits a tech­no­crat, tried to buy off the pro­test­ers with money promis­ing higher min­i­mum wages and no new taxes.

How­ever, the protests, at least to this trav­eller, ap­pear to be com­ing from some­where deeper and won’t be as­suaged by fi­nan­cial to­kenism.

On the sur­face it is hard to un­der­stand, from an ex­clu­sively eco­nomic per­spec­tive, where the French anger comes from. France is one of the most so­phis­ti­cated coun­tries in the world. Its wel­fare state is phe­nom­e­nal, French com­pa­nies are world beat­ers in en­gi­neer­ing and avi­a­tion, ed­u­ca­tion is free, pub­lic trans­port is ex­cel­lent, and the heath ser­vice comes out in the top 10 in the world.

Cul­tur­ally, the coun­try is mus­cu­lar in de­fence of the French way, gas­tro­nom­i­cally France has been look­ing down its Gal­lic nose at the rest of us for years, the weather’s not bad; even its foot­ball team won the World Cup with­out break­ing sweat!

Yet its still-new pres­i­dent is deeply un­pop­u­lar, and his ef­forts to pla­cate the na­tional protests through the nar­row gauge lens of eco­nomics have thus far made things worse. Why?

The rea­son is that eco­nomics isn’t ev­ery­thing. For far too long pol­i­tics has been dom­i­nated by the no­tion that money

Gas­tro­nom­i­cally France has been look­ing down its Gal­lic nose at the rest of us for years, the weather’s not bad ; even its foot­ball team won the World Cup with­out break­ing sweat!

can solve ev­ery­thing. But this is not the case.

Look at Brexit. Ev­ery econ­o­mist tells the Bri­tish peo­ple that eco­nom­i­cally and fi­nan­cially, Brexit will cost them. The Bank of Eng­land gover­nor ex­plains that house prices and in­di­vid­ual wealth will fall. Bri­tish in­dus­try and com­merce warns of cap­i­tal flight and un­em­ploy­ment.

Yet the polls have hardly budged. Mil­lions of English, a peo­ple dis­missed by Napoleon as a “na­tion of [money ob­sessed] shop­keep­ers”, don’t care. For a sup­posed mer­can­tile peo­ple, this cav­a­lier at­ti­tude to money is per­plex­ing, un­til we ac­knowl­edge that what is driv­ing Brexit is the pol­i­tics of nos­tal­gia rather than the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of eco­nomics.

Be­lief in eco­nomics is fu­elled by a be­lief in the fu­ture. It’s about do­ing the right thing to­day to de­liver a bet­ter out­come to­mor­row. It is sci­en­tific or, at the very least, it pre­tends to be. It is the prom­ise of tech­noc­racy and, more im­por­tantly, it pur­ports to be ad­min­is­tra­ble to ev­ery coun­try in the same doses. It is the an­tithe­sis of nos­tal­gia, which is rooted in his­tory, shared ex­pe­ri­ences and iden­tity.

In a place like Lyon, as in Leeds, you can’t eas­ily buy off the mag­netism of nos­tal­gia, his­tory and iden­tity with the prom­ise of tax cuts, a slightly bet­ter min­i­mum wage or lower in­ter­est rates.

It is dan­ger­ous to dis­miss these iden­tity move­ments as some­thing from the past be­cause they could be­come the move­ments of the fu­ture. In France, in the UK, in Amer­ica, in Ger­many and, of course, in cen­tral Europe, the pol­i­tics of iden­tity are the com­ing force. The same goes for Tur­key, Rus­sia and In­dia.

It is not sim­ply na­tivism; it is more so­phis­ti­cated. Most im­por­tantly, and rather coun­ter­in­tu­itively, nos­tal­gia is a pow­er­ful idea be­cause it can be what­ever you want it to be.

If you doubt this, think about what is driv­ing peo­ple to buy tick­ets to Bob Dy­lan and Neil Young in Kilkenny. It is an ex­er­cise in re­cap­tur­ing lost youth; po­lit­i­cal nos­tal­gia is the elec­toral equiv­a­lent but de­ployed on a na­tional level.

En­emy of iden­tity

Wor­ry­ingly for the cen­tre right, nos­tal­gia dis­misses glob­al­i­sa­tion as an en­emy of iden­tity and, there­fore, some­thing to be op­posed; but for the cen­tre left, nos­tal­gia also dis­misses en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns out of hand. The French protests after all were stated as a re­ac­tion to a car­bon tax, the most vir­tu­ous tax imag­in­able to tech­nocrats, but a red rag to nos­tal­gists.

It is not that eco­nomics hasn’t de­liv­ered; it has de­liv­ered enor­mously. In Ire­land, the econ­omy has ex­panded rapidly in the past few decades, the so­ci­ety is so much richer and on al­most ev­ery met­ric, hous­ing apart, life in Ire­land is im­mea­sur­ably bet­ter than at any time in the past.

This was de­liv­ered by the cen­tre ground, not by the ex­tremes. It should not be taken for granted or as­sumed away. It has been quite an achieve­ment. How­ever, what is hap­pen­ing else­where should be a warn­ing to us. Ire­land has tried the pol­i­tics of nos­tal­gia in the past; the re­sults were not im­pres­sive. We paid for pu­rity with poverty.

Now all over the world, nos­tal­gia is be­com­ing more at­trac­tive, sim­ply be­cause it can be any­thing to any­one. It is an ephemeral mem­ory not an ex­act­ing tar­get. It makes for sim­ple slo­gans and evoca­tive im­ages, but what can it ac­tu­ally de­liver?

Watch­ing the French pro­test­ers, with their myr­iad of griev­ances and front-of-the bar­ri­cade so­lu­tions, it is easy to ex­plain what they want, harder to fig­ure out how they get it. But these days, as cul­ture is trump­ing eco­nomics ev­ery time, the cen­tre ground needs to come up with a big idea to gal­vanise peo­ple, that ap­peals to all and uni­fies the mid­dle ground.

This is one of the chal­lenges for the next decade. Macron, the master of the cam­paign, doesn’t seem to have it. He ap­pears to be a man from a dif­fer­ent time, some­where in the mid-1990s. The bril­liant mod­erniser will need to be­come rel­e­vant and, to do that, he needs to face down his big­gest en­emy: nos­tal­gia.

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