Jupiter’s Rise and Fall
Part I: Macron and the Managerial Class
Just a few months ago, Emmanuel Macron, who had defeated Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election, was hailed as the savior of Europe and liberalism’s great hope. After Brexit and Trump’s victory, which they never thought was possible and sent them into a panic, liberals around the world were starting to fear that nothing could stop the populist wave that had already engulfed several countries, but Macron’s victory was supposed to have shown that, as they are fond of saying, the center was holding. He would reform France, convince a reluctant Angela Merkel to accept a more integrated European Union and the populist threat would be history.
Today, as Macron is facing one of the worst crisis any French president has faced in years, this all seems like a lifetime ago. He is now as unpopular as François Hollande, by far the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, was at the same point of his term. Moreover, while people mostly felt contempt for Hollande, they hate Macron. His approval rate is hovering around 25 percent, even though he’s only been president for 18 months. The comparisons with Trump’s approval rate are somewhat misleading, if only because the U.S. is bipartisan to a much greater extent than France (especially since the last presidential election), but there can be no doubt that Macron is exceptionally unpopular.
His approval rate had started to fall long before the yellow jackets movement started, but without significant protests he could still present the illusion that nothing had changed. That illusion has become impossible to maintain. Macron had ambitious plans for the Eurozone, which he wanted to turn into a more integrated political and economic system. Berlin was already reluctant before the yellow vests movement and probably never intended to significantly reform the Eurozone’s governance in the first place, but after Macron’s weakness was exposed, he had to settle for the mostly cosmetic changes Merkel offered him during the last European Council without much of a fight, as his predecessors had always done before him.
People are asking how Macron lost France, but that’s the wrong question to ask. Macron didn’t lose France, he’d never won it in the first place. In order to understand what just happened, we need to go back in time a little. In 2012, when he was called by Hollande, who had just been elected president, to be part of his staff, almost nobody knew who Macron was. Yet although no one could have suspected that at the time, this was the beginning of his irresistible rise, which led him to become president a mere five years later. It’s impossible to understand the events that just took place in France without knowing where Macron comes from and what he was up to during that period.
Macron is a product of the French meritocracy. He went to the École Normale d’Administration (ENA), the prestigious school where most high-level French bureaucrats are trained, then upon graduating immediately went on to work in the French administration for a while, before leaving to join a famous private investment bank where he rapidly climbed in the hierarchy and was able to make connections in French business circles that would prove useful later. Énarques, as are called the people who went to the ENA, frequently go back and forth between the administration and large French companies, which typically maintain close ties to the state. Thus Macron spent his entire professional life in this world, at the intersection of public administration and business, which is dominated by technocrats with very similar ideas about how the country should be run.
They support what we might call the neoliberal consensus. Despite what left-wing rhetoric suggests, they are hardly anti-state extremists, nor do they want to eliminate regulations. On the contrary, on some issues, such as the environment, they are strongly in favor of increasing regulations. But they support a moderate reduction in public expenditure, liberalizing the labor market and disengaging the state from production by privatizing state-owned companies. Basically, they are the kind of people who make lazy arguments in favor of free trade by invoking the Kaldor-Hicks criterion like a mantra, without ever pausing to consider the distributional effects of the policies they support.
On foreign policy, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists can always count on them to reflexively support their latest crusade, as long as it’s conducted in the name of human rights and they are being assured that it’s the only way to avert a genocide. When their military adventures create millions of refugees or facilitate the passage of economic migrants by destroying states that, for all their faults, were at least capable of controlling their borders, they explain that we have a moral obligation to welcome these poor people. But you will never hear them acknowledge that it is they, not the people whom they now call racists because they aren’t pleased to live with immigrants whose crime rate is several times higher than average, who created the problem in the first place.
Indeed, as their counterparts in the rest of the West, the French cognoscenti regard immigration from the third world as highly desirable and resent the vast majority of the population for not being sophisticated enough to understand their point of view. It rarely occurs to them that multiculturalism might look very different for the people who can’t afford to dine out in ethnic restaurants and have seen the neighborhood where they grew up changed beyond recognition by immigration. On the contrary, they pride themselves on their openness, though it doesn’t prevent them from using various strategies to make sure their kids don’t go to school with the children of immigrants. Openness is good, but it has its limits.
