By Larry Elliott
Rioting in the streets. Filling stations running out of fuel. Panic buying in the supermarkets. A country in chaos. Not a dystopian vision of Britain after Brexit, but France in the here and now under that self-styled champion of anti-populism, Emmanuel Macron.
French politicians invariably claim to be inspired by Charles de Gaulle, and Macron is no exception. His official presidential photograph has him standing in front of a desk with a copy of De Gaulle’s war memoirs open. Macron’s subliminal message to the French people was obvious. Like De Gaulle, I will be a strong leader. Like De Gaulle, I will rise above petty politics and rule in the national interest.
Comparisons with De Gaulle have certainly been made in recent days, but not to the De Gaulle who set up a French government-in-exile in London in 1940, or the De Gaulle who healed the wounds over Algeria in 1958. Inevitably, given the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests that have erupted across France, it is the occupation of the streets of Paris by students and workers in May 1968 that is being recalled.
Like De Gaulle, Macron failed to spot the street protests coming. Like De Gaulle, he seemed out of touch and incapable of a suitable response. And like De Gaulle, he will pay a heavy political price because his USP was that he would never surrender to protesters if they took to the streets and, by suspending higher taxes on petrol and diesel for six months, he has done precisely that.
There is no little irony in the fact that the man who was seen as the answer to populism has provoked the most high-profile demonstration of populist rage Europe has yet seen. When he arrived at the Elysée Palace, Macron was hailed as a new breed of politician but he was really the past, not the future: the last technocratic centrist in the tradition of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder.
Angela Merkel’s predecessor as German chancellor was the real role model for Macron, because it was Schröder who pushed through tough labour market and welfare reforms in the early 2000s designed to make Europe’s biggest economy more competitive. The reforms worked, but only after a fashion. Germany has low unemployment and runs a huge trade surplus, but does because German workers have accepted wage cuts and reduced spending power.
Macron thought the same recipe would work in France, but although he saw off Marine Le Pen easily enough in the presidential runoff, his underlying support was always weak. France chooses its leader in a two-stage process: a first round with multiple candidates and a second round when the two candidates with the highest number of votes go head to head. There is a saying that France chooses in the first round and eliminates in the second, and barely more than one in four of those who voted in round one wanted Macron.
Nonetheless, the new president thought he had a powerful mandate for structural reform. He cut taxes for the rich, made it easier for companies to hire and fire, and took on the rail unions. It was only a matter of time before the backlash began.
The French economy has struggled to keep pace with Germany’s. It has only very limited powers to stimulate demand because interest rates are set by the European Central Bank, and fiscal policy – tax and public spending – is constrained by the eurozone’s budget deficit rules. France supported the idea of the euro because it imagined a common currency would dilute German power. Instead, the opposite has happened: Germany has become the dominant force in the eurozone and in the wider EU. The euro works for Germany – or, to be more accurate, it works for German exporters – but it doesn’t really work for anybody else. Having made a blunder of historic proportions when it joined the single currency, France has been trying to rectify the mistake ever since.
While he was still in his honeymoon period as president, Macron announced a plan to strengthen monetary union by creating a eurozone budget controlled by the eurozone. He knew that the only chance of Berlin agreeing to this proposal was if Germany saw its relationship with France as a partnership of equals, something it has not been for many years. The way to generate respect was to put the French economy through the same rigorous workout that the Germans had accepted under Schröder. This had the added benefit of chiming with his domestic agenda, which was all about creating a more business-friendly environment and shifting the balance of power in the workplace from labour to capital.
The Germans were always going to take some persuading, both about the desirability of having a eurozone-wide fiscal policy that they would be expected to bankroll and about whether Macron could deliver at home. The worst street violence in half a century will have confirmed all their worst fears. But there’s a wider point. Politicians need to realise that the financial crisis and a decade of flatlining living standards have made a difference to what is and what isn’t politically feasible.
It is feasible – indeed, desirable – to use the tax system to tackle climate change, but only if the hit to living standards is fully offset by cuts in other taxes. Otherwise it is simply more of the austerity that voters everywhere are rejecting. And it is politically suicidal to be known as the president of the wealthy and then tell voters angry about rising fuel prices to car share or take public transport. That’s not De Gaulle, that’s Marie Antoinette and “let them eat cake”.