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Monday 21 January 2019

The un-French President

As the ‘gilets jaunes’ continue to defy President Macron, an MP who has known him since he was a student says the president doesn’t understand his country

By Julien Aubert

Three years ago I wrote an open letter to Emmanuel Macron. My fellow student from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration had just become President of France and I wanted to warn him of the danger his politics posed to the French, and the reaction they would provoke.

“I dread that one day the French will come to hate you,” I wrote in L’Opinion, “once they realise that you defend everything they reject: opening up the economy to competition, structural reform [and] the acceleration of European integration”.

I can’t say I’m surprised he’s fallen so far since then.

Following the gilets jaunes protests, Macron finds himself in an explosive political trap of his own making. He has become the target of a full-blown insurrection which will only end when he leaves office.

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A Gilet Jaune runs through a barricade which is on fire near the Champs Elysees.

Don’t think I’m being melodramatic. Macron’s position is so dire because he has ignored one of France’s great passions: equality, and in particular equality in terms of taxation. Every major crisis in French history, starting with the Revolution, began with protests about tax. Macron had no idea that by raising taxes on fuel he would create such a sharp sense of injustice. On one side of the divide is rural and suburban France. On the other are the the big cities where Macron feels most comfortable.

Anyone still surprised by the strength of the anti-Macron reaction should remember two things. First, the parliament in which his party, La Republique en Marche, won a majority, was elected on only a 50 per cent turnout, so the public’s endorsement of his budget is weak. Second, the politics of the “ecological transition” that he desires are socially unjust. It punishes the working class who can’t afford the green lifestyle he claims to want for the whole country.

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French President Emmanuel Macron meets the 11th Parachute Brigade.

Macron is dedicated to freedom – freedom of movement of goods and people and freedom to launch new businesses, but above all freedom to invest in big companies or startups that favour the sort of competition that tramples on the middle ground; the small and medium businesses, the craftspeople and freelancers, who make up so much of the fabric of France.

The problem with Macron’s “knowledge revolution”, in services, tech and finance, is that unlike an industrial one it centralises everything. From the moment it became clear that the beneficiaries of globalisation were concentrated in the cities, what response could Macron hope for from rural France? How was he going to convince these communities of the merits of competition on the rail network when it speeds up the closure of small rural stations? How can he sell these people on the idea of globalisation when the earliest doctor’s appointment they can get is two months away and they don’t even have a decent mobile phone signal?

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Macron finds himself in an impasse because he is torn between his personal political DNA, which drives him to push the European Commission’s globalisation agenda, and  the need to quell the mounting anger of la France profonde at a potential cost of 10 billion euros, which he has promised in payments to the poor.

He could lose on both fronts.

The main messages of Macron-style politics have become inaudible. His “new world” seems to a lot of French people like a continuation of the old one, deepening social inequality and driving public services and rural communities apart. This president has never understood the real France, a deep-rooted country that doesn’t want to lose her soul.

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The French have made a collection of Macron’s most inflammatory soundbites.  “You have to cross the road to get a job,” he said. The French are “Gauls resistant to change”, and some are “people who are nothing”. Many now have the feeling that he is president for those who gain from globalisation and that he has nothing but contempt for the rest. Unfortunately they may not be wrong.

Julien Aubert is a conservative representative for the Vaucluse region in the French National Assembly