The public reaction to French President Emmanuel Macron’s carbon tax increase that caused this weekend’s protests is making him even less popular and represents a profound challenge to Macron’s future.
Count me among the disappointed about Emmanuel Macron. I listened closely to his 2016 campaign rhetoric and promises to return France to greatness. You might say he wanted to make France great again.
I was under no illusion that a former member of the Socialist Party and successful climber of the statist French elite was going to be a continental Margaret Thatcher, but his regular refrains about reform sounded genuine. I hoped that he understood France’s problems were a result of ignoring the counsel of great French thinkers and doers like Jean-Baptiste Say, Claude-Frédéric Bastiat, Alexis de Tocqueville and Marquis de Lafayette while embracing the unwise counsel of practically every other French thinker or doer since France began its journey toward republican government in the 18th century.
It was encouraging that he had talked about (and implemented) some reforms when he served in the previous administration of the socialist François Hollande. As minister of the economy and finance, Macron pushed business-friendly reforms. His career as an investment banker doesn’t mean, in my view, that he learned the best lessons about capitalism, but I’m sure they were better for his future government career as a reformer than if he had been a labor union leader.
In sum, because of his resume and rhetoric, as he ran for the presidency one hoped he would bring hard but good medicine to a state and a culture that wanted none of it. I expected the typical French public revulsion at being told that the state should not micromanage business, but thought Macron would hold firm and use his almost total control of government and initial popularity to weather the protests and force the issue.
French presidents are almost kinglike in their authority, and Macron had that, plus a landslide victory and immense popularity. But Macron disappointed in three major ways.
Macron’s Fixation With The Wrong Issues
First, he hasn’t put forward a reform agenda deep and broad enough to get at the root problem: low growth in the French economy due to its high costs of labor. Employers cannot make the economy boom (and make the government popular through expanded employment) if they cannot afford to do it.
Macron is like most technocrats in that he wants the state to manage debt and budgets above all, but right now, after decades of tinkering, France needs bold reform that puts business in the lead of the economy. He says he worries over debt and European union fiscal mandates, and we know his goal is to outshine Germany’s Angela Merkel (who doesn’t matter much anymore), but this just won’t do.
He admirably weathered protests over his early reforms of the railways and other smaller matters, after watering them down, but what really matters is making France an engine of economic growth through its business community and foreign investors. So far, he’s not impressed them much and the really big reforms of labor rules and pensions don’t appear likely given his fall from grace.
Second, he appears to have made as much of himself as the press did early on, and that’s always a mistake. Hubris is what the Ancient Greeks called it. Thinking that a mandate from the voters means what you think it means––or that it lasts once the pain of reform sets in–is unwise, especially in France, with the body politic being as fickle as they come.
Inevitably, the shine faded from the new administration, but Macron didn’t seem to notice. The media stopped fawning and started reflecting the public’s mood, and together, the public and media have brought this erstwhile champion low. His foolish attempt to protect a favorite among his security detail portrayed a president who thought himself above the law, and the public might never forgive him for that.
Third, he’s now trying the wrong things to solve his problems. By taking on President Trump, he might encourage France’s Trump-hating population (I am sure there are many) but he won’t be doing anything to fix the French economy. Sparring with Trump might eventually be ridiculed as a sideshow especially as, in doing that, he’s also talking up his plans for a European army.
That, too, might fire up those who want to pretend France is the leader of Europe and Europe is the leader of the world, but surely everyone in France (and Europe) knows deep down that this is a hollow gesture. Europe has neither the money nor the will to defend itself. Even if it did, nationalism is waxing, not waning, and Europe remains divided, as Donald Rumsfeld noted, between old and new Europe.
Besides, no one trusts the two senior European powers (France and Germany, as the UK is almost out of Europe and too close to the United States anyway) to lead Europe. So Macron can posture as the leader of the preeminent global leader of Europe and thus the world, and take on climate change, but the average French citizen who did not attend the École Polytechnique is still highly irritated that he is paying more for fuel.
The public reaction to Macron’s fuel tax increase that caused this weekend’s protests is making him even less popular and represents a profound challenge to Macron’s future. He may have even blown his chance to truly reform France’s economy.
The Tax Fuel Protests Are Serious Cause For Concern
The protests over the fuel tax were worse than we have seen in a long time in France. As many as 250,000 people came out across the country, with Paris’s center becoming almost a war zone. Previous presidents have, of course, suffered protests whenever tough economic measures had to be taken. And Macron, as noted above, has endured his fair share.
But this is happening without his major reforms in place. Instead, he’s focused on an elitist concern about people driving their cars too much, never mind that the poor are struggling to get to work, run their small businesses, and buy food that must be transported.
This is just too bad. Europe and the United States need a strong France led by a capable leader. The challenges we face in an aggressive Russia and a rising China, as well as terrorism and global economic growth, are considerable. France can be a leader and an important ally for the United States, but not if its government is unwilling to to address its root problems and instead engages in delusional thinking about France’s role in the world.
This delusional thinking is a serious problem. Outside observers placed so much hope in Macron because he appeared to be the only French leader capable of taking on the real problem: the delusions of the French people about economics. Indeed, the delusions weighing down on France are not simply those of its elites.It is the people of France who suffer the delusion that the state can micromanage the economy while still promoting economic well-being.
France Needs to Come to Its Senses, and Soon
The French have never rejected statism, nor have they ever really been asked to. Every French government of the right, left, or center maintains a statist view of economics: the French rely too much on the state to coddle labor and they want the government to regulate business so it can’t compete without protection.
Sometimes, when the French people voted in a socialist government, they got socialism in its pretty pure form, like in the early Mitterand administration of the 1980s. But once it failed miserably, the Mitterand government pulled back, not to free market economics but to statism. Conservative governments have hardly been better. In sum, the French do not reject statism, centralized government, and an overly regulated market, they just want someone to make their preferences work. Good luck with that.
Macron can complain all he likes about “a very small element of far right and the far left” engaging in violent protests, but his plans are wholly unpopular with the whole of France. The protestors are not some extremist elements representing a tiny portion of the population: they represent his countrymen’s views at the death of their dream of a magic young man who promised to save them.