Jonathan Miller

Emmanuel’s folly

If you thought British politics was bad, spare a thought for France

Emmanuel’s folly
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An embattled, incompetent leader distrusted and disliked by a vast majority of voters. A wobbly economy that might be tipped into recession by Brexit. A re-energised opposition. Huge street protests. Squabbling with European partners. The government is paralysed, the opposition is emboldened — and the nation stands humiliated, as the world looks on in horror wondering how a leader who was so popular two years ago could get things so wrong.

Not Theresa May, but Emmanuel Macron, the politician who may be the greatest Brexiteer of them all. As the saga of British withdrawal enters its final chapter, Macron has emerged as the loudest advocate for pushing Britain out the door, deal or no deal, consequences be damned.

Why does he behave in this way? Wouldn’t France suffer even more from a no-deal Brexit? But to understand his rage, you need to understand the depth of the hole in which he now finds himself.

It’s now common for Brits to consider themselves the laughing stock of Europe. To be sure, the Westminster drama is embarrassing — but it could be worse. We could be France. Just two years ago, Macron was seen as the great centrist hope not just of France but of Europe. The country’s youngest ever president was elected aged 39¾ to the near unanimous approval of European bien pensants. He promised to drag France out of political, economic and social sclerosis, to see off the menace of populism, sack half a million supernumerary functionaries and make France great again.

He quickly discovered that reform of a state riddled with clientelism and protectionism is easy to talk about but difficult if not impossible to achieve. His predecessors made the same discovery.

His domestic failure has been spectacular and comprehensive. The suburbs are in turmoil and Macron’s vaunted reform project has ground to a halt. The legions of civil servants remain in place, many recently revealed to work less than 35 hours a week. State spending accounts for a gargantuan 58 per cent of the economy, with the highest taxes in Europe to pay for it all. Enterprise is crushed by further taxes on employment, which can double the cost of hiring a worker. Tax cuts are promised but undelivered and cannot be without inflating the alarming deficit or cutting back the state.

The French have had enough. The opinion polls are striking. Macron is now the most unloved leader in Europe, by a distance, according to the YouGov Eurotrack survey. Among Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Macron has achieved a clean sweep, finishing dead last in every category.

Do you approve of the government’s record to date? Seventy-six per cent of French voters disapprove. Do you think the financial situation of your household will change over the next 12 months? By a four-to-one ratio, they think it will get worse. Has the financial situation of your household changed in the past 12 months? Half say it has got worse, or a lot worse. How do you think the country’s economy has changed in the past 12 months? Fifty-seven per cent say it’s worse or a lot worse. A different poll found 75 per cent of French agree that Macron can be referred to as a ‘president for the rich’.

The trajectory of the Macron project has been a case study in hubris. He has taken green politics and tested them to destruction. His putting up of fuel taxes last year while cutting the wealth tax was a manoeuvre so ill-judged as to beggar belief: it seems to show his contempt for those priced out of the cities, who live in provincial areas where they need cars. His diesel tax and carbon tax was the proximate cause for spawning the gilets jaunes movement, which is still bringing cities to a standstill every Saturday. His explanation that fuel prices had to rise to counter climate change cut little moutarde with voters.

France has now had 21 consecutive weekends of demonstrations and riots in which thousands have been arrested, hundreds injured, many gravely, and ten killed. The frequent brutality of the police, relayed instantly on social networks, has been condemned by Amnesty International and the UN. The physical damage has cost hundreds of millions. The reputational hit has been much worse.

Invest in France? Hopes of attracting many bankers from Brexit island have gone up in flames, along with the Porsches on the Avenue Kléber. Macron’s response has been to denounce protesters as ‘enemies’ of the state, and to impose new laws suppressing ‘fake news’. It’s easy to understand his allergy to reporting outside the usually obedient conventional channels.

Sanctimonious he may be, but Macron’s probity is in as much doubt as his competence. His clumsy efforts to cover up a scandal in his inner circle, involving a handsome young bodyguard of North African origin, now fired, but apparently still in touch with Macron’s circle, have shaken even some of the normally complaisant Paris press corps.

And now there’s his latest project, to launch his ambitious ‘EU Renaissance’, a largely inchoate big idea that has strikingly failed to resonate with French people, who have truly not a clue what he is talking about and whose own deeply eurosceptic views are ignored. Having failed to reform France from Paris, he seems to imagine that his reborn EU might do the job for him, delivering the country from 40 years of stagnation.

