On the Competition for Recognition Part XB Political Dissension in France

In the previous blog I opined that political divisions in France took place between the liberals in the centre and the left on one side and the right on the other. I also presented evidence that using the category of Muslim to define a voting group was misleading even as I documented the extent of Islamicist violence in France. Islamicist antisemitism was more extensive. Despite its pervasiveness, there were only a few instances in which Jews were specifically targeted by terrorists. I now want to put this within a larger frame.

My thesis is simple but far from original. With the exception of his vision for dealing with radical Islamicists that is so misplaced, Emmanuel Macron’s economic and social vision has been spot on. But definitely not his method for getting there. Betting on vision meant treating Macron as an emanation of the Second Coming so that he was crowned the successor to Donald Trump as leader of the free world. That was appropriate since both had been political outsiders who gambled and threw a seven with their dice on the first attempt. Macron had the advantage, though. He was not a grifter. He was also a highly experienced technocrat who had served as an unelected Minister of Finance in the Hollande Socialist government.

The evidence of Macron’s fall from grace does not simply come from the weekly rallies of the Gilets Jaunes, the Yellow Vest Movement, rallies that became violent when they were used by lawless, anarchic youth (casseurs) and Black Bloc militants to smash store windows, set fires and hurl cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at police. Macron’s fall came because he felt so weak that he had to renounce some of his core policies, but with virtually no gain for the concessions. Those concessions only made him look weaker than he already was.

What united the protesters was their hatred of aloof elites; Macron was their embodiment. Even if the casseurs and Black Bloc militants had not joined, the magnitude of the protests shocked the establishment in Paris. Why were these French men and women from the countryside so deeply hostile? And they were so without any central organization, association with any political party, left or right, and de facto leaderless.

To get the Champs Élysées open again, Macron:

  • Repealed the environmental gasoline tax that fueled the protests;
  • Rescinded a tax that aroused the ire of pensioners;
  • Increased the minimum wage in contrast to his opening salvo of his rule, loosening the labour code;
  • Once on his knees, Macron cut taxes for workers and offered additional benefits for low-income employees.

He said he had learned his lesson. He said he had learned. But he did not reinstate the wealth tax.

These moves would have been great if introduced at the beginning of the Macron presidency. These moves were not simply a matter of too little too late, but too little too soon. For if he failed to introduce those reforms before the tax cuts for the rich, when he should have, introducing them in the face of populist people’s marches in the streets simply undercut the whole principle of liberal government, of responsibility assigned to lawmakers who remain accountable to the people at election time. The concessions were a direct surrender to populist politics over responsible democratic government. It should be no surprise that the Yellow Vests demand more and more as they watch the aloof leader of liberalism stumble back on his haunches, barely keeping himself on his feet.

What a trial for liberalism. But it is endemic to globalism and its liberal elite – simply made worse by French elitism. For what was lacking was the ability to read the pulse of the people. And surrendering to that impulse is not leading. It is not enough to believe in a more equitable distribution of the wealth of a country when there is no actual empathy for the plight of workers and the unemployed in society. That is the problem with operating from an intellectual framework that provides an understanding of the world. That approach becomes much worse with a deductivist Cartesian spirit often immune to facts on the ground that could falsify that theory, as exemplified in the French approach to Muslims in general and the hijab controversies more particularly.

Donald Trump may be an ignorant fool, a braggart and a liar, but he does know how to talk to the man, and some women, in the street. There is no sophistication. He would not only bore but turn off those who love language, who love articulation of ideas in well chosen words and metaphors. With Trump, there is no high style. Only glitz and glamour. While Macron dreamed of literary glory as a child, Trump only dreamt of money – money, money, money, for money makes the world go ‘round. The need, that desire for money, is recognized by every individual striving to get and keep out of the lower class and achieve a more secure branch on the economic ladder.

Thus, although Trump has even less empathy, real emotional empathy, for the working poor than Macron, workers can identify with his material striving, with his neediness. Macron was a research assistant for the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, a hermeneutical phenomenologist who viewed experience as something to be interpreted rather than lived and who viewed the world of letters and thought as something also to be interpreted to see if it reflected the interpretations from experience. To say that this was not a preoccupation of the ordinary working stiff is an understatement. For workers, this was all bafflegab, bafflegab that their taxes supported and bafflegab that provided a common language for the elite from which they were excluded. Further, real life was not found in novels and poetry, in essays and ideas, but in the back-and-forth material and verbal exchanges as life is lived in the banlieues of Paris.

