Opinion

KOLB: France Is In Upheaval, But Macron Is In The Clouds

REUTERS/Yves Herman

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush

To understand how “yellow vest” protests suddenly traumatized France and stymied Emmanuel Macron’s still young presidency, consider some history — of philosophy.

What began as a social media protest against proposed gasoline tax increases next month has now embraced a broader agenda to restore the wealth tax, raise benefits, and even demand Macron’s resignation. Four weekends of nationwide protests have brought several deaths, significant Paris property damage, and graffiti defacing the Arc de Triomphe. Macron’s governing agenda is at risk, as his approval rating has slipped below 30 percent.

How did this happen? An answer lies in French history and French habits of mind — the fact that the French really do think differently. For this distinction, we can lay the blame squarely on a philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650).

Descartes’s most famous book, “A Discourse on Method” (1637), includes perhaps the most famous sentence in philosophy: “Je pense, donc je suis” — “I think, therefore I am.” With these words, Descartes, a rationalist, launched modern epistemology, the philosophy of knowledge. How do we know anything at all? You start abstractly, with what’s inside your own head. By contrast, English philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), an empiricist, flipped things to pursue a different approach: to understand the world around us, we start with, well, the world around us, with external sensory perceptions.

These are oversimplifications, but oversimplifications occasionally offer fundamental truths: for centuries, the French have been more comfortable with abstractions than day-to-day practicalities. Those abstractions abound — in art, literature, architecture, science, and mathematics — and remain vital. French scientists and mathematicians make important discoveries; French artists, writers, and literary critics helped define “modernism.” Some of those talented French mathematicians included Wall Street “quants,” whose elaborate algorithms contributed to the 2008 Great Recession. They made the abstract assumption that housing prices would never decline.

The real world proved otherwise, and such intrusive realities have complicated Macron’s still relatively young political party and government. He and his advisers overlooked a simple, empiricist observation: most people eat before they reason.

This critique is not anti-intellectual but, rather, recognizes that if Macron’s much-needed government and economic reforms are to succeed, he must live less in his world of abstract “Jupiterian” assumptions about governing and more in the world of everyday working French people. With unemployment barely below 9 percent (3.3 percent in Germany) and youth unemployment much higher, average French citizens worry about their wellbeing at the end of the month, not at the end of the next decade. Many Left- and Right-leaning “yellow vest” advocates embrace that perspective.

Like other parts of the world, France, with its history of Parisian centralization, is experiencing several increasingly antagonistic divides: urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, well-educated vs. less-well-educated, elite vs. non-elite, north vs. south. Macron, an elite-educated former Rothschild banker, surely understands these divides, but he began his presidency as a magisterial, Napoleonic centralizer determined to personify France’s glory and grandeur — hence his reference to Jupiter and his efforts to distinguish himself from his self-described “normal” predecessor, Francois Hollande. Macron made the mistake of first cutting taxes on the wealthy while imposing additional economic burdens on the middle and lower classes. Several seemingly “elitist” gaffes since the summer have not helped.

Macron’s communications style and his approach to implementing his initial priorities are undermining his capacity to govern. The “yellow vest” protests demonstrate that France has two faces: a “confident” France and an “anxious” France. This distinction is brilliantly described by Oxford’s Sudhir Hazareesingh in his 2015 book, “How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of An Intellectual People.” Macron’s rise to power, accompanied by a new political party, En Marche, in under two years, was truly remarkable and inspiring — but En Marche grew largely out of frustration with his predecessor (Hollande’s popularity at one point touched 4 percent) and other failed governing elites. It succeeded by garnering endorsements mostly from center Left and center Right elites. Macron’s support was broad but not deep; it came primarily from “confident” France.

Today’s “yellow vest” supporters reflect “anxious France” and include followers from the far Left and far Right. It is telling that even after weekends of violence, “yellow vest” support remains above 70 percent.

Can Macron accomplish a policy and communications reset? Can he broaden and deepen his party’s political roots while pursuing long overdue economic and political reforms? These are the fundamental questions now facing his presidency; they are hardly abstractions.

The French are hard on their leaders, and once the slide is in, recovery is uncertain. Guillotines are gone, but Nicolas Sarkozy quickly emerged as “president bling bling,” and his successor, Hollande, drew lasting ridicule when photographed riding a moped wearing a crash helmet en route to visit his mistress a few blocks from the Elysee Palace. At 27 percent approval, Macron risks being tuned out — with three years still left in office.

While in France last July, I asked the owner of several taxis in Nice his views about Macron’s reform agenda. While supportive, he was clear: “If you want to change France, you first have to change the French.” Macron has a big task ahead: come down from the Jupiterian clouds and consider what your countrymen are having for dinner tonight.

Charles Kolb served as president of the French-American Foundation — United States from 2012-2014. He was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992


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