With Europe as his standard, Macron’s fightback has been unconvincing. For several weeks, France has been treated to the embarrassing spectacle of his great national debate, launched to distract attention from the insurgency of the gilets jaunes. Hailed as a great exercise in consultative democracy, it’s been more of a monologue. He has toured the country, not debating, not listening, but talking, talking, talking, sometimes for three hours with nary a pause. Not even his handpicked audiences could feign rapt attention.

Tellingly, one subject almost entirely excluded from the agenda of this so-called debate was Europe. Macron has never had any intention of consulting the voters on this subject, and for good reason. The French are among the most eurosceptic voters in Europe. They rejected the European constitution in 2005 by 55-45 per cent. (The constitution was subsequently relabelled a treaty and imposed regardless.)

It is a curiosity that Macron remains deeply admired abroad, notably by the Economist, whose Paris correspondent practically worships him, and the New York Times, which has annointed him the anti-Trump. The Washington Post has even swooned over his marriage — a triumph for feminism, apparently. But in France, even those who intend to vote for his list in the forthcoming European parliamentary election will hold their noses.

As his economic reforms have ground to a standstill, and his attempts to buy off the gilets jaunes have pushed France's debt to the very edge of 100 per cent of GDP, Macron now faces two further tests. Neither may work out for him. It is ironic that if Brexit is thwarted, only Nigel Farage is likely to be more disappointed than Macron. The second is the May election, in which he risks humiliation.

Faced with opposition from a barmy extreme left and toxic extreme right, Macron’s candidates may yet emerge with the largest number of seats. The received wisdom is that as much as voters do not like Macron, many will not stomach the alternative. (It is a particularly French expression of democracy that a politician can win an election with a 14 per cent approval rating.)

Or maybe not. Voters who would otherwise vote for Macron as the lesser of two evils in a presidential election may be less scrupulous in a contest for the European parliament. The gilets jaunes are more likely to be motivated to vote, and Macron’s base may not be large enough to push him over the line. Whichever camp is able to declare victory, France is inevitably going to return a large number of eurosceptic MEPs, and with allies from across Europe, they are going to make Macron’s renaissance a mission impossible.

Whither the boy wonder? Macron’s obsession with European federalism has not just alienated him from voters, but has irritated his most important ally, German chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany wants nothing to do with Macron’s proposed fiscal union. Why should Germans pay France’s debts? And lately, she has been especially alarmed by his inflammatory anti-British rhetoric. Macron might imagine that for the cause of his renaissance it’s essential to push the British out into the cold as soon as possible, deal or no deal. Merkel is listening to German industrialists, especially car makers, who call the UK ‘treasure island’.

The prospect of a messy Brexit scares plenty of people in France, too. Officials in the north, closer to the UK than Paris, are in open rebellion. French farmers and fishermen are spooked by the potential loss of markets and fishing rights. Even my neighbours in the south, a long way from the United Kingdom, fear the impact on wine and tourism, which essentially is all they’ve got.

When Macron was elected, a friend of mine who’d worked with him during his brief stint at Rothschild, and who found him an unlikeable and slippery colleague, nonetheless assured me that he was brilliant. He was always a swot, not just impressing but marrying his teacher. He won all the glittering prizes, admission to the École Nationale d’Administration, advancing thereafter to the status of haut fonctionnaire and economy minister under former president François Hollande.

But he is utterly lacking in emotional intelligence. He has failed to temper his narcissism and grandiosity, failed to listen, failed to master the essential art of politics, which is to bring people together, not divide them. His attempted listening tours have ended in disaster. Last summer, he was filmed telling an unemployed gardener how to find work: ‘In hotels, cafés and construction, everywhere I go people say to me that they are looking for staff,’ he said. ‘I can find you a job just by crossing the road.’ The video went viral. In his stubbornness and near autistic indifference to others, Macron has united France against him.

It will now be hard, perhaps impossible, for him to recover his popularity or his agenda which may help explain his Brexit obsession. He sees in it the concerns of provincial people who feel ignored by arrogant elites — the sort of people he’d hoped would go away. Brexit reminds him that they are unlikely to do so. As a result, his European renaissance is as undeliverable as the revolution he promised in France.

Jonathan Miller is the author of France a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron.’ Jonathan Miller and Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief of the Economist, on Emmanuel Macron’s fall from grace.