Whatever the responsibilities of the president in a time of crisis, only the people can get France out of its chaotic state by a return to reasonableness and a spirit of compromise.
The digital revolt of the “Yellow Vests” has led to a level of violence and a political crisis that have not been seen since 1968. Despite growing concern over increasing civil disorder, France has 67 million “Yellow Vests”. And Emmanuel Macron, prime target of the rioters, must bears full responsibility for this revolt. He has bombarded the French with an onslaught of regulations, charges and taxes. He has further weakened the sovereign state. He has overstepped the mark by setting up an authoritarian, technocratic and arrogant power – with a proliferation of abuses – and has shown disdain for French citizens, their elected representatives, scholars and the media.
Emmanuel Macron has taken himself for Jupiter but has been reduced to the role of Icarus and, because of his errors and provocation, has cut off his own wings. After patently failing to reshape Europe and to woo Donald Trump, his plan to transform France has fallen to pieces. Just like the seven-year term of Jacques Chirac, his five-year term is potentially stillborn, killed off by the heirs of Alain Juppé who, after the “joyful identity” [reference to a 2017 election slogan adopted by Alain Juppé and intended to stimulate a sense of unified national identity] have thought it a good idea to try out a “joyful tax” on a country that has been bled dry.
The consequences of the political crisis are, however, much more serious than in 1995. Emmanuel Macron was France’s last chance to reform itself in a peaceful, democratic way. By pushing the French into revolt, he has not mobilized them into seeking a different, Utopian society as General de Gaulle did in 1968, but has made them indulge in the pipe dream of preserving a model bequeathed by the Trente Glorieuses [the thirty post-war years of growth and prosperity]. And the watchword has become: smash everything so that nothing changes. This new blow to France’s image could be fatal, even though it had been showing improvement and Brexit was offering Paris the chance to recover from its decline. Finally, by triggering the “Yellow Vest” movement, Emmanuel Macron has laid the groundwork for the sociological and political merging of the far right and the far left, which could mean that, in 2022, France will find itself in the same political situation as Italy.
This is a turning point in history, not only for Emmanuel Macron’s mandate, but for France itself. The choice is clear. On the one hand, Emmanuel Macron, totally isolated in France as he is in Europe, could join François Hollande as the next in line of phantom presidents, having missed another chance for France to enter the 21st century and yet, despite his inability to take any effective action, remaining in his post because of the solidity of the 5th Republic. On the other hand, there could be a radical reshaping of his presidency and his policies that would make it possible for a new economic, social and political pact to emerge.
At this decisive moment, Emmanuel Macron no longer holds his destiny in his own hands. There is no point in killing him off – he has done that himself. He has broken everything that binds him to the nation, to society and to the people. The inverted pyramid that he had built up – with government, a huge yet hollow majority and party – has crumbled and become his mausoleum. Only the French people can save him now, and give him back his political base.
In 1936, faced by the rise of totalitarian regimes and the risk of war, Élie Halévy called on the people to take their responsibilities in hand: “Responsibility for the ills that are afflicting humanity must be transferred from statesmen to the common people, i.e. ourselves. The wisdom or folly of our statesmen is purely and simply the reflection of our own wisdom and our own folly. It is up to us to replace a spirit of fanaticism with a spirit of compromise.”
Therefore, it all depends on us. Do we want chaos or civil peace? Do we want to reshape the nation or break it up into communities and individuals determined to enter into conflict with each other in ever more violent ways? Do we still want to produce and innovate so as to generate well-being and solidarity or to tear ourselves apart and bear the losses that decline will bring? Do we want to keep our political freedom or are we ready to put our lives in the hands of autocrats and ideologists who will use the immoderate means at the disposal of the French state to turn us into consenting slaves?
At all costs, Emmanuel Macron must not keep to his present course. He must change everything: refocus himself on his prime mission – to modernize France – instead of deploying an egotistical and sterile activism in Europe and in the world; bring economic policy back into balance, towards inclusive growth; restore the sovereign state; replace the people under him – the keywords being experience, political know-how, knowledge and diversity; and put an end to continued abuses of power and ill-considered language.
The French must not give in to the temptations of Manicheism and violence. There are some things that have come out of the present administration that deserve to be kept: reform in education, labor, training, capital and company taxation. The return to the principle that responsibility must be borne by the person at the top also applies to the people, who must recognize that, if lower taxes are to be a priority, then this cannot happen without a drop in public expenditure.
It was despicable of Emmanuel Macron to trumpet “France is me”. In fact, France is all of us. It is our responsibility not to let it plunge into nihilistic violence. At a time when democracy is facing its worst crisis since the 1930s, our country cannot do without a Head of State in the full sense of the term. Emmanuel Macron must be placed under close surveillance but not reduced to a state of powerless.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 10th December 2018)