Aux armes citoyens! or at least put on your yellow hi-vis. In the last month, 50 years after the explosion of 1968, the French are once again taking to the streets. Whereas Mai 68 was a cocktail of demands for a freer more open society, Decembre 18 is more a cry of anger about a stagnant standard of living.
France is increasingly struggling to satisfy its citizen’s aspirations. In the post war world France progressed rapidly during Les Trente Glorieuses the period 1945-75 when the economy could do no wrong, generations grew up in the safety of a state planned system. But then since the eighties the old formulae have struggled to deliver the goods. Worse, governments have continued to act as if nothing has changed.
At the micro level successive governments have put more demands and regulation on employers and businesses, at the macro level joining the Euro and a failure to react to globalisation have all stressed the French economy.
On its own this would be a difficult situation, however the problems of living standards are not falling equally across the nation. Paris, like its twin sister London, seems largely impervious to the problems; the Ile de France region has higher growth, higher salaries and lower unemployment.
Out in the regions it’s a different matter – slow growth, high unemployment but worst of all little hope of things changing.So provincial France is taking to the streets, including the streets of Paris.
The protests have been set off by a proposed rise in fuel tax which since it is immediate and hits drivers, impacts the provinces harder than Paris. But this is simply the spark which set the fire alight there has been a slow build of problems in France mirrored by the rise of the political extremes and the decline of the traditional left and right.
And then there’s Emmanuel Macron
The French President is a product of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration France’s training school for its senior politicians and civil servants. ENA graduates come out almost with a right to rule, an attitude they carry with them. Macron came to power with an agenda to modernise France and push through overdue reforms. Initially he made progress with labour reforms for SMEs and reforms in the SNCF the highly unionised rail company. On the world stage too he set out his stall on Europe, Trump and Internationalism.
However as time has progressed Macrons biggest problem is looking like Macron himself. The early veneer of a French JFK has worn off to reveal a more familiar Louis XIV figure.
In a series of less than successful walkabouts, Macron’s meet the people gaffes have revealed him to be somewhat autocratic with a je m’enfoutisme to the concerns of ordinary people.
Dismissive, disinterested, discourteous all at the same time Macron has managed to lose the man on the Metro and is now the president for the rich. His approval ratings are hitting new lows in the history of the French republic.
For now it’s not so much Louis XIV as Manny – Antoinette.
So where next? Already Macron has had to recognise his failings. The law on fuel tax is to be delayed in a climb down to restore basic law and order. The protests are already damaging the economy to the point where Frances EU budget submission may be shakier than Italy’s.
But with the climb down comes loss of authority and worse – encouragement to go back to the barricades next time some unpopular reform hits the statute book. With European elections in 2019 Macron’s party is not looking in good shape, the centre is in danger of being squeezed from the extreme left and extreme right. Furthermore the chance to strut the world stage has lessened.
Macron’s undoubted Europeanism looks less threatening as he wobbles at home. Across the Rhine Frau Merkel can only hope France can get its act together. Now is the time when we get to see how serious Macron is about pushing his agenda, to progress he must seriously rethink his approach. Mitterand did just that after his first two years in office and went on to serve two full terms so all is still to play for. The test really comes back to Macron himself. If he fails then we may yet see Sadiq Khan asking French Bankers have they thought of moving to somewhere, calm, business like and predictable.