After 50 years of immigration from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa, the unemployment rate among immigrants and their descendants is still almost three times as high as in the rest of the population. Their labor force participation is much lower and actually seems to be getting worse in the second generation. Even when they are aware of it (which they usually are not), the French sophisticates are not moved. They just blame racism and insist that eventually things will just get better. How? They have no idea, but don’t you worry, it just will. They don’t seem to realize that, even if they were right that racism is the explanation, it wouldn’t make the problem any less acute unless they have a magical solution to end racism.
In short, although they have a very high opinion of themselves and much contempt for the people who can’t see the wisdom of their policies, the French mandarins are not nearly as smart as they think they are. They like to think of themselves as champions of evidence-based policy thinking, but on many issues, they are actually remarkably insensitive to evidence. Like the communists who insist that real communism has never been tried, if something they support didn’t work in the past, they will always find a way to explain that it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Perhaps we didn’t go far enough, or we just have to try for a little bit longer, but rest assured that eventually they will be vindicated. Except they usually aren’t.
Nevertheless, French technocrats are convinced they are right and it’s also what Macron, who is one of them, believed when he joined Hollande’s staff to work on economic issues after his victory against Sarkozy in 2012. In that position, Macron was one of the people who had the greatest influence on French economic policy at the beginning of Hollande’s term, though he had to compete with other advisers, who didn’t always like the kind of policies he was pushing. Sometimes it was because they were not aligned ideologically with the technostructure and sometimes it was because, unlike Macron who had never held elected office, they were aware of the political consequences the policies in question could result in
During his tenure as Hollande’s adviser on economic issues, he was the main architect of a series of measures whose goal was to lower the cost of labor in France and make the country more competitive, especially compared to Germany where the Hartz reforms implemented under Gerhard Schröder had led to a significant reduction of the cost of labor. He also pushed for a more ambitious reform of the pension system, something which is about as politically explosive in France as entitlement reform in the U.S., but wasn’t able to convince Hollande and thought about resigning after that, which he eventually did a few months later.
After a couple of months away from politics, during which he lectured at the London School of Economics and contemplated creating a startup in education, he was offered the job of Minister of Economy in 2014, which he accepted. Unlike his previous job as Hollande’s adviser, this position gave him visibility. Thanks to his youth, his relative obscurity and his connections, he attracted a lot of attention from the media and soon became one of the most prominent figures in the government. This caused Manuel Valls, the ambitious Prime Minister, to take umbrage at Macron’s popularity and after a few months the newspapers were filled with stories about their growing rivalry.
As Minister of Economy, Macron focused on deregulating the French economy. In particular, he presented a law that relaxed the legislation that prevented people from working on Sunday, increased competition in licensed professions, liberalized the transportation market to allow buses to compete with trains more easily, etc. He also supported another law, presented in front of the parliament by one of his colleagues even though Macron was behind the most radical measures, that liberalized the labor market. Those measures were consistent with Macron’s ideology, but they had a devastating effect on Hollande’s popularity among his base. He had been elected in 2012 on a promise to wage a war against finance and his government was now implementing policies that, in some ways, went further in the wrong direction than what the right had done under Sarkozy.
Although they were enough to anger Hollande’s base, throughout the process, Macron had been increasingly frustrated by the concessions he had to make in order for those laws to pass. Not only did Hollande and his advisers force him to water down the initial proposals, he had to make even more concessions in order to have them approved by the parliament. Ordinarily, the parliament does whatever the president asks in France, because there is no real separation of power in the Fifth Republic. But Hollande was exceptionally unpopular and many of his party’s members of parliament were reluctant to vote laws that betrayed the promises on which they had been elected, so the government had to make more concessions than usual in order to avoid a revolt in the parliament.
For Macron this experience was a revelation. In his opinion, as in that of most technocrats in the state apparatus, the problem was that the president, who in France is far more powerful than in the U.S. (where Congress still matters a great deal), didn’t really understand the necessity of the reforms pushed by Macron and most of the technostructure for years. Without the support of the president, he concluded, real change was impossible. Macron’s presidential ambitions go back to when he was very young, but it was during those crucial months, when he unsuccessfully tried to convince Hollande and his party’s members of parliament to agree to his more ambitious plans to reform France, that he apparently started to think seriously that his time had come.
