I would say we’ll always have Paris. But maybe not. It was only a few weeks ago that French president Emmanuel Macron promised a red carpet for bankers fleeing Brexit Britain. As matters have unfolded, the carpet has become one of broken glass.
On the Avenue Kléber, one of the toniest streets in Paris and heart of the district where Macron will have been expecting to resettle his beloved bankers, fleeing London like the sans culottes, every bank has been attacked, every shop window broken, upscale apartments have been attacked and every Porsche and Mercedes within blocks set on fire. Invest in France?
Emmanuel Macron is undoubtedly brilliant. He won all the glittering academic prizes. He had a supersonic ascent into the stratosphere of the French civil service. He even did a spell as a courtier with David de Rothschild’s investment bank, before ascending to minister of the economy under François Hollande, and then winning the most glittering prize of all, the presidency of the republic, aged 39¾.
But his hubris, arrogance and almost autistic detachment from the French in the street is in a class with Marie Antoinette. Except that this time around, the courtier whispers, “Mr President, the people cannot afford diesel.” To which the cloth-eared Macron has, in effect replied: “Let them buy Teslas.”
At the blockade on the roundabout outside my local Super U supermarket, la France en bas is not impressed. There has been little violence here, though the local anarchists did attack the village petrol station, putting it out of action for two days. As of this morning, though, the main A9 autoroute between southern France and Spain has been closed for more than 72 hours. There are elements to the protest that are both surreal and terrifying. At the Pezenas exit, the gilets have moved a piano onto the carriageway, and are entertaining the stranded lorry drivers. At Narbonne, just down the highway, a gilet armed with a front end loader picked up a burning car, lifted it high into the air, and dropped it on the toll station. The ungovernable slums around the major cities in France are on the edge. The police are exhausted. Be sure of this, what is happening in France is not over.
There are elements to this affair that remain unclear if not murky. Who are the gilets? What do they want? Can this really be a spontaneous revolt, triggered by a posting on Facebook, provoked by increased taxes on fuel? Christophe Castaner, who has been minister of the interior for only a few weeks, and is already one of the most hated men in France, has rushed to blame the violence on the extreme right. There is not the slightest evidence of this. As far as I can tell, the rightists spent the weekend watching the news channels and posting acerbic comments on social media. “I’m running out of popcorn,” one delighted Marine Le Pen supporter told me from the safety of his armchair, as he revelled in the humiliation of Macron.
In Paris, there were many people wearing gilets jaunes, but were they really gilets jaunes? Antifa, which has rebranded itself in France as the Black Bloc, was certainly present, their shiny new gilets over their designer black street-fighting uniforms. The usual suspects from the Parisian slums were also present, though they didn’t bother with gilets. As one shop window was smashed near the Champs Elysée, there were repeated cries of Allahu Akbar. These protests have been hijacked by political and criminal opportunists, but Macron is making a fatal error if he thinks he can brush off the concerns of my neighbours, who are handing out biscuits to passing motorists, most of whom have posed a gilet jaune on the dashboard in solidarity.
Attempts to negotiate with this Medusa-like movement are not going to be straightforward. The movement has no leader. Its demands are inchoate or naive. Opposition politicians have swarmed to gilets. Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of a left-wing party that calls itself La France Insoumise, have rushed to support the movement. Even Francois Hollande, the former president, has been drawn to the front lines, imagining that his own dream of a political comeback might be advantaged. But French people are not just fed up with Macron, they are fed-up with politicians generally.
Macron’s behaviour meanwhile grows increasingly bizarre. He managed to be out of France again this weekend, at the G20, where he was lecturing Donald Trump on the environment and Mohammed bin Salman on the Khashoggi affair. At his closing press conference, he spoke, without pause, for almost an hour, mentioning the events in Paris only in the last 30 seconds, dismissing them as unacceptable but saying nothing to inspire, comfort or show empathy with the bewildered nation. He then refused to answer questions on the riots.
Returning to Paris, Macron rushed from the airport to a contrived photo opportunity in which he thanked the police and firemen who after 12 hours on duty, did not seem especially pleased to see him. He did a brief walkabout, surrounded by bodyguards, during which he was roundly booed. He concluded his weekend by promising that he would not back down from planned tax increases on diesel, the issue that provoked this in the first place. The expression, throwing petrol on the fire, comes to mind.
Macron may have won the presidency, albeit in curious circumstances, but he is politically tone deaf. His obsession with the environment and keeping his green allies on board has led him to ignite a wildfire in France that threatens to consume his entire ambitious reform program while diminishing him on the world stage. A comparison with Nero is not inapt. He is fiddling with carbon reduction targets while Paris burns.
Macron won’t and can’t change. He has not a trace of humility in his personality and while this may have worked for General de Gaulle, he can neither carry it off nor can such a personality survive an onslaught by social media, which in France is consumed with ridiculing and disparaging the president.
Instead of uniting the country behind an absolutely necessary reform of its ossified institutions and employment-hostile labour laws and taxation policies, instead of inspiring the country with the grand project of national renewal, he has united the country against himself. Power has drained from the presidency to the streets. People have been killed, scores injured. France is in a very dangerous place.
Jonathan Miller is the author of France a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron.