Macron’s vi­sion looks to the past. A back­lash was com­ing

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Larry El­liott,

Ri­ot­ing in the streets. Fill­ing sta­tions run­ning out of fuel. Panic buy­ing in the su­per­mar­kets. A coun­try in chaos. Not a dystopian vi­sion of Bri­tain af­ter Brexit, but France in the here and now un­der that self-styled cham­pion of anti-pop­ulism, Em­manuel Macron. French politi­cians in­vari­ably claim to be in­spired by Charles de Gaulle, and Macron is no ex­cep­tion. His of­fi­cial pres­i­den­tial pho­to­graph has him stand­ing in front of a desk with a copy of De Gaulle’s war mem­oirs open. Macron’s sublim­i­nal mes­sage to the French peo­ple was ob­vi­ous. Like De Gaulle, I will be a strong leader. Like De Gaulle, I will rise above petty pol­i­tics and rule in the na­tional in­ter­est.

Com­par­isons with De Gaulle have cer­tainly been made in re­cent days, but not to the De Gaulle who set up a French govern­ment-in-ex­ile in Lon­don in 1940, or the De Gaulle who healed the wounds over Al­ge­ria in 1958. In­evitably, given the gilets jaunes (yel­low vests) protests that have erupted across France, it is the oc­cu­pa­tion of the streets of Paris by stu­dents and work­ers in May 1968 that is be­ing re­called.

Like De Gaulle, Macron failed to spot the street protests com­ing. Like De Gaulle, he seemed out of touch and in­ca­pable of a suitable re­sponse. And like De Gaulle, he will pay a heavy po­lit­i­cal price be­cause his USP was that he would never sur­ren­der to protesters if they took to the streets and, by sus­pend­ing higher taxes on petrol and diesel for six months, he has done pre­cisely that.

There is no lit­tle irony in the fact that the man who was seen as the an­swer to pop­ulism has pro­voked the most high-pro­file demon­stra­tion of pop­ulist rage Europe has yet seen. When he ar­rived at the Elysée Palace, Macron was hailed as a new breed of politi­cian but he was re­ally the past, not the fu­ture: the last tech­no­cratic cen­trist in the tra­di­tion of Bill Clin­ton, Tony Blair and Ger­hard Schröder.

An­gela Merkel’s pre­de­ces­sor as Ger­man chan­cel­lor was the real role model for Macron, be­cause it was Schröder who pushed through tough labour mar­ket and wel­fare re­forms in the early 2000s de­signed to make Europe’s big­gest econ­omy more com­pet­i­tive. The re­forms worked, but only af­ter a fash­ion. Ger­many has low unem­ploy­ment and runs a huge trade sur­plus, but does be­cause Ger­man work­ers have ac­cepted wage cuts and re­duced spend­ing power.

Macron thought the same recipe would work in France, but although he saw off Ma­rine Le Pen eas­ily enough in the pres­i­den­tial runoff, his un­der­ly­ing sup­port was al­ways weak. France chooses its leader in a two-stage process: a first round with mul­ti­ple can­di­dates and a sec­ond round when the two can­di­dates with the high­est num­ber of votes go head to head. There is a say­ing that France chooses in the first round and elim­i­nates in the sec­ond, and barely more than one in four of those who voted in round one wanted Macron.

None­the­less, the new pres­i­dent thought he had a pow­er­ful man­date for struc­tural re­form. He cut taxes for the rich, made it eas­ier for com­pa­nies to hire and fire, and took on the rail unions. It was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the back­lash be­gan.

The French econ­omy has strug­gled to keep pace with Ger­many’s. It has only very lim­ited pow­ers to stim­u­late de­mand be­cause in­ter­est rates are set by the Euro­pean Cen­tral Bank, and fis­cal pol­icy – tax and pub­lic spend­ing – is con­strained by the eu­ro­zone’s bud­get deficit rules. France sup­ported the idea of the euro be­cause it imag­ined a com­mon cur­rency would di­lute Ger­man power. In­stead, the op­po­site has hap­pened: Ger­many has be­come the dom­i­nant force in the eu­ro­zone and in the wider EU. The euro works for Ger­many – or, to be more ac­cu­rate, it works for Ger­man ex­porters – but it doesn’t re­ally work for any­body else. Hav­ing made a blunder of his­toric pro­por­tions when it joined the sin­gle cur­rency, France has been try­ing to rec­tify the mis­take ever since.

While he was still in his hon­ey­moon pe­riod as pres­i­dent, Macron an­nounced a plan to strengthen mon­e­tary union by cre­at­ing a eu­ro­zone bud­get con­trolled by the eu­ro­zone. He knew that the only chance of Berlin agree­ing to this pro­posal was if Ger­many saw its re­la­tion­ship with France as a part­ner­ship of equals, some­thing it has not been for many years. The way to gen­er­ate re­spect was to put the French econ­omy through the same rig­or­ous work­out that the Ger­mans had ac­cepted un­der Schröder. This had the added ben­e­fit of chim­ing with his do­mes­tic agenda, which was all about cre­at­ing a more busi­ness­friendly en­vi­ron­ment and shift­ing the bal­ance of power in the work­place from labour to cap­i­tal.

The Ger­mans were al­ways go­ing to take some per­suad­ing, both about the de­sir­abil­ity of hav­ing a eu­ro­zone-wide fis­cal pol­icy that they would be ex­pected to bankroll and about whether Macron could de­liver at home. The worst street vi­o­lence in half a cen­tury will have con­firmed all their worst fears. But there’s a wider point. Politi­cians need to re­alise that the fi­nan­cial cri­sis and a decade of flatlin­ing liv­ing stan­dards have made a dif­fer­ence to what is and what isn’t po­lit­i­cally fea­si­ble.

It is fea­si­ble – in­deed, de­sir­able – to use the tax sys­tem to tackle cli­mate change, but only if the hit to liv­ing stan­dards is fully off­set by cuts in other taxes. Oth­er­wise it is sim­ply more of the aus­ter­ity that vot­ers ev­ery­where are re­ject­ing. And it is po­lit­i­cally sui­ci­dal to be known as the pres­i­dent of the wealthy and then tell vot­ers an­gry about ris­ing fuel prices to car share or take pub­lic trans­port. That’s not De Gaulle, that’s Marie An­toinette and “let them eat cake”.

He was hailed as a new breed of politi­cian. In fact he is the last tech­no­cratic cen­trist – a lat­ter-day Blair, Clin­ton or Schröder


French riot po­lice con­front protesters at the Arc de Tri­om­phe

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