Hollande was exceptionally unpopular and, as the end of his term approached, it became increasingly clear that he wouldn’t even be in a position to seek reelection in 2017. Macron started to prepare his candidacy while he was still a member of the government. He correctly diagnosed that he wouldn’t be able to run as the candidate of the Socialist Party. Not only would the party’s base, which is far to the left of the leaders, never choose him in the primary, but even if he somehow managed to be nominated, he wouldn’t be able to run on his platform. Say what you want about Macron, but unlike Hollande who became president just to become president, he wanted to become president to implement the reforms that, in his view, were inevitable but had been blocked for decades by clueless politicians.
Macron created his party, though he wouldn’t call it that at the time, in April 2016 and started campaigning while he was still in the government. This became untenable and, in August, he finally resigned. At that time, few people doubted that he would run, but he waited until November to announce it officially. At this point, with no party behind him except the movement he’d just created, not many people would have bet on him. But he’d already been preparing his campaign for months before his announcement and, thanks to his connections, was able to raise a lot of money. Indeed, despite the fact that no traditional party was backing him, his campaign would go on to spend more than any other.
A recent analysis of the donations Macron received showed that 56 percent came from Paris alone and another 14 percent from abroad, while large donations (more than 5,000€) made up the overwhelming majority of the total (86 percent), which speaks volumes about who his base is and helps to understand the problems he currently faces. As polls would soon show, Macron was the candidate of the managerial class. These people are educated, urban and relatively affluent, and in politics are liberal on both economic and social issues. Traditionally, they had been forced to vote for a center-left or center-right party, which for them was less than ideal because they had to put up with a lot of policies they didn’t like no matter what they chose to do. But with Macron they finally had a candidate who matched their preferences closely.
Despite the money he was able to raise and his popularity among the managerial class, which translated into support in the media where his views are common, Macron could never have won had it not been for two crucial events. First, at the beginning of the campaign, a French newspaper accused François Fillon, the candidate of the traditional right-wing party and the overwhelming favorite, with credible evidence of having given his wife a fictitious job as a parliamentary assistant for years. This story became the main focus of the campaign, during which the issues were barely discussed. The media pounced on him, who was indicted in March but refused to withdraw, for the entire campaign. In addition, Fillon campaigned on a very harsh economic platform, calling for a very substantial reduction of public expenditure and barely talked about issues such as immigration and crime, which further sank his campaign.
Second, in the primary organized by the socialist party to nominate its candidate (since Hollande had announced in December that he wouldn’t run again), the voters chose Benoît Hamon, the leader of the party’s left-wing. Hamon is a leftist and ran a disastrous campaign, ending up with only 6 percent of the vote, less than any socialist candidate since 1969. By campaigning on a very left-wing platform, he was competing with Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate and himself a former member of the Socialist Party. Mélenchon’s popularity was already well-installed among that segment of the electorate and he is a far better campaigner than Hamon. Thus, by adopting this strategy, all the latter achieved was opening up a huge space in the center-left for Macron. This allowed him to attract most socialist voters, who had no taste for Hamon’s leftist antics.
Macron arrived first in the first round with 24 percent of the vote, ahead of Le Pen who got 21.3 percent, while Fillon end up with 20 percent and Mélenchon 19.5 percent. At this point, despite the usual scare-mongering about the National Front, there was just no way Macron could lose in the second round. Indeed, after Le Pen ran about the worst campaign she possibly could have, Macron defeated her with a whopping 66 percent of the vote. Macron, whom just three years before nobody knew, had managed to become president. With such a large victory, he and his supporters thought he had a mandate to apply his program. But this was a grave mistake that explains why he’s in such a bad situation today.
Part II: Jupiter the Vulnerable
Macron’s wide margin in the second round was extremely misleading. He didn’t win because he’d convinced most or even a large plurality of voters that his platform was good for the country. He’d won entirely by default, because for various reasons people didn’t want Le Pen to become president. As I already noted, had it not been for Fillon’s legal troubles and the socialist party’s decision to nominate Hamon, he would never have won. Turnout in the second round was only 74 percent, the worst of any presidential election since 1969. Even his score of 24 percent in the first round vastly exaggerated the size of his electoral base. The polls done at the time showed that less than 60 percent of the people who voted for him in the first round had done so because they agreed with his platform, much less than for any of the other candidates. There are perhaps 15 percent of people in France who are ideologically aligned with Macron and you simply can’t reform a country with such a narrow electoral base.