Nor did Macron ever have to learn the art almost all politicians acquire of glad-handing and of deal-making. Instead, he reigned through the power of self-confidence. Macron floated into the presidency from on high, without a parachute or a back-up plan, into the upper reaches of the Élysée Palace like Mary Poppins, but without the umbrella. Macron believed he was a patrician, but when it was discovered that he neither had the ear nor could even listen to the people, instead of being true to his own ideals as a patrician, he displayed that he was not really to the manor born. He did not want to and was unwilling to say, “Let them eat cake,” though when they objected to the tax on diesel fuel on which they relied as a necessity, he suggested that they buy electric cars. To be part of a governing elite is one thing. To show disdain for the public is another. To combine both with concessions to a popular uprising undermined any popular respect for him. As Cole Stranger ended his article on Macron in The Nation, if in 2016 “Trump saw his election as a sort of giant episode of reality TV, Macron treated his own more as the ultimate competitive French entrance exam.”

He had scored big. A++. Macron ran on a platform of neoliberal reforms to free the system from the barnacles and weights of unnecessary regulation that limited flexibility and adaptability, all laudable and easily achieved objectives. However, workers were penalized by the reforms to the labour code. And when he reformed the tax structure, though he redistributed the burden of taxes from the middle class to the rich, he also abolished the wealth tax. Were rentiers deserving but workers were not? He lowered the speed limit on roads and class sizes in universities. He closed rural schools because their enrollments were too small, but also courts, clinics and hospitals on the argument that they were underused and on the basis of the principle of equality, He cut both a wide and a deep swath. And he promised retraining opportunities for workers.

Though he delivered on the initial items on his platforms, the last was left for the future when it was the workers who needed to be attended to first who would be hurt by changes in production, increased taxes on gasoline and less beneficent rules for labour. But when he was not on guard, he let slip his disdain for French workers whom he considered lazy and spoiled. Further, he left reform of the EU, to which he was fiercely loyal, also to the future when it was widely distrusted in the provinces. And he did nothing to invest in the decaying suburbs and the inadequate transport system in the banlieues, the Parisian suburbs, at the same time as he cut underused rail services in the provinces. He could not have alienated a wider swath of the French populace even if he had intended. Yet he was taken aback by the protests, their persistence and their power.

In his book Revolution, Macron had declared that, for France to succeed, “the solution is in ourselves. It does not depend on a list of propositions that will not be acted upon. It depends on just one thing: our unity, our courage, our common determination.” This was neither a formula for a political maven nor for a technocrat, but appeared to be the guiding principle of a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau appealing to the primacy of the “general will.” Macron was an anti-populist who believed that the goal, not just the instrument of politics, was to express, not reflect, the will of the people. In the Discours sur l’économie politique, Rousseau had used the phrase “general will” and in Lettres écrites de la montagne, Rousseau defined law as “a public and solemn declaration of the general will on an object of common interest.”  But a social safety net is important to members of the working and middle classes. It is not a common interest which requires that everyone be treated equally before the law, the core meaning of a general will.

The general will is not a doctrine of populism, but a guideline and boundary to determine the frame in which a legislator must work. And Macron failed to understand that and instead first focused on correcting the economic environment to make it more competitive, an action clearly neither of interest nor benefit to working people. Macron wanted an economy that would save the earth, again a laudable goal, but not one in the immediate interest of the working class if the costs for saving the planet were to come out of a worker’s pocket.

America is a democratic monarchy. I live in a parliamentary democracy where a representative of the monarch is only a figurehead, an important figurehead, but a figurehead intended to represent and touch the hearts of all the people. Macron wished that France had become a democratic monarchy. Though he did not want to be a sun god, he openly expressed a desire to be the largest planet in the political solar system. He wanted to rule as Jupiter. “Democracy does not suffice for its own needs. In the democratic process, and in its functioning, there is an absence. In French politics, this absence is the figure of the King, whose death, I believe fundamentally, the French people did not desire. The Terror left an emotional, psychic, collective vacuum: The King is gone!”

However, all its efforts to create the semblance of one from Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle forward were failures. Because, by definition, an elected politician cannot a monarch be. An elected monarch does not have inherited authority. Therefore, all attempts to create an elected monarchical system end in failure to a significant degree and to the extent parliamentary norms are subverted.

America tries to make this so when it views the president as a creation and exemplar of the constitution that provides the source of hereditary authority. In France – and in Israel – this is accomplished to a degree by electing a Prime Minister from a heroic military background. However, Israel is a parliamentary democracy in which the people always dreamed of having a king rather than judges ruling them. That system also fails when the supposed elected monarch is more interested in being an autocrat than an expression of the general will. The general will is reduced to the detritus of a rubbish heap of populism.

As Macron faces both the populism of the left led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the populism of the right led by Marie Le Pen, he faces the possibility of their unification, most likely on the right, as they demand a constitutional cap on the taxes of workers at 25%, as they demand a massive increase in social spending on infrastructure. The liberal global economy has made the rich richer, the poor poorer and those in the middle far less secure, has strengthened large population centres while draining the small towns of their youth and leaving behind dysfunctional remnants of what had been the essence of the true France as urban areas become the concentration points for technology.

Instead of covering the rest of Europe, I will next turn to an economic analysis to complement my excursus into identity politics.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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