Only human, after all

Emmanuel Macron’s problems are more with presentation than policy

But he can still save his presidency



IT IS A long way down from Mount Olympus. Last year Emmanuel Macron strode into power with a mandate to reform France. This week France looked unreformable. The streets of Paris have been littered with burned-out cars and glass from smashed shop windows. Parts of the countryside are paralysed, as protesters in high-visibility yellow jackets obstruct roads and blockade fuel depots. Policy U-turns are making Mr Macron look as weak as all his recent predecessors who tried to change this most stubborn of nations. The man who once promised a “Jupiterian” presidency is looking decidedly mortal.

Mr Macron’s election in May 2017 seemed to herald new optimism about France, Europe and the world. Young, intelligent and bubbling with ideas to make France more open, dynamic and fiscally sober, he gave an eloquent rebuttal to the drawbridge-up nostalgia of Brexit Britain, Donald Trump’s America and the autocracies of eastern Europe. The hope for a broad renewal of the radical centre came to rest on his shoulders.

When this new party, a band of political newcomers powered by social media, won a thumping parliamentary majority, the Macron revolution seemed unstoppable. He swiftly passed long-needed reforms to make the labour market more flexible, working with moderate unions and facing down obstreperous ones. His education reforms offered smaller classes in poor areas and greater citizens’ control over training. The budget was knocked into shape, meeting the Maastricht deficit limit of 3% of GDP for the first time since 2007.

Yet along the way, Mr Macron forgot that a French president is neither a god nor a monarch but merely a politician in a democracy that requires the constant forging of consent. His hauteur has led to a series of individually small but cumulatively destructive missteps—scolding a teenager for calling him “Manu” instead of “Monsieur le Président”, summoning parliament to be lectured at the palace of Versailles, talking of “people who are nothing”.

Mr Macron also seems to have forgotten that, in the first round of last year’s election, 48% of voters were so unhappy that they backed extremists: Marine Le Pen on the nationalist right, Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left and half-a-dozen less charismatic radicals. Those voters have not gone away. So it was unwise of the new president to antagonise the left-behind carelessly. One of his first moves was to slash taxes on wealth. The old wealth tax was inefficient, incentive-sapping and often avoided. But its removal should have gone side-by-side with more help for the hard-up. Likewise, his tax rises on diesel are a sound green policy, but he should have paid more attention to the people they hurt most—struggling rural folk who need to drive to work. The most damaging label that has stuck to the former banker is that he is “the president of the rich”.

Many French people believe this, which is perhaps why around 75% say they support the gilets jaunes protesters. Like Mr Macron’s election campaign, the protesters are organised via social media. Unlike it, they are leaderless and lack a coherent agenda, so they are almost impossible to negotiate with. The clashes already look to be the worst since les évènements of 1968.

Mr Macron will now be banking that his decision, on December 5th, to cancel the diesel tax rises “for the year of 2019”, will take the heat out of the conflict. This seems unlikely; for a start, the protests have in part now been hijacked by thuggish extremists with an interest in the violent overthrow of capitalism. Many of even the moderate gilets jaunes are demanding Mr Macron’s resignation, or a new parliament. And an earlier diesel tax rise which went into effect last January, has not (yet) been reversed.

Only human after all



The government’s reaction could backfire horribly. It may not be enough to draw the sting from the protests. But, by giving ground at all, it may show that Mr Macron can be pushed around by mobs on the streets, thus encouraging more mobs to form. There is pressure on Mr Macron to bring back the wealth tax; and further reform now looks much less likely than it did. Yet there is plenty of hard work still to do; the next overdue project that Mr Macron plans to tackle is France’s unaffordable pension system.

Does all this mean that have-your-cake-and-eat-it populism must triumph, and that reformers will always be thwarted? It is depressingly easy to conclude so. Mr Trump has won the support of his base by offering Americans tax cuts that are not affordable in the long term. In Italy the all-populist ruling coalition promises to lower the pension age that a more prudent predecessor raised, while also offering deep tax cuts. Even Vladimir Putin did not have the courage to face down Russian pensioners this year.

All is not lost for Mr Macron. He could help himself in several ways. First, he should demonstrate where his priorities lie. It will be expensive, but some form of earned-income tax credit is needed: a proper wage subsidy for the low-paid that enhances their incentive to work, rather than draw the dole. (One exists already, but it is too small. Mr Macron has promised to beef it up, but only slowly.) That should have gone hand in hand with scrapping the wealth tax. Second, he and his government need to do more to promote and explain the good things they have already done but which are underappreciated—such as the investment in apprenticeships, or the moves that will make it more likely that businesses will hire young people on long-term contracts. The unemployment rate is down by half a percentage point, though still much too high at 9.1%.



And third, Mr Macron himself needs to change. His notion that the French want their president to be aloof and Jupiterian is misguided. As our chart shows, the most popular French president of recent times was the least remote—Jacques Chirac, a beer-swilling, heavy-smoking mec with a twinkle in his eye. In an age where populists will do and say anything, a politician who cannot persuade ordinary people that he or she understands them, likes them and wants to help them will struggle to get anything done. It will not take superhuman powers to reform France—just the very human ones of patience, persuasion and humility.

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