For a while, it didn’t matter. The traditional parties were in tatters and in no position to resist Macron, who shrewdly chose a member of Fillon’s party as Prime Minister, throwing the center-right in disarray. The National Front had been humiliated in the second round and was busy dealing with internal conflicts that came to the surface in the wake of defeat. The Socialist Party was for all practical purposes dead and many of its formers members joined Macron’s party, which was able to secure a large majority in the parliament in the legislative elections that took place a month after the presidential election. This left only Mélenchon’s far-left party, but this was fine with Macron, who did everything he could to elevate it as the main opposition party since he judged, correctly in my opinion, that despite Mélenchon’s unusually high score in 2017 he posed no real threat to him.
In October 2016, Macron had theorized that what the country needed was a jupiterian president, not a normal one. This was a reference to Hollande’s promise to be a normal president, as opposed to Sarkozy, during his campaign in 2012, but it actually said something important about Macron’s conception of power. He thinks that, in order to reform the country, the president must decide and his decisions must be translated into law and applied dutifully by the administration, without much participation from the intermediary institutions such as unions, who are traditionally associated with the decision process in France. There is nothing wrong with this in theory, but it’s nearly impossible when your electoral base represents perhaps 15 percent of the people, something Macron doesn’t seem to have realized.
Still, for a while at least, it worked for him. In his first year, Macron was able to enact several reforms without much difficulty, which suggests that although they weren’t ideologically aligned with him, most French people were at least willing to give him a chance. He started to reduce the corporate tax, created a flat tax on capital income and replaced the wealth tax with another that only affected real estate but excluded financial assets. Even more controversial, he reformed the labor law, to favor negotiation at the level of companies instead of branches of industry, where the most important decisions were traditionally taken in France. This is what Macron had wanted to do while he was Minister of Economy, but had been prevented from doing by Hollande, who instead only made more limited changes.
However, the law enacted a few months after Macron’s election was not as ambitious as it is often portrayed by its supporters and opponents alike, since branches retain a very important role in the elaboration of the rules that apply to workers and their relations with employers even after the reform. Still, it was strongly opposed by unions and the government was emboldened by the fact that, despite this opposition, it was able to pass it relatively easily as protests never really took off. They seem to have thought that, if they were able to force through that reform, they would be able to apply the rest of their program without much difficulty. As it turns out, they were wrong. Jupiter, as people started to mockingly call Macron after his election (in reference to his comments on the need for a jupiterian presidency), would soon realize how fragile his power was.
Since Macron’s election, he and his government multiplied political blunders. One of his major campaign promises was to get rid of the taxe d’habitation, paid by anyone occupying a housing unit, whether they own it or not. But a few weeks after his election, the Prime Minister announced that its suppression would be delayed, on the ground that the previous government had left the public finances in a worse shape than anticipated. But this hadn’t prevented the government from getting rid of the wealth tax, which showed where its priorities laid. To be fair, the suppression of the taxe d’habitation was much more expensive than that of the wealth tax, but the optics were nevertheless terrible.
A few months later, the Prime Minister announced that the speed limit would be brought down to 80km/h on most roads, from 90km/h before that. Not only is it doubtful that this measure would pass a cost-benefit analysis, but it had the effect of pissing off a lot of people, especially in rural areas. Meanwhile, as a man who thinks nothing can touch him, Macron multiplied offhand comments that were deemed offensive and scornful by a lot of people, such as telling a man who was unemployed that he just had to “cross the street” to find a job. During his visit to Saint-Martin, a French island in the Caribbean that had been devastated by hurricane Irma in 2017, he posed smiling with a half-naked man who was giving the finger to the camera and was later revealed to have just been released from prison where he was serving time for robbery. He made so many communication mistakes since his election that, in retrospect, it’s more surprising shit didn’t the fan sooner. But hit the fan it did.
What seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back is the government’s decision to increase the carbon tax created under Hollande and, perhaps even worse, to align diesel and petrol taxes. For several decades, the French government had encouraged people to buy diesel by taxing it less than petrol. Now the people who had dutifully bought a diesel car, as they were encouraged to do and thinking it would cost them less, were told that diesel was destroying the planet and asked to pay more. People living in rural areas and exurbs, who depend on their car for work a lot more than people living in urban areas, were hit the hardest.
