Macron’s de­feat in Paris sounds alarm for Euro­pean or­der

Bangkok Post - - NEWS MAKER - GRE­GORY VISCUSI

>> Less than a month ago, French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron staked his claim as the flag-bearer for glob­al­ism. In a speech to 60 world lead­ers at the Arc de Tri­om­phe, he eu­lo­gised the United Na­tions and de­clared na­tion­al­ism the “be­trayal” of pa­tri­o­tism.

Last Satur­day, tear gas and cob­ble­stones flew in the same part of Paris as pro­test­ers trashed the iconic mon­u­ment and de­manded Mr Macron’s em­bat­tled gov­ern­ment with­draw a pro­posed fu­eltax in­crease. For the first time in his pres­i­dency, he backed down. It was a hum­bling mo­ment for op­po­nents of the pop­ulist re­volts that spawned Don­ald Trump.

Europe has seen many a crit­i­cal junc­ture in re­cent years, from the Greek debt cri­sis to the anti-im­mi­grant back­lash against refugees and Bri­tain’s Brexit vote. Rarely, though, have so many political vul­tures been cir­cling around one leader with so much at stake for the world or­der.

Poland is flirt­ing with the far right and na­tion­al­ist par­ties ca­joled by Hun­gar­ian Prime Minister Vik­tor Or­ban are plot­ting a re­bel­lion at Euro­pean Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in May. Mean­while, Italy has col­lided with the Euro­pean Union by tak­ing a de­fi­ant stand on its bud­get spend­ing.

With the EU’s erst­while fire­fighter, An­gela Merkel, plan­ning to step down as Ger­man chan­cel­lor, the ba­ton was sup­posed to pass to Mr Macron to up­hold lib­eral democ­racy. But Ms Merkel’s power on the world stage was un­der­pinned by a political fortress at home, and the French leader looks any­thing but solid.

“You can’t make speeches about de­fend­ing the in­ter­na­tional or­der when your pop­u­lar­ity is at 20% and there are pro­test­ers in the street,” said Ni­cholas Dun­gan, a Paris-based se­nior fel­low at the At­lantic Coun­cil. “It’s very dif­fi­cult to get your cred­i­bil­ity back.”

It’s a stark con­trast to the week­end of Nov 11 as lead­ers marked a cen­tury since the end of World War I. Mr Macron cham­pi­oned the need for global co­op­er­a­tion while Mr Trump cut an iso­lated fig­ure. Europe’s di­vi­sions were laid bare that day as Pol­ish gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials marched through War­saw with far-right groups to mark the coun­try’s In­de­pen­dence Day. Mr Macron, though, stood firm as Europe’s states­man.

The im­ages tele­vised around the world last week­end were of burn­ing cars in the French cap­i­tal. The re­treat by the 40-yearold French leader was mocked by Mr Trump. Mr Macron ad­mit­ted, via his prime minister, that he’s not been able to con­nect with the French peo­ple. “No tax mer­its putting our na­tion’s unity in dan­ger,” Edouard Philippe said.

The trou­ble for op­po­nents of Trump­style na­tivism and pro­tec­tion­ism is that there’s no one else to take up his man­tle, Mr Dun­gan said. Af­ter Mr Macron was elected in May 2017, he sought to work with Ms Merkel and a friendly gov­ern­ment in Rome to deepen Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion. He reached out to Mr Trump to con­vince the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to stick to in­ter­na­tional agree­ments.

Mr Trump ig­nored him and with­drew from the Iran nu­clear ac­cord and the Paris cli­mate agree­ment. Mr Trump tweeted that Mr Macron’s climb down over a car­bon tax that would raise fuel prices was proof that he’d been right all along.

Ms Merkel, mean­while, was wounded in Ger­man elec­tions in Septem­ber 2017 and is about to be re­placed as the head of her party, al­most cer­tainly by some­one less keen on Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion. Italy elected a Euroskep­tic gov­ern­ment in March.

“His am­bi­tions for a strong Europe had al­ready taken a hit from events in Ger­many and else­where,” said Philippe Moreau De­farges, an ad­viser at the Paris-based French In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs. “But he emerges se­ri­ously weak­ened from the re­cent events. He’s just not ap­peared up to the level, and France’s im­age has taken a ter­ri­ble blow.”

At home, his pop­u­lar­ity has been sink­ing, hurt by the fail­ure of his early un­pop­u­lar changes to labour and tax law to re­vive the French econ­omy. Mr Macron’s poli­cies are seen to favour the wealthy, and poll af­ter poll have shown the French elec­torate thinks the for­mer banker is aloof and ar­ro­gant. His ap­proval rat­ing is at 28%, ac­cord­ing to an av­er­age of seven polling in­sti­tutes.

Then came the “Yellow Vests”. The grass­roots protest move­ment was sparked by op­po­si­tion to his en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy of hik­ing taxes on diesel and gaso­line to fund in­cen­tives to buy cleaner cars and home hous­ing sys­tems. But it’s evolved into wide­spread anger about the ris­ing cost of liv­ing and de­clin­ing ser­vices in ru­ral and small­town France.

The pro­test­ers’ de­mands have ex­panded ac­cord­ingly. Some want to re­store the wealth tax, in­creas­ing pen­sions, rais­ing the min­i­mum wage, cut­ting the salaries of politi­cians, and even to Mr Macron re­sign­ing and re­plac­ing the Na­tional As­sem­bly with a “peo­ple’s coun­cil”. Polls show three-quar­ters of the French sup­port their de­mands, even if they also dis­ap­prove of the vi­o­lence that’s ac­com­pa­nied many of the protests.

Mr Macron doesn’t face na­tional elec­tions until 2022, and he’s al­ways said he doesn’t care about pop­u­lar­ity polls. French op­po­si­tion par­ties will file a joint no-con­fi­dence mo­tion against the gov­ern­ment to­mor­row. It’s un­likely to make much dif­fer­ence.

But Euro­pean elec­tions and a se­ries of mu­nic­i­pal and re­gional votes over the next two years could shape up as ref­er­en­dums on his poli­cies, ac­cord­ing to An­to­nio Bar­roso, an an­a­lyst at Te­neo In­tel­li­gence, which looks at political risk.

“Whether Mr Macron will have enough political space to im­ple­ment more eco­nomic re­forms will prob­a­bly be de­ter­mined by the Euro­pean Parliament elec­tions, which will likely be in­ter­preted as a ‘midterm vote’ on the pres­i­dency,” Mr Bar­roso said.

Even af­ter Mr Macron climbed down on the fuel taxes, the Yellow Vests have said they won’t dis­man­tle their road­blocks and block­ades.

Most of its members will vote for ei­ther Marine Le Pen’s anti-im­mi­grant Na­tional Rally or Jean-Luc Me­len­chon’s far-left France Un­bowed, said Marc Lazar, a pro­fes­sor at Sciences Po in Paris. Both party lead­ers were de­feated by Mr Macron last year and eye an­other shot at power. The worry for the EU is that nei­ther of them are de­fend­ers of the bloc’s in­tegrity.

Any break­throughs by those par­ties in May’s Euro­pean elec­tions will make it dif­fi­cult for Mr Macron to push on with his agenda — for France and be­yond. “Macron emerges from this ex­tremely weak­ened and iso­lated,” said Mr Lazar.

NO HOLDS BARRED: In this Dec 1, 2018 file photo, demon­stra­tors throw items near a burn­ing bar­ri­cade near the Arc de Tri­om­phe dur­ing a demon­stra­tion.

LONELY AL­LIES: French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, right, and Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, left, last month.

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