Macron protests show that leading France seems like an impossible job

The French contradiction of a demand for lower taxes and better public services will stay unresolved

Gideon Rachman

© Daniel Pudles

Like most important politicians, Emmanuel Macron is a polarising figure.

So Macron-haters have seized upon the unrest in Paris to argue that the French president stands revealed as a massively flawed leader — remote, arrogant and pushing an outdated neoliberal agenda. By contrast, Macron-lovers insist that their hero can ride out his current troubles and still be a transformative president.

Neither verdict is convincing. Mr Macron is indeed an impressive figure. He has correctly identified the need for structural reforms of the French economy and has bravely made the case for internationalism. But the bleak truth is that the president is gravely wounded by the gilets jaunes protests, the accompanying violence — and the panic-driven U-turns in government policy.

Indeed the events of the past week are likely to be a turning point that will neuter the Macron presidency and prevent it delivering on its early promise.

To understand why that is the case, you need to examine three key aspects of the Macron agenda: internal economic reform, deeper European integration and global governance. These three ideas are interdependent.

The idea was that if Mr Macron could demonstrate his ability to change France, he would convince Germany to accept decisive steps towards a genuine European economic government. A reformed, strengthened EU could then push back against the resurgent forces of nationalism, visible from Washington to Beijing. If Mr Macron’s domestic agenda runs into trouble, his international agenda is likely to fail as well. That is precisely what is happening.

The Macron loyalists are right to point out that their man has already notched up real achievements. He has pushed through changes to the rigid French labour markets, which should make it easier to create jobs. And he won an important victory against the powerful railway unions. But the sense of momentum created by these reforms has now been destroyed. The Macron government has had to reverse its increase in fuel taxes. And the president is likely to promise further sweeteners to appease the demonstrators.

More significant, important reforms that were planned for the future — to the pension and health systems — now look much less likely to happen. As a result, efforts to reduce the size of the French state, restore order to government finances and reinvigorate economic growth look much less achievable.

Instead, Mr Macron looks likely to go down as just the latest French president to abandon reforms in the face of street protests. The essential French contradiction — the demand for lower taxes and better public services — will remain unresolved. Indeed, things could get a lot worse. Protests and street violence have the potential to rumble on for months, creating a sense of permanent crisis. Even if France’s cities calm down quickly, the risk that Mr Macron could be succeeded by a president of the far-right or far-left has clearly increased.

Faced with these developments in France, Germany is highly unlikely to commit to the kind of ambitious EU reforms outlined by Mr Macron. A decade of economic crises in southern Europe has left German politicians highly suspicious of anything that looks like a “transfer union” that might see German taxpayers permanently subsidising welfare in less solvent EU nations.

A dynamic and successful Macron-led France might have overcome this German scepticism (which is shared by the Netherlands and much of northern Europe) — and helped propel the eurozone towards the “economic government” that the French are arguing for. But events on the streets of Paris will confirm German prejudices that the French state is unreformable.

In truth, even before the gilets jaunes uprising, Franco-German relations were deteriorating, with the German government increasingly irritated by what it regarded as empty grandstanding by Mr Macron; the French government is dismayed by what it regards as a lack of vision and generosity in Berlin.

All of this matters globally. Mr Macron has moved boldly to position himself as the “anti-Trump” — and the world’s leading spokesman for international co-operation. He has vocally defended the Paris climate accord, which the US has abandoned. Indeed, his commitment to action on climate change lay behind the ill-fated fuel tax.

At the recent Paris peace conference, Mr Macron also pointedly denounced nationalism— just days after Mr Trump had declared himself a nationalist. The US president is now revelling in Mr Macron’s discomfort and wrote on Twitter, gloating: “Protests and riots all over France.” He claimed implausibly that the crowds were chanting, “We want Trump.”

But Mr Trump is fortunate to be in the White House, not the Elysée. Leading France looks increasingly like an impossible job. Successive presidents, with different styles, have ended up despised by the public. Nicolas Sarkozy was denounced as too “bling”; François Hollande was denounced as too ordinary; now Mr Macron is too haughty.

If Mr Macron had been able to break this dismal cycle, his international credibility would have soared. He could have emerged as the global champion of liberal values — such a champion is sorely needed. Now, however, it seems highly unlikely that Mr Macron can save the world. He will be lucky if he can save his own presidency.

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