A woman living in a town located in the periphery of Paris created a petition in May to protest against the rise of gas prices and advertised it on Facebook. People didn’t pay much attention until a few months later, after the discontent about gas prices had started to grow. By December more than a million people had signed it and she had become one of the key figures of the yellow vests movement. In October, a trucker called for a protest against gas prices on November 17, a call that quickly went viral on Facebook. The same month, a mechanic suggested in a video that participants wear a yellow vest to identify themselves, which ended up being watched more than 5 million times in a few weeks. This was pure marketing genius. Not only is every French driver required by law to have such a vest since 2008, so people wouldn’t have to buy one, but the symbolic meaning, to make invisible people visible, was obvious to everyone.
On November 17, according to the government, almost 300,000 thousands participated in the protest. It was undoubtedly a large protest, but nowhere as large as, for instance, the protests organized by conservatives against the law that legalized homosexual marriage in 2013. This made the government minimize its importance, which proved to be a grave mistake. What they didn’t understand is that, while the protesters themselves may not have been that numerous, the support for their action in the population was massive. Every poll showed that a huge majority of the people, close to 75 percent, supported the movement or found it justified. This made it very different from the movement against gay marriage in 2013, when public opinion was more or less evenly divided on the issue.
But Macron, the government and their supporters, who think they are so very smart, didn’t realize that, so they calculated that it would eventually die off on its own and therefore refused to compromise when it was still possible. The number of protesters did go down in the weeks after that, but it remained large and, perhaps more importantly, support for the movement did not change one bit. This was all the more remarkable given that, after the first weekend, the protests were marked by several violent incidents. There is simply no other example in recent French history of a social movement that enjoyed such a degree of support in the population for so long. Even today, as the protests seem to be growing again now that Christmas season is over, the movement remains extremely popular.
Another thing which made the movement unprecedented is the profile of the protesters. We lack good data on them, but as far as we can tell, most of them don’t seem to be political activists and are just ordinary lower middle-class to middle-class people. In other words, the kind of people who usually don’t protest, but dutifully pay their taxes and, at worst, occasionally vote for the National Front. Moreover, while France is famous for social unrest, protests are usually organized by unions who collaborate actively with the authorities to make sure everything goes well. Far-left activists regularly take advantage of the protests to engage in vandalism, but there aren’t many of them and the police knows them. In contrast, the yellow vests movement is completely anarchic, there is no one in charge. This kind of movement is lot scarier for the government, even though it took a while before it realized what it was up against.
Although the media, especially abroad, focused on the incidents which took place in Paris on December 1, the violence was not limited to the capital. The same day, in Puy-en-Velay, a small town in a rural area, the prefecture was set on fire by protesters. The day after, Macron made a surprise visit to support the local government officials, but news of his arrival had reached local protesters and, as soon as he exited the building, he was welcomed with insults, had to get into his car immediately and was basically chased out of town by the mob. I don’t think even Sarkozy, whom a lot of people hated on the left (but who had a much broader electoral base than Macron), ever faced that kind of hatred when he was visiting a hostile environment. On the videos of Macron’s visit in Puy-en-Velay, you can hear even small children hurl insults at him.
This incident was apparently a wake-up call for Macron, who seemed to have been very shocked by it. The hatred felt toward him would have moved anyone, but for someone like Macron, it was even worse. Unlike his predecessors, who had been politicians for decades before they became president and were used to the roughness of French politics, Macron had never run for office before 2017 and had always been in the shadows, so he wasn’t prepared for what happened in Puy-en-Velay. Suddenly Jupiter realized how weak he really was and that unless he compromised the yellow vests movement would not stop and might even degenerate. It still took him more than a week before he decided to do something, apparently because the Prime Minister didn’t want to give in.
On December 11, Macron appeared on television to deliver a statement about the crisis, looking tired and gaunt. He announced that he would cancel the decision to raise the carbon tax, increase the minimum wage by 100€ and go back on the planned increase of a tax on pensioners. This was nothing short of a capitulation. Because he thought the movement would not last, he ended up having to give up way more than he would have if he’d compromised at the beginning. His approval rate, which was already low before the yellow vests movement started, was now at a point where it’s unlikely to recover. This was made even worse when, after Macron’s speech, members of government kept contradicting each other on how they were going to implement the measures he’d announced. It soon became clear that Macron had made those promises without the slightest idea of how the government was going to be able to keep them. So much for competence.
