Friday, December 21, 2018

For Emmanuel Macron, How Did Things Get So Bad, So Fast?

The fault lies with both the French president himself and the political and cultural elite that formed him.
By David A. Bell
December 13, 2018


In the end, the tragic fault lies both with Macron himself and with a political and cultural elite of which he is, in many ways, the pure product. To be sure, the protests did arise in large part in response to economic precariousness and pain. For French people who live outside of major cities, dependent on their cars and surviving on low incomes (average gross household income is about $30,000 per year), an increased tax on gasoline that already costs more than twice what it does in the United States is no small matter. But what clearly counted just as heavily for the Yellow Vests was the contempt they perceived as coming from Macron and his government. The president who imposed the new tax in the name of combating climate change was the same one who last year abolished the “solidarity tax” on the wealthy. It was the same one who overhauled the French labor code, making it easier for employers to fire workers. And it was the same one who summoned the two chambers of parliament to hear him speak in the splendor of the royal palace of Versailles.

It was, in short, a president who not only seemed systematically to be taking from the poor to give to the rich, but to be doing so in an intolerably disdainful manner. And Macron’s initial silence in response to the protesters did nothing to disabuse them of this perception, leading both their numbers and their demands to increase sharply.


The protesters’ perceptions are not entirely correct. Emmanuel Macron is not a contemptuous plutocrat. He is rather something that France’s elite educational and political systems specialize in producing: a person with very little life experience beyond elite institutions, who has a largely intellectualized approach to government. He is a smart man, with some genuine insights into the history of his country and the role of the presidency. But he has little sense of how to accomplish the long, hard slog of governing, or of what to do when people resist falling in line with his elegant theories. He has an abstract compassion for the poor and working classes but little real sense of their lives, and seems puzzled by their anger. His speech on Monday marked the first time in his presidency when he spoke with any real empathy about the plight of the poor and working class.


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