Emmanuel Macron swept to the French presidency in 2017, seemingly out of nowhere and with large grassroots support. The irony may not be lost on the 40-year-old former banker that his new political foe, the “gilets jaunes” (or “yellow vest”) movement, came to prominence in a similar way — without the help or influence of France’s usual institutions of power, the unions, the associations or the traditional political parties.
On Monday night, Macron pledged to increase France’s minimum wage and scrap new pension taxes in response to weeks of violent protests that have challenged his leadership. Yet what is very clear, the morning after the President tried to find the way to the hearts of his countrymen (as his spokesman had it), is that there is now a complete distrust of his methods.
Out on the barricades and in the TV studios there was an exhausting and meticulous debate over every detail of the President’s concessions. Where was the devil lurking in those details? What trick was the government pulling here? One heard most often: Where is my piece of the pie?
At their core, the French are staunch individualists who pull together in noisy and dramatic demonstrations when they can find common grievance. Fuel taxes, buying power, fiscal justice: that’s what the gilets jaunes protesters say their movement is about. But when you come right down to it, people join the demonstrations because it is personal. How am I affected by government action?
Some gilets jaunes argue that the speed limit on rural roads should not be reduced to 80 kilometers an hour, as the government has suggested. Others are vandalizing automatic radars meant to enforce the speed limits. Everybody seems to want something, including some things the government really cannot fully provide. Last night one demonstrator was heard to demand more government protection. He couldn’t provide any specifics. Just more protection, one presumes, from life’s woes.
The future question for Macron is whether he can get the yellow-vested genie back into the bottle soon, or even during the rest of the three-and-a-half years he has left in office. Could it be that the current grassroots movement has permanently wounded his own grassroots movement? Macron’s climbdown from his economic ambitions may be matched with an even more damaging political descent.
Just a month ago, at November’s WWI commemorations, Macron was lecturing 70 world leaders — including an irritated Donald Trump — on how to build a more just world. Now he faces accusations from French streets that his government is one of the unjust ones.
For the past year, as Theresa May Brexited and Angela Merkel exited, Macron appeared to be an emerging European power. Remember those Macron magazine covers from last year? Among others, The Economist had “Europe’s saviour,” while Time went for “The Next Leader of Europe.” Today they all look sadly out of date. Macron has been badly diminished by his first crisis; both at home and abroad.
How — and if — he can bounce back is yet to be seen. The French presidency is just as all-consuming as it is all-powerful. If you run out of ideas the way Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy did, or run out of energy, the way François Mitterrand and François Hollande did, it is immediately apparent. The French street senses right away when a president falters or retreats, especially one who was perceived from the beginning as the smartest kid in the class.
Add to that the pessimism that seems to be part of this country’s DNA and you see the challenge that lies ahead for Macron. He was anointed as France’s last great hope for reform. That hope has now faded but not been entirely extinguished. If it can be revived depends on how quickly the smart kid learns from his first political comeuppance.