Still, after Macron’s speech, the protests started to subside or rather the rate at which they did suddenly accelerated. It wasn’t just because of the promises he’d made, but also because Christmas season was approaching and people started to focus on other things. It now seems the protests might be picking up steam again, as the number of protesters increased significantly on January 4 compared to the previous week and increased again on January 11 before more or less stabilizing, but turnout is still far from what it was at the height of the movement and I doubt it will go back to such a level. Nevertheless, it still means the government can’t get rid of the movement, which on top of that remains very popular. Meanwhile, a poll recently showed that 75 percent of the people disapproved of the government’s action, so it’s fair to say that Macron is still not done with this ordeal yet and that he likely won’t be anytime soon.
Part III: Macron vs. Democracy
What happened with the yellow vests movement is that Macron suddenly realized that the reason Hollande didn’t want to go as far as him, was that Hollande was aware of the limits that public opinion places on what even the president can do. Macron completely misunderstood the implications of the fact that he had such a narrow political base and vastly underestimated the constraints that it placed on his action. He thought that, since he controlled both the parliament and the administration, he would just be able to do what he wanted. The yellow vests movement taught him, although I don’t think he really understands it yet, that you couldn’t reform a country against the will of the overwhelming majority of its population.
It doesn’t even matter if you’re right. As I already noted, I think that, for all their smugness, Macron and the so-called moderates are generally clueless. But that’s not to say they are wrong about everything. For instance, it’s true that, at 56 percent of GDP, we need to reduce public expenditures. If you ask me, it’s also true that we needed to liberalize the labor market, reduce the cost of labor by decreasing payroll taxes and eliminate the wealth tax, but French technocrats have completely unrealistic expectations of how much it will spur growth and how long it will take before it starts to do so. The truth is that, although France’s reputation for being impossible to reform is not entirely undeserved, we still have implemented many of the changes liberals urged over the years and, whether these had a positive effect or not, it didn’t make a huge difference. In particular, economic growth is still as anemic as ever, there is no sign that immigrants and their descendants are better integrated, the income of the typical family is still growing very slowly or not at all, etc.
Although they were not given as much free reign as they would have wanted, technocrats have still been in charge for a long time now and the results they have achieved are nothing to boast about, to say the least. Even if they are sometimes right, which they no doubt are, they are clearly not so right that, after several decades of technocratic rule, people are clamoring for more. They’re selling a neoliberal paradise, but nobody is buying. The result is that, as one government after another fails to improve the situation in any meaningful way and the elites refuse to even consider the possibility that actually they might not be as smart as they think, the gap between them and the people keep growing and has now become very large on several crucial issues. In a society where the democratic principle of legitimacy, according to which a government is only regarded as legitimate insofar as people believe it defends what they perceive as their interests, such a gap is simply not sustainable in the long term.
It’s particularly striking that, even though the yellow vests movement started more than 10 weeks ago and at this point is openly demanding that Macron resign, 67 percent of the people still support it or have sympathy for it according to a recent poll. In other words, a majority of the French people supports or has sympathy for a movement whose main demand is that the legally elected president step down before the end of his term. Despite what many hysterical pundits seem to think, this is not because people have turned into anti-democratic extremists, but on the contrary because they consider that Macron’s government does not have any democratic legitimacy and, in a very important sense, this is hard to deny. Indeed, as we have seen, only a tiny minority of people are ideologically aligned with Macron. I believe this crisis of legitimacy plays a major role in the current political situation.
Although initially the yellow vests movement focused on taxes and the cost of living, the protesters soon started to formulate demands that went far beyond that. In particular, many of them complained about a lack of democracy, a concern they share with the vast majority of the population. According to the latest wave of a survey about political attitudes conducted on a regular basis, 70 percent of the people think that democracy doesn’t work at all or not very well in France. Moreover, this is not something that started with Macron, this figure has been consistently high and trending up for more than a decade. A whopping 85 percent think that political leaders care little or not at all about their opinion. Of course, they are right about that, for political leaders couldn’t care less about what they think, except insofar as they want to get reelected.
