Can Macron sur­vive France’s yel­low rev­o­lu­tion?

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - DAVID A. ANDELMAN

Ni­cole Barthelemy, the quiet, gra­cious owner of one of Paris’ premier cheese shops on the Rue de Grenelle, told me this week, with real panic in her eyes, “I have never in 47 years been so afraid as I am to­day.”

And with good rea­son. Only a few blocks away, on the Rue de Solferino, around the cor­ner from the Musee d’Or­say, in the build­ing where I’ve lived off and on since 1981, two bar­ri­cades were built on this quiet res­i­den­tial street. One was set ablaze last Satur­day and burned for hours.

But while Madame Barthelemy and I may need to dodge scat­tered clouds of tear gas launched by France’s re­doubtable gen­darmerie, Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron is fight­ing for his po­lit­i­cal life.

At least for the mo­ment, his vi­sion for his coun­try and for Europe seems in­creas­ingly dis­con­nected from the peo­ple who elected him. Tens of thou­sands have taken the streets to demon­strate their dis­plea­sure. And that’s what is stok­ing fear among Barthelemy and mil­lions more.

It’s not hard to find rea­sons for this sud­den un­rav­el­ing of the grand am­bi­tions of the youngest French leader since Napoleon. Macron’s vi­sions for this fu­ture ap­pear in­creas­ingly dis­con­nected from any­thing France, even Europe, has known or at least for the mo­ment even wants.

“We must do away with this lit­tle po­lit­i­cal world which func­tions only for it­self,” Lau­rent Ti­nois told the French daily Le Monde. A pub­lic works depart­ment la­borer in north­ern France, he is a lo­cal leader of the move­ment known as the “gilet­s­jaunes” for their yel­low vests, which all French mo­torists must keep in their cars for emer­gen­cies. The gilets-jaunes, and the hooli­gans or “casseurs” (break­ers) who have rid­den along like pilot fish, have been at the cen­ter of weeks of un­rest.

Ti­nois’ views echo those of hun­dreds of thou­sands who have demon­strated and ri­oted across the na­tion.

The rev­o­lu­tion of the yel­low vests has be­come more of a po­lit­i­cal move­ment for ut­ter so­cial change than an eco­nomic is­sue of tax­a­tion, which was the spark that set off this firestorm of protest. So, Tues­day, when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe went on na­tional tele­vi­sion to an­nounce a six-month sus­pen­sion of a gas tax in­crease, the out­rage over the sop of half­way mea­sures was pal­pa­ble.

Ti­nois voted in the last elec­tion for Macron’s left-wing op­po­nent Jean-Luc Me­len­chon. Other pro­test­ers ad­mit­ted to vot­ing for a range of Macron op­po­nents, from Me­len­chon on the left to far-right leader Ma­rine Le Pen. All have taken ad­van­tage of this move­ment to press their dis­parate de­sires – new par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, even Macron’s res­ig­na­tion.

Much of this po­lit­i­cal ac­tion seems de­signed to re­run last year’s vote that swept Macron and his new po­lit­i­cal party into of­fice with a land­slide and what ap­peared to be an un­chal­lenge­able man­date.

Though, as is now be­com­ing ap­par­ent, this was hardly so clearly cut. Thou­sands stayed away from the polls be­cause they saw lit­tle they re­ally liked and now they seem to be vent­ing their anger in the streets.

As some­one who has ob­served how French pres­i­dents back to Charles de Gaulle dealt with the protests that erupted from even the nar­row­est change in di­rec­tion, I feel Macron had lit­tle real un­der­stand­ing of the na­tion he was seek­ing to trans­form. France is ef­fec­tively a gi­ant ocean liner, lum­ber­ing straight ahead.

But Macron ar­rived in the pilot house and im­me­di­ately tried to make a sud­den turn in di­rec­tion. The move to the bar­ri­cades to protest taxes and in­equal­i­ties should have been en­tirely pre­dictable to any­one fa­mil­iar with the na­tion’s his­tory.

While bar­ri­cades date to the 16th cen­tury in France, the French Rev­o­lu­tion in 1789 was the first time such a show of re­sis­tance led to the be­head­ing of a French king, Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie An­toinette.

The bar­ri­cades went up again in times of tur­moil like the 1848 rev­o­lu­tion, and in 1968 they be­gan in the Latin Quar­ter with a stu­dent re­bel­lion that spread quickly to work­ers and farm­ers alike be­fore De Gaulle re­stored or­der by threat­en­ing to re­sign. Back then, not an in­signif­i­cant threat. This time, the rev­o­lu­tion threat­ens to spread again. In the wake of ri­ot­ing and pil­lag­ing along the Champs-El­y­sees, thou­sands of school stu­dents have gone out on strike across the coun­try, at times bat­tling po­lice as they protest cur­ricu­lum changes, part of Macron’s ed­u­ca­tion re­forms.

In front of the Na­tional Assem­bly in Paris, just min­utes from my apart­ment, scores of am­bu­lances have blocked traf­fic for hours, sirens blar­ing, hun­dreds of drivers protest­ing rules that dis­crim­i­nate against small in­di­vid­ual am­bu­lance com­pa­nies in fa­vor of a few be­he­moths.

Faced with an in­choate and lead­er­less, though pow­er­ful, move­ment, and hav­ing moved too quickly with his re­forms, Macron’s easy fix of sus­pend­ing the gas tax in­crease first for six months, then for all of 2019 may be in­suf­fi­cient. He’s also dug in his heels on uphold­ing his re­peal of the sur­tax on the wealthy that So­cial­ist Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand ini­ti­ated 30 years ago.

“We will never un­ravel any­thing we’ve done over the past 18 months,” he de­clared to a ses­sion of his Cab­i­net Wed­nes­day evening. Macron’s rev­er­sal of this tax led many to brand him “pres­i­dent of the rich.”

Of course, he’s had rea­sons – in­tel­lec­tu­ally quite bril­liant – for each of his fis­cal moves. The gas tax was de­signed to pay for a post-car­bon France. End­ing the wealth tax was de­signed to lure U.K. bankers driven from Lon­don by Brexit. But none of this is im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent to French pro­vin­cial work­ers, many of whom squeak by on the min­i­mum wage of around 1,500 euro ($1,700) a month to feed their fam­i­lies and buy gas to get to work in a coun­try­side with lit­tle pub­lic trans­port. There re­ally are two Frances – rich and poor, but es­pe­cially ur­ban and ru­ral. Now both seem to be united in their re­volt – and fear for their fu­ture.

With no one or­ga­nized to ne­go­ti­ate on the other side, the gov­ern­ment has found no so­lu­tion – be­yond putting more mil­i­tary force on the streets – for what prom­ises to be an­other Satur­day of chaos and vi­o­lence. But France’s pres­i­dent faces a cri­sis dif­fer­ent from any other West­ern leader.

Macron’s is a vast peas­ant up­ris­ing that re­quires a whole new set of nu­anced po­lit­i­cal tools if he is to neu­tral­ize this un­rest be­fore it lurches ut­terly out of control.

There re­ally are two Frances – rich and poor, but es­pe­cially ur­ban and ru­ral

David A. Andelman, for­mer for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for the New York Times and CBS News, is au­thor of “A Shat­tered Peace: Ver­sailles 1919 and the Price We Pay To­day.” The opin­ions ex­pressed here are his own.

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