06 December 2018
The Battle For France
Reform v Reaction.
By Neil Tidmarsh
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?
Well, no, not quite.
Ok, President Macron has admitted defeat this week and suspended his planned rise in fuel taxes after almost a month of widespread and often violent protest. This third Battle For France (the first was launched by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, the second by François Hollande in 2012) appears to have gone the same way as the previous two – defeat for “Change and Renewal!” and victory for “Non, Merci!” – and this U-turn from the president who swore never to yield to the street seems to put him in the same position as his ultimately impotent predecessors. Governments may have changed over the last ten years – from Republican to Socialist to La Republique en Marche – all the way from old-established mainstream Right to old-established mainstream Left to brand-new independent – but it looks as if little else has.
Yet there are differences – odd and perhaps puzzling differences, the significances of which are not yet fully apparent – between Macron’s story and that of his two predecessors.
Macron’s mission is essentially the same as that of Sarkozy and Hollande – to reform the French economy, to tackle its stubbornly and dangerously high levels of unemployment and public debt, and low levels of growth, by stripping away red tape, relaxing restrictive labour laws and reducing taxation and government spending. Admittedly, President Hollande initially tried to rescue the country from its dire economic straits by using traditional Socialist methods such as high spending and high taxation, but those efforts only made the situation worse and he eventually changed tack. His subsequent belated and watered-down attempts to liberalise the economy, however, were no more successful than Sarkozy’s. Political opposition, union action and widespread protests were overwhelming and he eventually abandoned the struggle, defeated and humiliated, just as Sarkozy had been before him.
President Macron, however, remains undefeated on this ground.
It’s a curious fact that the issue on which he admitted defeat this week has little, if anything at all, to do with the main struggle in France today, the essential program for economic reform and liberalisation. Was it to do with slashing labour laws? No. Was it to do with cutting public spending? No. Was it to do with lowering taxes? No. What was it, then? A plan to increase the tax on diesel. A Green initiative. An ecological measure to reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels.
What? France relies on fossil fuels for a mere 10% of its energy! We in the UK regard that statistic with admiration, amazement and envy. We rely on fossil fuels for 50% of ours! Surely, President Macron, this issue – so peripheral to your main program, in no way essential to your core task of liberalising the French economy – wasn’t important enough to go to war over and to risk the defeat which it has indeed inflicted on you?
It’s difficult to believe that Macron, though often criticised for stubbornness and arrogance, would let those two faults lead him so far down the wrong track. I’m almost tempted to suspect a cunning tactic. Has Macron challenged the opposing forces over an issue he knows he can afford to lose, an issue which isn’t central to his main aims, in the hope that they will exhaust themselves in this fight and have little stomach or energy left after the struggle (and little poison left after the appeasement) for the more important battles to come?
Either way, the fact remains that it wasn’t Macron’s important initiative to liberalise the economy which was derailed this week, but a less important – almost insignificant – Green initiative. He has already succeeded in going much further than either of his two predecessors in his attempts to liberalise the economy, and it’s unlikely that this setback will stop him from pushing ahead with further measures to do so.
The opposition stirred up over the last three weeks may make his task more difficult, but an analysis of the forces which oppose President Macron reveal other differences between his position and that of his predecessors. Sarkozy and Hollande faced political opposition in parliament, militant strike action from the unions, and widespread public protest in the streets (remember nuit debout?). Macron, on the other hand, still has an almost unassailable majority in parliament; the two mainstream parties remain in melt-down and are in no position to frustrate him; the unions appear to be a spent force; the public protests which oppose him in the streets are lacking in leadership and organisation; and generally the public mood (certainly before this fuel tax revolt, anyway) is one of resignation to necessary and therefore inevitable reform. The battle isn’t over yet, and the odds, I would say, are still in Macron’s favour.
Nevertheless, there is one last difference which doesn’t play so well for him. That public opposition on the streets, even though (or perhaps because?) it lacks organisation and leadership, feels much more dangerous than that faced by either Sarkozy or Hollande. Perhaps the public mood of resignation has been swept away by the force and success of the gilets jaunes. Perhaps the demonstrations have only superficially been about the fuel tax (although a hike in diesel prices would have hit French drivers hard); was the tax simply the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back? The reaction of the protesters to Macron’s surrender and his suspension of the tax rise seems to confirm this. They’re not standing down but calling for further protests and making fresh demands – a minimum wage, the return of the wealth tax, even Macron’s resignation, fresh elections, a new government. With reports that the movement is being infiltrated by violent extremist groups – neo-fascist, communist and anarchist – it’s beginning to look like a proper revolution.
History suggests that in-fighting between revolutionary factions – Bolshevik verses Menshevik, Jacobin verses Girondin, Snowball verses Napoleon – is the surest sign that you’ve got a real revolution on your hands. When far-right extremists and far-left extremists met in the Champs Élysées last Saturday, both wearing gilets jaunes, did they unite and stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the establishment forces facing them? No. They turned on each other, fists and feet flying.
If I were President Macron, I don’t know whether I’d find that reassuring or worrying.