Commentary | Jupiter, meet the mob: Macron and the gilets jaunes

Commentary | Jupiter, meet the mob: Macron and the gilets jaunes

History tells us the Gilet Jaune Movement is nothing new, but it might mean the end of France’s would-be savior reformist.

Edinburgh — The French Revolution of 1789 changed the course of France's history. The overthrow of the French monarchy was the first of its kind in Europe, and redefined the French nation-state and modern European history. Yet, after suffering through Robespierre’s Terreur, crowning Napoleon Emperor in Notre Dame, and restoring the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, France’s erratic political regime seems more the rule than the exception. It was only in 1958 that Charles de Gaulle established France’s current Fifth Republic. In that historical context, it’s difficult to see the current political unrest over “les gilets jaunes" in Paris particularly striking or unique. The guillotine may have been retired in the 1970s, but many a politician has suffered a political execution at the hands of the masses since.

The media’s coverage of the Gilet Jaune movement in France portrays a uniquely violent protest by aggravated French citizens. It gives the false impression that the French openly challenging Macron’s government through protest and strike is anything new. French history is littered with unpopular Presidents, changes in government, and widespread protests. The best historical precedent for the Gilet Jaune movement harkens back to the protests of May 1968.

In 1968, The United States was deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War. Anti-war protests rocked Germany and the United States. However, France remained uncharacteristically silent on the issue. On 15th of March, 1968, Pierre Viansson-Ponté, a journalist for Le Monde, wrote an article in which he declared that the French were too "bored" to join the anti-war movement. Six weeks later, students occupied the Sorbonne and to protest the war. Police charged the facility and brutally disbanded the protesters. Over 400 students were arrested. Several hundred were beaten. 

The French were horrifyingly jarred by the news of police brutality and the government’s malfeasance. That day, hundreds upon hundreds of more students arrived at the Sorbonne to protest. Pavement was torn up, rocks collected, and anything and everything that could serve as a weapon was hurled at policemen. The police retaliated with baton beatings and tear gas. The situation quickly spiraled out of control. Trains stopped running. Gas became inaccessible. 11 million people went on strike

The First Jupiterian President
The protests evolved to expose a simmering desire for change in France. The youth wanted greater freedom and to overturn the deeply embedded patriarchal nature of their nation. Their parents wanted a government that listened to their concerns. The French decided that then was the time for a cultural revolution, and if that required a political one too, then so much the better. Then President Charles de Gaulle — a thoroughly famous and beloved leader — had already been in power for ten years. Yet he represented the epitome of the political ‘old guard’ and conservative French values. In the face of such a belligerent nationwide protest which bordered on popular uprising he fled the country, returning several days later to call for a general election.

Charles de Gaulle was a war hero. The Paris airport and countless other landmark French buildings, monuments, and places take bear his name. Yet in the wake of intense popular clamor for reform, his prized leadership and popularity seemed irrelevant. For a dark moment in 1968 Charles de Gaulle was not the hero of the Second World War, the man who liberated Paris less than twenty years previous, he was the last vestige of the old guard, an enemy of the people that needed to be tossed aside to make way for the next generation of heroes. Although many Frenchmen did not know exactly what it was they were fighting for, their disaffection and desire for change drove them to manifest their enemy in the form of the government and its leadership.

The Would-be God of Reform
Throughout Macron’s own presidency, he has been faced with the same problems that have plagued French leaders since 1789. His ability to build consensus around policies of reforms is stymied by the very population that the reforms are ultimately meant to benefit. Macron has received widespread and well-deserved criticism for his Jupiterian tendencies. Having run as a man of the people, it’s difficult to defend his insistence that children call him by his full title or his submission of a letter to the French populace angry over the reforms his administration intends to enact, with or without public approval. 

While historically, a French ‘man of the people’ leader attempting to ensure that he always gets the last word is the norm, Macron would do well to tread lightly and avoid gestures that could provoke the wider public and feed his political adversaries.

