Emmanuel Macron is supposed to be the cleverest man in France but he has painted himself so completely into a corner that there’s no way out. Whether the gilets jaunes insurrection achieves its objectives or not, it has become his nemesis.
As the yellow wave roils France, Macron is a diminished figure after a crunching fall to earth. Bastion of anti-populism, he has united 70 per cent of France against him. He did self-identify as Jupiter. Now, perhaps, he is looking like a sickly lame duck, albeit one for whom the word hauteur might have been invented. Instead of the confident leader, lecturing and preening on the global stage, he is barricaded in his palace, a sort of latter-day Marie Antoinette. French people can’t afford diesel? Let them buy Teslas. Others might compare him to Nero, fiddling with emission targets while Paris burns.
Macron’s fate has serious consequences for France, the EU, the UK and the world. It would be hubristic in itself to try to answer the question ‘what happens next?’ but we may be seeing the start of the effective interment of the Macron project to reform France. How this might turn out for the next presidential election, admittedly four years hence, is impossible to know. French politics are entropic. Marine Le Pen certainly seems back from the dead. Macron could become the third president in a row to fail to win re-election.
The immediate problem is that he is in danger of losing control of his capital city once again this weekend. Paris is not prepared for another Saturday of disorder, never mind the Medusan uprisings throughout the country. The police are demoralised and exhausted. The housing projects are febrile. The prefects are warning (leaked to Le Monde, another sign that discipline is breaking down) that Macron with his non-voter-friendly personality, his almost autistic inability to connect, is himself the problem. Not even former president François Hollande dared increase taxes on fuel.
Macron has offered a six-month suspension of the fuel-tax increases that have provoked the gilets jaunes. This will not quell the peasants’ revolt. It may be academic anyway, since at the moment the fuel depots are being blockaded and it is hard to buy any at all. And now the farmers have announced they will join the action next week.
Macron, obsessed with the COP 20 carbon reduction target agreed at Lima in 2014, insists these new taxes are part of his plan for a great energy transformation to save the planet. This infuriates the gilets jaunes, who are the first to suffer from rising fuel prices. But their lack of leadership and an expanding list of demands make this insurgency especially difficult to suppress.
Macron was out of town for the first and second weeks of trouble in Paris, but this time he owns the problem. A government that cannot control its own streets is incapable of attracting bankers or any other investors.
So now, as this vivid and very French spectacle continues, we have Macron the general, bunkered with his security chiefs, planning how to respond should there be a third week of anarchy, which almost certainly there will be. There is no evidence he knows anything at all about policing public disorder and the police mostly loathe him. Paris is a very difficult city to defend against political and criminal opportunists, as last Saturday showed. And Marseille, Toulouse and beyond are all vulnerable.
The radio channel France Inter spent Monday repeating the Elysée line that imposing a new state of emergency or martial law was not even under consideration. Denials must be taken with a grain of salt. Could he really do this? We see armed soldiers in France occasionally, but deployed mainly statically, guarding places. But to engage in combat with Antifa and banlieu bandits?
Again, Macron is damned either way. Calling out the army against his own citizens will explode in his face. The army is neither trained nor equipped for such work. But how else does he impose order? Police officers (and firefighters) have been on the go here for three weeks solid.
Looking forward, how can Macron be saving the planet, deepening EU bonds, luring bankers from London, lecturing Mohammed bin Salman on the Khashoggi affair, explaining CO2 emissions to Donald Trump and promoting a shiny new France full of jobs and opportunities for all, when his capital is covered in smoke and the Avenue Kléber is carpeted with shards of glass?
Perhaps Macron has some cunning political resuscitation plan that has escaped the understanding of mere mortals, but the polls show his popularity has plunged below that of Hollande and is possibly lower than the approval rating for Donald Trump in France. (A survey for Le Figaro showed disapproval of Trump rapidly falling from 80 per cent to 65 per cent, suggesting 35 per cent like him, or don’t know or don’t care. Macron’s approval rating fell to 27 per cent on an average of seven polls in November, and that was before the riots.)
Could it be that Macron’s misfortunes could be Britain’s to profit by, as the EU’s only credible leader is debagged? He has done nothing to help Theresa May. He speaks of an EU imperium, with an army, erasing national identities. He has interfered shamelessly in British politics, saying campaigners for Leave had lied, while ostentatiously inviting British bankers to move to Paris. Fat chance of many taking him up on the offer.
His ejection from Olympus arrives at a time when the UK is in the EU endgame, and the community is rattled. Jean-Claude Juncker called off a trip to Paris this week. France, its economy hobbled by an over-valued euro, now joins Spain, Italy, Germany and Belgium in a state of social or political crisis or both. Macron’s obsession with carbon emissions, fiscal union, European defence and pooling sovereignty has no traction at all among the gilets.
If Britain is currently mad and hysterical, at least Regent Street was not looted twice in a fortnight. Leavers and Remainers might wish to look across the channel at the neighbours and consider the political lessons.
Jonathan Miller is the author of France a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron.