After less than two years, France’s youngest President, Emanuel Macron, is on his way to becoming the de facto leader of Europe, while being rejected at home.
In an effort to set an example for the rest of the world in his campaign to combat climate change, Macron decided to raise the tax on petrol as a way of ‘encouraging’ his people to purchase non-polluting but more expensive electric cars.
Having spent a total of thirty-odd years living and working in France, I am only too familiar with governmental high-handedness vis a vis its population’s incomes. In a country where social benefits form the bedrock of family budgets, the main political parties each have their own trade union, charged with organizing demonstrations when the government steps out of line. However, by the time Emanuel Macron became president, sweeping aside traditional left and right candidates with what he called ‘Jupiterian’ leadership, French society was ready to take a page from Italy’s Five Star ‘leaderless’ movement. As soon as Macron announced the new tax, thousands spontaneously took to the streets. When he stuck to his guns, the demonstrators dug in, realizing he was incapable of hearing them from his ‘Jupiterian’ heights.
Demonstrations have been part of French public life since the storming of the Bastille in 1789, but it was a first for protesters to invade the Champs-Elysées, the site of carefully choreographed parades leading to the Arc de Triomphe, turning it into a battlefield. Social media, mainly Facebook, appears to have played a major role in the uprising, not only enabling organizers, but reflecting it back to a vast public play by play.
When this started, from the safety of the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Macron firmly declared that ‘No merited discontent justifies violence’. Once home, however, with 70% of French people backing the protesters, and probably remembering that Marie Antoinette was guillotined for advising her subjects to eat cake if they had no bread — he ordered his prime minister to propose a meeting. When it was rebuffed, he followed the advice of his rival, populist leader Marine Le Pen, withdrawing the tax hike at least temporarily. But that didn’t appease the protesters: they demanded that he reinstate the tax on ‘wealth’, which he’d eliminated to please his right-wing backers.
On Saturday December 8th, he ordered many more arrests, while sending his ministers to the microphones with soothing words. Predictably, this only galvanized the demonstrators. Amid reminiscences of the May 1968 revolt against President de Gaulle, which led to the creation of the ‘Fifth Republic’, they are demanding Macron step down — some even calling for a ‘Sixth Republic’. It would appear, from old documentaries, that the revolt is a lot more profound than it was fifty years ago, which is why it doesn’t need leaders.
With Angela Merkel having just designated a successor, in the coming months Europe will feel the absence of robust French-German leadership.
Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.