Macron loses his way


The French are paying a high price for keeping the racist Marine Le Pen out of the Élysée Palace in last summer’s presidential election. Le Pen and her since-renamed far-right National Front promised a range of generous incentives for voters which were widely mocked as being completely unaffordable by a France already burdened by excessively open-handed health, welfare and social security systems.

The only alternative was Emmanuel Macron, the clean-cut banker, unsullied by any past political record, who promised widespread economic reforms. The last time the French chose a president with much the same economic agenda was in 2007. Nicolas Sarkozy promised to balance the French budget and cut back on what he characterized as unaffordable featherbedding. However, in the event, the global financial crisis pitched French banks toward bankruptcy and Sarkozy put aside his planned reforms for the more pressing task of keeping his country’s financial system afloat.

Whether or not voters were more interested in voting against Le Pen rather than for Macron’s promised reforms, barely 18 months on from the election, they are now clearly deeply unhappy with the man and his plan. The country has been convulsed with violent street demonstrations which have claimed four lives and seen looting and considerable damage, including to Paris’ iconic Arc de Triomphe. The protests by the so-called “Yellow Vests,” after the high-visibility tabards all drivers in France must carry in their vehicles, were prompted by a further steep rise in fuel prices which have already risen some 23 percent under Macron. The government has panicked. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has just announced the extra fuel duty, planned for January 1, has been postponed for six months while “consultations” take place to see if the impact can be eased on certain sections of the population.

Many ordinary people have been alarmed at the way in which what had been traditional French street protests before a largely indulgent police force turned into criminal violence, looting and vandalism. Macron is clearly hoping he can use that concern to defuse popular anger and perhaps, by making concessions, allow the greater part of his fuel increase package to go through.

Unfortunately for him, the original fuel increase demonstrations had morphed into wider protest against the young president’s style and management. His personal popularity is now at an all-time low for a French leader so early in his five-year term of office. Much of this has to do not with his reforms as such, but the manner in which he has set about them. For instance, his first tax changes have not benefited the lowest paid, have had only a marginal benefit for the middle class but have been significantly beneficial to the country’s one percent of highest earners. A politician intent on introducing painful changes could not have made a greater presentational error. Now, whatever he does, Macron will be seen as more concerned with the interests of the rich and powerful than the ordinary man in the street.

Moreover, he has compounded his mistakes by adopting an imperious attitude, dismissing criticism and telling one young demonstrator to his face that he ought to be back at school being educated for a successful future rather than taking part in a popular protest. This is so obviously not the way to make friends and influence people.