In a primetime address televised on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to diffuse the ongoing populist revolt of the “yellow jacket” or “yellow vest” movement. His seemingly stiff performance and meager proposals may do little to assure the people of France that he understands the political moment.
Macron’s relatively brief presentation first focused on his immediate political goal of splitting off the violent, largely leftist agitators on the streets of Paris from the broader, generally nonviolent protesters outside the major cities. But this was done so obviously as to make the subtext the text. As a result, Macron came across much less like a Bill Clinton feeling people’s pain than a George H. W. Bush reading “Message: I care“ from his Teleprompter.
Even worse, Macron borrowed (unwittingly, one hopes) from the Jimmy Carter songbook. “It is 40 years of malaise that is resurfacing: malaise of workers that can no longer find a place for themselves; malaise of territories, villages, neighborhoods; we see public services diminish, an environment that is disappearing; democratic malaise where the sentiment of not being heard is growing; malaise in the face of changes in our society, a secularism that has been disturbed and up against a way of life that creates barriers and distance. This was a long time coming, but it’s here now.”
Granted, Macron is not wrong that France traveled a long path to get to its current sorry state. And he had the good sense to point a thumb as well as a finger, stating: “We undoubtedly haven’t been able to provide a sufficiently fast and strong response for a year and a half. I take my share of responsibility for this.”
But like Carter, Macron does not appear to grasp the most basic point in responding to populist discontent: do not blame the people. To speak of a “democratic malaise where the sentiment of not being heard is growing” will not wash without emphasizing it is France’s leadership that has not been listening. Indeed, it seems deeply out-of-touch to talk about a “growing sentiment” in an address given 10 days after three weekends of unprecedented demonstrations sprang from social media.
Ironically, Carter’s speech — which did not include the word “malaise” — was initially well-received. The speech took on the foul odor of pessimism largely due to Carter’s seeming lack of leadership in the days that followed.
Macron looks to follow in Carter’s footsteps here as well. He implicitly acknowledged the yellow vest demonstrations were rooted in his war on climate change. But Macron avoided directly facing that his trendy brand of environmentalism was pushing people to protest while shuttering almost a quarter of France’s nuclear power plants.
Instead, having been forced to cancel his planned green tax increases, Macron offered up a handful of small-bore proposals for relief: increasing the country’s minimum wage by €100 ($113 US) per month; exempting overtime from tax and social charges; urging employers to offer employees year-end bonuses without being taxed; and scrapping a planned tax on pensions under €2,000 a month.
Macron declined to roll back his wealth tax reforms, which is probably good medium-term policy (especially as a signal of stability to investors). But this small measure will be unpopular in the current environment.
When Macron swept into office with a high approval rating, he should have undertaken more sweeping economic reforms. Instead of tinkering at the margins with labor regulations, as past governments have to little effect, Macron could have attacked the high cost of low-skill workers by cutting payroll taxes dramatically, instead of offsetting small cuts with an increase in the income tax.
Macron’s small thinking on economic reforms has been driven in part by concerns over his country’s deficit. But France’s commitments regarding debt under the European Union’s Stability and Growth Pact have not posed much of an obstacle for past governments.
He could have pushed welfare reforms that would have made those low-skill jobs more attractive than the benefits of France’s social safety net. Now Macron likely lacks the political capital to take bold steps.
There is at least one bigger measure Macron could propose. France has the highest-percentage share of public employees of any member of the OECD. Macron could drain the swamp to demonstrate that the elites must share the burden of making France great again.
Indeed, shrinking the bureaucracy would also be sound from a budgetary perspective, to the extent that matters to Macron. But there was not much sign Macron is thinking about his nation’s administrative state. He spoke of keeping France’s spending under control, but mentioned decentralization of government only in passing.
Rather, echoing an earlier proposal, it seems that Macron will go on a listening tour of France’s mayors for solutions. He spoke of opening a debate on France’s future. If Macron truly fails to realize that debate was opened by the yellow vests weeks ago, he will continue to flounder.