Emmanuel Macron is not having a good week. The Gilets Jaunes protests may be petering out, but turnout for today’s strike is strong, and it is bound to drag on. Trains, the Métro, buses and planes will all stop dead in protest against the President’s pension reforms, with all sorts of public workers — from air traffic controllers to policemen, nurses, ambulance drivers and teachers — to follow suit.
His bad week kicked off with Donald Trump threatening tariffs of up to 100% on a large number of those French goods that actually do sell well abroad — from yoghurt to luxury handbags, champagne, cheese, and cosmetics. This was a retort to France’s unilateral 3% “digital tax” on sales (not profits) on those internet giants, all American, as it happens, with global revenues above €750 million and above €25 million in France.
This “GAFA tax” in turn was a result of French annoyance at the OECD’s perceived inability to come up with effective guidelines for international digital giants to pay tax in the countries they operate in. Other European countries (Italy, Austria, Spain, Belgium) have similar plans, although few have taken the drastic (and very French) tack of a tax based on turnover, not profits. So Macron decided to go it alone, and to go it first.
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Trump, the man who once dreamed of having a military parade in Washington modelled on the Bastille Day one, evidently decided to make an example of France, pour encourager les autres.
Then the French President even managed to irk Merkel. It takes talent to annoy the German Chancellor. But she finally snapped in response to that Economist interview, in which he declared Nato to be “brain-dead”. “I understand your desire for disruptive politics, but I’m tired of picking up the pieces,” she told him. “Over and over, I have to glue together the cups you have broken so that we can then sit down and have a cup of tea together.”
Macron knows that Mrs Merkel is scheduled for departure next year; he’d probably already been briefed, ahead of speaking to the Economist that her GroKo (Great Coalition) was threatened by her SPD partner’s Left. Typically, for a top of the heap Frenchman of his particular stripe, he saw her as “a loser”, and dumped on her accordingly. It’s the sort of venomousness they all learn at ENA, the elite government school Macron attended.
Meanwhile, at home, his popularity is tanking. An Odoxa poll last week gave his negative opinions at two-thirds of the voters (with just 34% favourable); another Ifop poll gives his favourables at 33% against 65% negatives.
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The French are unhappy with him and the “Jupiterian” (his own word) persona he constructed to counter the appearance of youth and inexperience. As they see it, the country is careening from one crisis to the next, with a chest-thumping president leading a weak government of clone-like technocrats. Added to which is an even weaker parliament full of inexperienced, first-term Macronistas rubber-stamping most of his legislation, and occasionally indulging in woke amendments (the one last week calling to outlaw any advertising for Black Friday in a good example). Absolutely none of this resonates with the country’s concerns, real or imagined.
The French worry about jobs, insecurity, immigration, the economy, crime; they’re angry about the degradation of public services they used to take for granted, from vanishing country train lines to overcrowded and understaffed hospitals. They complain, bitterly and incessantly, of deep “inequalities” — even though France is in fact more redistributive than Sweden.
Macron has argued back that the French economy is doing better. It’s largely true, but his problem is that it’s not perceived as doing well, partly because some stubborn problem areas remain, with an EU record number of long-term unemployed seniors, young people, minorities. Unemployment has slipped from 10% in 2016 to 8.4%, but uncertainty on too many economic variables (taxation, regulation, social climate) means the very last investment businesses make is manpower.
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Hence the surprising amount of support for any kind of social protest in the past year. It would be a mistake to believe that because their weekly demonstrations now only gather a few thousand people, the Gilets Jaunes themselves are no longer a headache for Emmanuel Macron. “The Gilets Jaunes aren’t a movement, they’re a symptom,” says a Préfet who received many delegations of his département’s protesters. “They are a clear manifestation of a deep state of discontent, they’re not a coherent party. Among Thursday’s strikers, officially answering a call by the unions, you’ll find many of the same people who were once stopping traffic on provincial roundabouts.”
He points out that, significantly, 60% of the French support the national strike; and that the strikers’ motives and sociology will, in fact, be quite close to the GJ’s. In his view, the current porous anger (superbly theorised by the American analyst Martin Gurri in his prescient book, The Revolt of the Public) is expressed in many ways, from the Left to the Right, to the violent and inchoate. The Gilets Jaunes shape of this has run its course; the motivations, which are a mix of reality-based complaints and deep misperceptions, remain.
Paradoxically, Emmanuel Macron’s chief problem may be that he has essentially destroyed any form of democratic opposition. Whenever someone on the Left or on the Right seemed promising, he co-opted them into his Cabinet, and he continues to do so. As a result, voters find themselves inexorable herded toward a single, unpalatable choice. It’s not clear whether Macron has realised that the wasteland he’s leaving in parliamentary politics will drive people away from the democratic process — making them ripe for a Bolsonaro or an Orbán. The scene will be set for a populist to sweep in.
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This doesn’t yet mean Macron won’t be re-elected in 2022. In all likelihood, he will be up against his favourite opponent, Marine Le Pen, but it will be a much closer shave than before. She’ll lose. But not because she is seen as a Fascist danger. She’ll lose because of her incompetence. Her 30-year-old niece Marion Maréchal, whose turn will come five years later, may become the Matteo Salvini of France — within the far more stable Fifth Republic constitutional system.
Like her father, she’s a good public speaker, but her policies have wobbled depending on which adviser had her ear (pro- and anti-“Frexit”; pro- and anti-euro) or where she was campaigning: in her Northern constituency, most of her electorate once worked in mines or textile factories, now closed; and like to hear of more state aid; in the South-East Rassemblement National bastions, the burning issues are immigration and crime. Few believe she has effective policies to change either.
But another eventuality is currently terrifying the Elysée tacticians. These thirtysomething white men who all look and sound like Macron are said to be working on pre-emptively neutralising what they call the “clown candidate“: a possible run by a non-politician, probably a popular performer (TV presenter, actor, singer…), à la Beppe Grillo or Volodimyr Zelensky. It could be what the French public is waiting for.
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Yet on Macron proudly strides — with Europe in his sights. Even though he is struggling at home, the President, a petit-bourgeois liberal, imbued with his own undeniable but narrow intelligence, considers himself to be Europe’s natural leader. Since Germany will be preoccupied with its difficult political transition, facing signs of an early recession, and with the UK gone (the UK will be gone, won’t it?), who else is there, after all?
Some of his arrogance comes naturally, but some is theorised: why would he go against the tactics defined by de Gaulle, and followed by Giscard, Mitterrand and Chirac? The assumption that nuisance value gives you more clout in international politics has always been a mainstay of French power projection. Macron is simply continuing the tradition.
But alienating friends and not influencing people is all too often coupled with a lack of effort to understand how France’s partners think. And given that many decisions have to be taken unanimously by the EU27, it’s hard to see how he’d make a success of European leadership.
Macron does have a unique way of ruffling feathers — from his Nato remarks to his recent veto against EU membership application for both Albania and North Macedonia and his rudeness to Mrs Merkel. It will trip him again and again: the President will never be a team player. So as the country literally grinds to a halt, Macron stands alone with only his ambition and acolytes for company.