By Sophie Hunter
Latest protests across France demonstrate that Emmanuel Macron is a president of the rich.
Emmanuel Macron has just confirmed once again that he has the best interests of the wealthy at heart. A most recent example is the lower middle class-led protests that began on Saturday, November 17. Since then, demonstrators in yellow high visibility vests have been blocking roads, oil refineries, motorway tolls and major supermarket warehouses across France, especially at the periphery of major cities. The root of their discontent is not solely the new tax increase and a rise in fuel costs, which Macron justifies in the name of an ecological transition to a low-carbon economy. Instead, the French have erupted in fury and have marched down the Champs-Élysées because the latest tax hike is shrinking the buying power of the middle and lower classes.
Some analysts doubt whether the movement will gain momentum. Others believe differently. They think that the latest tax hike will rally people from various backgrounds and regions who are united by their disappointment with the president. Since his election in 2017, Emmanuel Macron has introduced or increased a variety of taxes. In March, thousands of pensioners marched through Paris in protest over higher social security taxes. While Macron has scrapped a wealth tax and cut corporate tax, he is taxing the poor more and slashing their benefits. Unsurprisingly, the former investment banker has earned the epithet “president of the rich.”
Since April, Macron’s popularity has been declining. His labor-market reforms led to prolonged strikes by railway unions. Then, the young president chose to attack the French social model for higher education. Currently, French students who pass the baccalaureate exam have the right to attend university in their area. Macron’s reform allows universities to select students on merit. Sit-ins and protests broke out across the country just before the end-of-year exams. After the latest fuel hike protests, the so-called Macronmania is in free fall. Macron’s popularity has crashed to a new low record of 25%. It is clear that the “Macron honeymoon” is over and has been replaced by disillusionment.
TEARING UP THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
Macron’s policies and reforms are informed by a simple calculus: He wants to make France more dynamic, just like the US and the UK. Curiously, he is doing so at a time when the Anglo-Saxon economic model stands discredited and weakened by the uncertainty of Brexit. No less than a fifth of the UK population now lives in poverty. Children and pensioners are experiencing the worst decline in living conditions in decades. UN special rapporteur, Philip Alston, found 14 million Brits living in poverty, many unable to break its vicious cycle.
Macron has decided that cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy is the best way to attract investment in France. This investment, combined with privatization of state-owned assets, should bring innovation, jobs and better growth. To achieve this, he must rip up France’s existing social contract and cut costs on its rather generous welfare state. As Owen Jones writes in The Guardian, Macron’s “policies have shifted the workplace balance of power from workers to bosses.” While this comes as no surprise, voters seem to be suffering from memory loss. As economy minister under François Hollande, Macron pushed hard for unpopular policies aimed at unlocking economic growth. Today, as president, he is turning them into reality.
To be fair, the French social model has been under strain for a long time. The 2017 elections demonstrated deepening divisions in French society. The two candidates left standing in the final round were Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. It was clear that the French, young and old, were willing to shake up the system. Out went the traditional parties on the left and the right. In came two populists, one so-called centrist and the other from the far right. Macron owes his throne to the divisions in France, demonstrating that the center has moved to the right.
A VERY FRENCH SCHIZOPHRENIA
The very students who now oppose Macron were his greatest supporters who helped elect him in 2017 — he was the preferred candidate for millennial voters from all social strata. He was young, good looking, telegenic, energetic and charismatic. The country of Napoleon likes flair, and Macron had a charming love story that sold well. His high school teacher, 25 years his senior, had fallen in love with him, abandoning her husband to marry her precocious student. This cool new Pied Piper seduced millennials with even greater ease than he had seduced his wife. For the young, Macron was their man.
Unfortunately, young French voters forgot to observe that Macron was an establishment man. He is an énarque, a graduate of the elitist National School of Administration (L’ENA). Last year, French businessman Alain Minc told the Financial Times that Macron was the “perfect product of the French Republican monarchy.” This high flier graduated as an inspecteur des finances — an elite corps of the very highest-ranking graduates from L’ENA. At the height of the global financial crisis in 2008, Macron jetted off to Rothschild, eventually “earning €2.9m and a nickname — ‘the Mozart of finance’ — for his role advising Nestlé on its $12bn acquisition of a unit of Pfizer in 2012.” According to the Financial Times, the Mozart of finance made his fortune because he “mastered the art of networking and navigated around the numerous conflicts of interest that arise in close-knit Parisian business circles.” In other words, Macron was hardly the rebel or the outsider that French millennials imagined him to be.
Macron captures a very French schizophrenia among the young. On the one hand, they are still intoxicated by the memory of the heady days of 1968. They identify with socialist and radical culture. On the other hand, young people still imagine themselves to be important in the world. They might be disillusioned, but they still have both illusions and delusions of grandeur. It is this contradiction that made Macron attractive to them.
Macron’s image appealed to the radical counterculture of May 1968. At the same time, he was promising to modernize the country and put France center stage. His party, La République En Marche! (Republic on the Move!) promised change but never really defined it. He called himself a centrist, but no one asked him what that really meant. He never disclosed who funded his slick campaign. Yet what is indisputable is that Macron did run a brilliant campaign with meticulous attention to branding, marketing and messaging, which was especially successful in seducing millennials. The fact that these two impulses or desires of preserving the legacy of 1968 and of making the country hip in 2017 might ever be contradictory never occurred to Macron’s enthusiastic supporters.
French youngsters simply fail to realize that la grande nation is no longer the center of the world. They don’t see that time has passed France by. Paris is no London, New York, Singapore or Shanghai. France’s incestuous elite and infamous red tape continue to drive away talent. Yet most French youngsters overlook reality and stick to a perception of France that is nostalgic, wooly and even smug. They don’t think deeply, debate passionately or explore widely.
Admittedly, this situation is not unique to France. Not only the young but also the old in many parts of the world fail to discern the difference between reality and perception. Peter Isackson has written consistently about this new world of hyperreality, where image matters more than substance, where perception overrides reality. In this hyperreal world, the young have lost their ability to think critically. They no longer challenge established norms or institutions. They are ultra sensitive and shy away from debate. They fail to realize that anything meaningful or substantive is controversial, painful and unsafe.
In France and elsewhere, the young mouth platitudes to diversity, but remain slaves to conformity. There are few discussions or debates about immigration, inequality, social mobility, alternative economic models or even education. Paradoxically, as foreshadowed by the Dalai Lama in his “Paradox of Our Times,” this much celebrated millennial generation has wider access to information, greater opportunities to travel and enormous potential to learn, but it is far less accepting of differences than earlier generations. Therefore, it is far more vulnerable to the hyperreality peddled by snake-oil salesmen.
Both Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron are two such salesmen. They might talk about the little people, but are in thrall to those with money. They sell dreams to their followers, but their actions undercut that very dreams they peddle. Neither Trump nor Macron have new ideas or sound policies, but their supporters still perceive them as saviors of their countries. Unless people break out of this hyperreal world and learn to think for themselves, we will have many such presidents of the rich.
Yet the tide can turn. Nicolas Hulot, the most popular politician in Macron’s government and minister of ecological transition, has resigned in August over frustration with unfulfilled promises on environmental policy. Perhaps this latest tax and fuel hike could be a wake-up call, at least in France, for the people to challenge the president of the rich and create a politics based not on image, but on substance.
This article has been written by Sophie Hunter.