Can Emmanuel Macron survive France’s civil war?
Macron’s sudden volte-face may save l’avenue Kléber. His presidency is another matter.
BY ISOBEL THOMPSON – vanityfair.com
In the latest sign of his diminished popularity and waning political power, French President Emmanuel Macron has backed off a planned fuel-tax increase after a grassroots revolt led to an escalating cycle of violence. On Sunday, Macron returned from the G20 summit in Argentina to find Paris in flames, as thousands of protesters clashed with police, smashed store windows, and set cars on fire. Surveying the damage at the Arc de Triomphe, where the rioters had scrawled graffiti reading “topple the bourgeoisie” and “we’ve chopped off heads for less than this,” Macron seemed determined to re-assert his leadership, marching to the top of the monument in a show of dominance. Afterward, he ordered Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to hold meetings with the so-called gilets jaunes, named after the high-visibility jackets that motorists are supposed to wear in case of emergency.
Macron had been insistent on hiking the gas tax to help cushion the country’s shift to green energy. But with the protests growing and Philippe’s efforts apparently unsuccessful, the Macron government caved. “No tax is worth threatening the unity of the nation,” Philippe announced Tuesday in a press conference, delaying the tax increase by six months. On Wednesday, a spokesperson pushed the target date back until at least 2020.
Macron’s sudden volte-face may save l’avenue Kléber from further damage. His presidency, and ambitions to become Europe’s de facto leader, is another matter. Promising reform, the 40-year-old staked his reputation on not yielding to protesters. But the gilets jaunes movement proved to be a perfect reflection of the troubles plaguing his presidency. Macron was initially heralded as a potential antidote to the populist forces unleashed by the Brexit and Trump campaigns, as well as surging far-right sentiment across the European continent. The night he was elected, he walked across the courtyard of the Louvre alone as speakers blared Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and lights projected his looming shadow. It was a sign, perhaps, that his reign would be more Louis XIV than Charles de Gaulle.
Indeed, 18 months into his five-year presidential term, Macron has developed a reputation for arrogance and classism, and his popularity has plummeted. In one of his first acts as president, Macron slashed the wealth tax and introduced a flat rate on capital gains. In October, Macron’s interior minister, Gérard Collomb, resigned (becoming the third and most senior Cabinet minister to leave Macron’s government in six weeks), grumbling that the president lacked humility. Is it any wonder that the gilets jaunes revolted over a “green tax” that would have hit working-class commuters the hardest?
The troubles with Macronism are bigger than Macron, himself—as are the consequences of his failures. As Macron’s popularity hits new lows (23 percent, in the most recent poll), his far-right nemesis, Marine Le Pen, is resurgent. Having rebranded the National Front as the National Rally, her gaze is reportedly trained on the European Union elections in May where, thanks to low turnout, the French far-right has traditionally done well. If Macron’s ratings continue to plummet before the elections, she could succeed in her new mission to conquer, rather than quit, the E.U. Parliament.
Given the upcoming elections and the transatlantic march of the far-right, Macron’s humbling has seismic implications both politically and personally. Politically, Macron’s international and global goals are dependent on domestic support. Today’s combination of drooping approval polls, unpopular fiscal policies, and riots in the streets does not look persuasive. As it stands, it looks unlikely that Macron will slot into Angela Merkel’s soon-to-be vacated position as de facto leader of the E.U. Personally, the challenges are just as thorny. To win back voters, boost his chances in the European elections, and persuade European power players of his credibility, Macron will have to rapidly shed his suave, authoritarian-edged demeanor, and reduce his reliance on charisma (as French writer Emmanuel Carrère wrote in a profile for The Guardian: “he could seduce a chair”). To survive where other centrist leaders have fallen, he needs to both project authenticity and actively address the social and economic anxieties that have undermined faith in the liberal order.
That means listening to the gilets jaunes, for one—tracing the roots of the movement (which touch on more than just fuel prices), and conceiving a climate-change strategy that doesn’t burden those with lower incomes. If Macron can successfully show that climate change and progressive social policy do not have to be mutually exclusive, he could quell France’s popular revolt, restore his credibility, and become the global leader he already presumes himself to be. Nobody said it will be easy.