Opinion

KOLB: How Does Macron End The Yellow Vests Movement?

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush

French President Emmanuel Macron desperately wants to end the Yellow Vests demonstrations that have gripped France for over two months.

Facing violent weekend protests throughout France by demonstrators unhappy with his Jupiterian hauteur and his first scrapping a wealth tax and then raising gasoline taxes, Macron decided to reboot his flagging presidency with a two-months listening tour called a “Great National Debate.” The debate is a curious exercise in bottom-up, direct democracy in a country that, for centuries, has clung to and relishes a top-down, Paris-dominated, centralized dirigisme — and therein lies his dilemma: he can’t have it both ways.

Macron either leads or he follows. His stunning 2017 election raised expectations that were quickly dashed by his reform agenda’s inept sequencing. If his national debate raises expectations again, Macron cannot afford more disappointments. But can he satisfy demands that are unlikely to be practicable? Can he mediate between the reforms France needs and what the debate produces?

Litigators typically don’t question a witness without first knowing the answer. In his Jan. 13 letter to the French people, Macron sought opinions on dozens of policy questions – like the tradeoff between lower taxes and reduced public services. Macron will likely learn that direct democracy can be ugly: just look at Brexit across the English Channel. Direct democracy may be impracticable in countries with tens or hundreds of millions of citizens.

On Jan. 15, in the village Grand Bourgtheroulde, Macron summoned some 600 French mayors to launch his presidential relaunch. “Grievance Books” will be placed in town halls where citizens can register their suggestions. Macron expects the result to produce “a new contract for the nation.” This quaint, cumbersome approach is odd in the Internet and social media age, although online and mail submissions are also apparently welcome. Critics will dismiss the debate as a dodge to defuse the immediacy and intensity of the protests.

By late 2018, Macron’s approval numbers reached the low twenties. They are better now, but only in the low 30s. Things could be worse: Macron’s Socialist predecessor, Francois Hollande, at one point, saw his public approval hit four percent. That’s basically “friends and family” and not much more. On a centime, the French can turn on their leaders.

The issue is whether Macron can regain his credibility, continue his agenda’s momentum, and restore his popularity as a crusader upending the status quo. After the Great National Debate, can Macron govern effectively until the next election in 2022?

By campaigning as neither fish nor fowl, Macron won the French presidency. Although he had served as Hollande’s adviser and economics minister, Macron ditched his former boss, formed the new Republique En Marche party, and, brandishing credentials as a former Rothschild banker, appealed to a pragmatic center.

Macron’s victory, however, was neither broad nor deep: it resulted from three political competitors imploding: the Socialists, the center right Republicans who nominated a scandal-plagued former prime minister, and the extreme right Front National weakened by Marine Le Pen’s poor runoff debate performance with Macron.

The French welfare state is unaffordable and unsustainable given high costs, low productivity, lackluster growth, and a climate lacking what Nobel economist Edmund Phelps calls “dynamism.” That is why Macron’s reform agenda remains critical. He quickly became the most prominent voice for a strong, economically integrated European Union, and his priorities reflected urgent national needs: labor-law reforms to reduce unemployment, lower taxes, investment incentives, plus union and pension reforms.

Successful modern democracies require leadership from their elected officials, and leadership requires the ability to shape and execute policies, while also building consensus among often competing interests. Risks are involved; accountability comes at the next election.

Leadership also means creating a convincing national change narrative. In France, bedeviled by high unemployment for over a decade, this narrative will mean many hard choices — choices unlikely to emerge as a consensus from the Great National Debate. Macron should study how former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder reformed Germany 16 years ago, thereby creating the conditions that led Germany from being Europe’s sick man to enjoying Europe’s strongest economy today. Schroder did what was necessary – but he was not re-elected.

Americans once submitted a detailed, laundry list of grievances called the “Declaration of Independence.” A revolution followed. A prominent French banker once told me that change typically comes to France only after barricades appear in the streets. France’s rousing national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” beckons with this refrain: “To arms citizens/Form your batallions/March on, March on!”

French citizens are already marching in the streets, and we’ve recently seen barricades. What comes next is anybody’s guess. Listening won’t suffice. After this debate ends, Macron cannot just tell French citizens that he has heard them.

Over 60 years ago, President Charles DeGaulle tried to reassure French citizens living in Algeria that the territory would remain French. With calculated ambiguity, DeGaulle told those worried about the Algerian war’s increasing intensity, “Je vous ai compris” — “I have understood you.” A few years later, Algeria was independent and, to this day, some French believe DeGaulle sold them out.

At this stage, understanding will not suffice. Macron can listen, but ultimately, he will have to lead.

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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