It is this political naiveté coupled with sudden sharp cuts to public spending and raising of the diesel tax that have caused the wider public to view him with contempt. Some 37 percent of French find Marcon untrustworthy, 32 percent are disgusted by his policy choices, eight percent are consumed by boredom, and some four percent are genuinely fearful about the future under his Presidency. 

As it was for Charles de Gaulle in 1968, it is Macron’s image and demeanor which evoke the perception an elitist, out-of-touch politician coupled with poor public engagement and consultation that sparked the Gilet Jaune movement, rather than his administration’s policies per se. In an attempt to correct his folly, on January 13th Macron announced the start of a nationwide town hall debate series by publishing 30 questions that he would like the French people to come together and answer over the course of the next two to three months. Mayors in towns are to hold meetings where their constituents can voice their frustrations to those in power that can actually take action about them. Macron, on January 15th, even appeared at one in Normandy, indicating that he would also be making an effort to hear the French public out for himself. 

Unlike the media portrayal, les gilets jaunes are not a unified group with common demands. Rather, like the protestors of 1968, are a disorganized mass of people from different parts of society that want different things that have come together to express their collective frustration. Some want France to move further left — others, further right. Yet they have all taken to the streets in the same vests to demand a change they themselves have yet to decide on. Some want greater social equality, some want greater regional authority, some want higher taxes for the rich, and some just want to change the speed limit

In reality, les gilets jaunes are the product of a nation that, broadly speaking, wants better and more efficient public services, fewer taxes, and widespread government reform. Macron’s agenda of reform reflects this desire and comprehension of public demands. It’s also evident from his repeal of the carbon tax and plans for public consultation that he is neither an insensitive elitist nor unaware of popular concern over the direction his administration has taken.

Macron's Next Move
In fact, President Macron clearly understands the deeply rooted problems that France faces. The French welfare state has become too heavy for its own weight and is fiscally unsustainable in its current design. As a former banker, Macron’s policy decision to slash exorbitantly high taxes on the rich demonstrate this understanding as well as his capacity to govern from the center. The tax break has already convinced much of the wealthier class to keep their money in France which will stem the flow of money from France and continue to contribute to Paris’ budget. In time, these business-minded reforms will encourage the return of large companies and provide more jobs for those without. 

Neither was Macron’s decision to raise the carbon tax the knee-jerk decision of a bureaucrat trying to raise government revenue. Rather, it was an attempt to advance the sustainable energy agenda for which Macron successfully advocated in his campaign with the goal of combating climate change in the long term. However, by neglecting to consider the short-term effects of the carbon tax policy on the working class, Macron cost himself more political capital than the tax might have gained him. 

In short, Macron’s ideas for reform aren’t the issue, but rather their implementation. The policies he champions would loosen up France’s strangled private sector and allow greater flows of investment to drive the economy, and therefore government tax revenue for governmental overhaul and improved public services.

The Gilet Jaune movement has demonstrated that Macron cannot successfully advance the reform agenda which won him the Presidency by playing the role of Jupiter. If he is to succeed as an executive leader, Macron should instead draw from the style of Marcus Aurelius. Macron must embrace a style of balanced political leadership that both takes and gives at once, leading by principle while consulting the people — and the legislature — even when he doesn't have to. In principle, he could have avoided the nickname ‘President of the Rich’ by simultaneously providing retraining and employment programs for the working class as he easing taxes on wealthy. 

France desperately needs Macron’s reforms, but the President must lean slowly and deliberately into them, accounting for those that will need help and time to adjust. If successful, Macron’s agenda for reform could redefine what has been the French model of governance and public state of mind since the First Republic: the government takes charge of everything. Nonetheless, the cultivation of a more competitive free market, easing government restrictions, and decreasing public dependency on the welfare state will require patience. Reform on this scale must be given time to adapt to the French political psyche. In Macron’s marathon of reform, only slow and steady will win the race.

Sara Fay

- International Scholar of European Affairs and American Foreign Policy
- Twitter: @007SazFay
- LinkedIn: Sara Fay

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

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