Macron’s fail­ure to lis­ten

The Observer - - News -

The French are un­happy with their lot. What’s new? France has a tra­di­tion of pub­lic protest dat­ing back 50 years to the 1968 stu­dent upris­ing in Paris – and be­fore that, to the rev­o­lu­tion of 1789. It’s nor­mal. So why view the cur­rent wave of anti-tax, antigov­ern­ment protests any dif­fer­ently?

The rea­sons for do­ing so are many and ur­gent, for this phe­nom­e­non is not con­fined to France. The gilets jaunes (yellow vests), as the demon­stra­tors are known, rep­re­sent the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple, pre­dom­i­nantly work­ing and lower mid­dle class, who across Europe feel be­trayed by a political elite and an eco­nomic sys­tem that ig­nores their needs. The ex­is­ten­tial prob­lem that poses for all democ­ra­cies is ob­vi­ous.

Those who in­ter­pret the anger di­rected at Em­manuel Macron, France’s young pres­i­dent, sim­ply as vin­di­ca­tion of the strate­gies of the left fool them­selves. This is not about con­ven­tional left-right pol­i­tics; this is about their de­struc­tion. Those on the right who seek to ex­ploit the un­rest should be warned. As Daniel Cohn-Ben­dit, leader of the 1968 upris­ing, says in to­day’s Ob­server, it is a short step from here to au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and the po­ten­tial over­throw of democ­racy it­self.

The gilets jaunes share many of the fears, in­se­cu­ri­ties and alien­ation that helped pro­duce, in Bri­tain, a ma­jor­ity for Brexit; that in Italy led to a hard-right na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment; that in Ger­many fa­tally un­der­mined the chan­cel­lor­ship of Europe’s lead­ing mod­er­ate, An­gela Merkel; and that have en­cour­aged, in Poland, Hun­gary, Aus­tria and else­where the ad­vance of xeno­pho­bic pop­ulist par­ties. When this ma­jor­ity re­belled, the re­sult, in the US, was Don­ald Trump.

As the French au­thor Christophe Guil­luy has ar­gued, these protests have their epi­cen­tre not in “glob­alised me­trop­o­lises” such as Paris, Lon­don and Ber­lin, but in Europe’s pe­riph­eral, marginalised and de-in­dus­tri­alised re­gions, small- and medium-sized towns, and ru­ral ar­eas. The com­mon story here, at a time of in­creased na­tional wealth over­all, is one of de­clin­ing em­ploy­ment, eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity, ris­ing poverty, de­clin­ing ser­vices, lack of op­por­tu­nity – and yes, bur­den­some taxes.

These pop­u­lar ma­jori­ties are vic­tims of eco­nomic in­equal­ity and cul­tural rel­e­ga­tion, caused chiefly by glob­al­i­sa­tion. Wealth­ier, bet­ter-ed­u­cated, city-based elites have sep­a­rated from the pop­u­lar hin­ter­land, of which they are ig­no­rant. The re­sult? A silent grass­roots fury that in France has found its voice. By don­ning yellow vests, the pro­test­ers en­sured they are vis­i­ble once again.

For Macron, as for other Euro­pean lead­ers, there are no easy an­swers. The pro­test­ers’ aims are nu­mer­ous and in­choate: lower taxes, higher wages, cheaper en­ergy, bet­ter pen­sions, a halt to irk­some school “re­forms” and, in some cases, a new pres­i­dent. The move­ment has no lead­ers with whom to ne­go­ti­ate; it lives and organises, for the most part, on so­cial me­dia plat­forms; and, as is ev­i­dent from the vi­o­lent clashes in Paris, it has been too eas­ily hi­jacked – in­clud­ing by far-right groups bent on over­throw­ing an elected gov­ern­ment.

Macron has made mis­takes he can try to rec­tify. He has re­voked the fuel tax rise that sparked the ex­plo­sion. Other con­cil­ia­tory mea­sures may fol­low. Im­proved com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween rulers and ruled is es­sen­tial; he will ad­dress the na­tion this week. But some things are harder to fix. Macron has failed to de­liver the mould-break­ing “rev­o­lu­tion” he promised. One of his first moves was to abol­ish France’s in­ef­fec­tive wealth tax, mak­ing him an easy tar­get for the “pres­i­dent of the rich” tag. He has squan­dered the good­will that pro­pelled him to power. His rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing out of touch and ar­ro­gant is de­served.

Polls sug­gest the protests may have peaked in terms of num­bers. Pub­lic sup­port has dropped, al­though still high at 66%. A ma­jor­ity dis­ap­proves of the vi­o­lence. Here are the seeds of sur­vival. Macron must hold his nerve and ab­sorb the lessons. France needs more lis­ten­ing and less lead­ing. And the pres­i­dent needs to come down a peg or three.

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