Emmanuel Macron thought he could walk on water, and with good reason. A populist of the centre, Macron created a party in his own image and campaigned on a two-plank platform: he was anti-establishment and wasn’t Marine Le Pen. In mollifying Eurospeak on the campaign trail he promised, without giving any great detail, that he would get things moving again.
Macron’s new La République En Marche! (REM) party won an easy majority in the National Assembly with 308 seats out of 577 and 43 per cent of the vote. Along with seats won by REM’s centrist allies, MoDem, Macron had a working majority with 350 seats.
‘An ancien régime of tired and corrupt conservative and socialist politicians, indissolubly linked to the immobilisme that has plagued France, has been swept away,’ wrote Will Hutton in the Guardian. That was then. In October 2018 the Economist had a cartoon showing Macron sinking below the waves and surrounded by sharks.
Macron’s popularity is vanishing like snow off a dyke. Even without les gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests his ratings are sinking even lower than those of his predecessor, the hapless Hollande. Macron’s approval rating was 53 per cent at the beginning of the year; by September it had sunk to 29 per cent. At the beginning of December it was 23 per cent, about half of Donald Trump’s approval rating.
In part his unpopularity is a matter of style. Leaving office, his interior minister Gérard Collomb complained about Macron’s ‘lack of humility’. It took Macron two weeks to find anyone to be Collomb’s successor. An oft-mentioned complaint by the yellow vests is that Macron does not listen.
The French are no strangers to autocratic leadership: no one could accuse de Gaulle or Pompidou of lacking in self-belief. There is something much deeper happening. In the protests throughout France we see symptoms which have appeared elsewhere in Europe of the crumbling of the globalist centre.
This is a warning sign of the struggle between globalist ideology and nationalist resentment. Macron is seen as a president for the rich who are able to take advantage of the benefits of globalisation. The same globalisation which works against the interests of the working and middle classes, the ‘peripheral France’ who pay the price in higher taxes, lower wages and fewer jobs.
Elected as a populist standard bearer for the centre, Macron has carried the flag for globalist Europhiles, and has been resoundingly rejected by the people. His belated U-turn in having the prime minister announce a moratorium on fuel tax increases is having little effect because the protests have gone far beyond their original spark.
Originally, the yellow-vest protesters were from rural areas for whom having to drive long distances was part of daily life. Rises in fuel prices due to environmental taxes caused resentment. Les gilets jaunes found diesel too expensive? Macron responded by telling them to use public transport, as bad in French rural areas as in Britain, and car-sharing. They see themselves caught in a bind: incomes too high for welfare relief yet too low to make ends meet.
Their initial demand was to repeal the green tax on fuel. Now others want the minimum wage to be raised. There have been calls to dissolve the National Assembly and hold new elections. There have been repeated chants of ‘Macron resign!’
Initially appearing in isolated pockets around the country, protests quickly metamorphosed into a larger movement. Even paramedics have taken to blocking roads with ambulances and turning on their sirens and lights to protest against changes in their work conditions.
Activist groups from Right and Left have joined in the protests, burning cars, ripping up cobblestones and attacking police. According to a poll conducted on Sunday by Harris Interactive for French media, although 85 per cent indicated they were opposed to the violence, 72 per cent still support the yellow vests, even after last Saturday’s riots.
Further demonstrations are threatened this Saturday with the GCT, France’s largest trade union, calling on all civil servants to join in. In turn police unions called on the government to bring in the army as they were ‘exhausted’. David Le Bars, secretary general of the police chiefs’ union SCPN, said soldiers should be drafted in as ‘reinforcements’ to free riot police to be more effective against highly mobile demonstrators.
A product of the internet age, the movement has no official leadership and works through social media. Spontaneous and seemingly unorganised, this makes it difficult for a bureaucratic organisation to deal with the protesters. Les gilets jaunes see the establishment as the enemy and have no desire to play by their rules.
When the government asks prominent protesters to meetings they have to withdraw because of threats. The mass of protesters has no desire to be sucked into the usual political process. Les gilets jaunes are fed up with all figures of the political establishment. They see themselves as being treated as outsiders, ‘peripheral France’, and are determined to use that to their advantage.
National political leaders such as Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally (formerly the National Front), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the hard-left France Unbowed have tried to co-opt les gilets jaunes. Although normally doing well with the dissatisfied and marginalised, their intervention has been rejected by the protesters.
They want a government which governs in the interests of France and not the rest of the world. In November Macron tried to give Donald Trump a lecture at a Remembrance Day gathering, suggesting that patriotism was the opposite of nationalism. The opposite of nationalism is internationalism, the dangerous idea that all human beings share similar values, and that, therefore, borders and national interests are irrelevant.
Making anti-nationalism into a value system in and of itself endangers free citizens who hold worthwhile national and cultural values dear. The patriotic French are demonstrating their rejection of an out-of-touch internationalist leader.
Where will it all end? As Chou En-Lai said when asked his opinion of the French Revolution: ‘It’s too early to tell.’