The French president needs to find a way to tackle both climate change and the anger on the streets
Almost two decades ago a new fresh-faced leader of the centre-left emerged in Europe and appeared, having won a historic election, on the cusp of changing politics in his country. But as he flew higher, he lost a sense of the public mood and failed to face up early on to a crisis which brought his modern industrial society to a halt. In doing so he revealed an inability to control events or win around public opinion. Then the country was Britain and the young prime minister Tony Blair. Today the nation is France; and the leader is Emmanuel Macron. Then, as now, a series of seemingly leaderless protests saw aggrieved social constituents latch on to a narrowly framed but popular economic grievance: the rising cost of fuel due to green taxes. Mr Blair considered bringing in the army. Mr Macron weighs up whether a state of emergency will restore order.
It is tempting think plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – but that would ignore the broader picture. President Macron faces a threat far more existential than Mr Blair did. Liberal democracies are being destabilised by the ability of groups to organise and criticise on social media with arguments that previously would have taken longer to enter the political bloodstream. The gilets jaunes (yellow vest) unrest saw 170,000 take to the nation’s streets at the weekend. Rioters torched cars and buildings. Scribbled on the Arc de Triomphe was “Macron resignation”. Mr Macron’s pro-business rhetoric and tin ear for the street have seen him cast as the embodiment of the nation’s elite, disconnected from the country, and willing to favour the rich.
Mr Macron was right to suggest that higher fuel taxes are needed to fight climate change. Promoting green policies is crucial in the week that climate talks begin in Poland. We have just a dozen years to reduce emissions and cap global warming at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Mr Blair ended above-inflation increases of fuel prices. This was a mistake: the long-term survival of this planet rests on politicians making the right call. But while higher taxes can be useful to change people’s behaviours, they are not sufficient when so many people feel they are an extra burden in precarious times. Mr Macron ought to recall the words of Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who remarked wisely that “the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”. The sound of gilets jaunes hissing is now ringing in the French president’s ears.
Seen as aloof and well-off, Mr Macron needs to regain his popular touch. His party, La République En Marche, will square off against the far-right Rassemblement National (the re-branded National Front) in the European parliament elections next May. Mr Macron staked his future on winning over Germany by delivering pro-market structural reforms in France, which would put an end to EU reprimands over Paris’s budget plans. His bet that tax cuts would be more popular than more spending has not paid off. Whatever their benefits, the only tax cut people remember is the one for the rich. Mr Macron’s big ideas have also been relegated by Berlin in favour of smaller measures. It would be smarter now to steer Europe away from market-heavy policies and put a greater emphasis on growth in France’s stuttering economy. The unemployment rate is still stubbornly close to 10%. Mr Macron is right that the eurozone would operate better with a federal fiscal capacity and a full banking union. But he can only make those arguments by being canny enough to win over voters at home.
- This article was amended on 4 December 2018 because an earlier version said 170,000 took to the streets of Paris at the weekend. That is the estimated figure for the country, not just the city. This has been corrected.