In fact, it’s not just that political leaders don’t care about their opinion, it’s that they despise it and think it’s dangerous. This is why they increasingly seek to shield the decision-making process from democratic control by various means. The European Union, in which decision makers are far removed from the population to which their decisions apply, is how they achieve that in the realm of economic policy. They do the same thing with immigration by signing treaties on human rights, which are then interpreted extensively by courts, without any kind of democratic control. Independent agencies are set up, filled with experts appointed by the government or even sometimes by other independent bodies, to devise rules that apply to everyone, even though neither the rules themselves nor the composition of those agencies were ever the object of a public debate. People must be protected against themselves by institutions that ensure the decisions will be made by those who know better. In the name of this paternalist conception of politics, democracy is slowly emptied of its substance, as the people have less and less influence on the way they are governed.
In order to address this problem, some of the yellow vests proposed to introduce a mechanism of direct democracy, modeled after the popular initiative system in Switzerland. This would allow a sufficient number of citizens to launch a referendum to vote a law or change the Constitution, which at the moment can only be done by the president. In France, a referendum was organized for the last time in 2005, to decide whether the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe should be ratified. It was rejected by almost 55 percent of the voters, but it didn’t prevent the parliament from approving the treaty of Lisbon in 2008, which was almost identical. (To be sure, Sarkozy had announced during his campaign in 2007 that he would do so if he were elected, but what he’d promised was that the parliament would only ratify a “simplified treaty,” which the treaty of Lisbon certainly wasn’t.) After that no government wanted to take the risk of being rebuffed again.
This proposal sent the sophisticates into a frenzy. Pundits spent the past few weeks explaining that, should such a mechanism of direct democracy be introduced in France, chaos would immediately ensue. This is not the place to refute the dishonest, nonsensical arguments they have used against this proposal, but what needs to be noted here is that it revealed that 1) the elites have a perception of the people that is completely detached from reality and 2) they are convinced that most of the policies they support would never be approved by a majority of the people. For instance, many pundits and politicians claimed that with a mechanism like the Swiss popular initiative system, gay marriage would quickly be abolished, when in fact this has been a minority position in every poll for several years. Indeed, according to the most recent poll on the issue, only 23 percent of the people think gay marriage should be abolished.
Of course, they are right that, in many cases, the people would reject their policies, but they don’t seem to think it’s a problem if a small minority governs against the wishes of the vast majority of the people. In fact, not only do they not think it’s a problem, but they clearly think it’s how things should work, provided they take the minority in question to be sufficiently enlightened. Many people are in favor of some kind of epistocracy and I personally think it’s a respectable opinion, even though I also think the arguments used to support it are embarrassingly bad, but if that is what the elites support they should be open about it. Instead they pretend to be democrats and accuse people who refuse that a small minority of people govern against the wishes of the majority of undermining democracy.
Macron understands that he is facing a crisis of legitimacy and, during his speech in December, he announced that he would organize a “great national debate” to allow people to give their opinion about various issues. Between January 15 and March 15, debates will be organized locally everywhere in France, so that people can explain what they want. At the end, the government is supposed to summarize the contributions, to make proposals based on them. But it’s obvious that Macron’s “great national debate” is nothing but a smoke-screen, a way to give the impression that he is giving back power to the people without actually having to do it, as would be the case if he put in place something like a popular initiative system. There is no mechanism in place to ensure that what the government proposes at the end of the debate will be faithful to what people said, so you can be certain that it won’t. Macron will compromise at the margins and use the debate to legitimize things he already wanted to do.
One incident that happened immediately after he announced the organization of this debate speaks volumes about how far he really is willing to go. The debate was supposed to be structured around five topics, one of which was immigration, a topic Macron had explicitly mentioned during his speech on December 11. But immediately after his speech, pundits and members of his party complained about this, saying it was outrageous that he’d even mentioned that issue and that making it one of the central topics of the debate would unleash people’s worst instincts. It didn’t even take 48 hours for Macron to cave and, at the end of the Council of Ministers that week, it was announced by the government’s spokesperson that there would only be four topics and that immigration would only be discussed as part of the topic on democracy and citizenship. But we know the initial plan was to structure the debate around five topics and that immigration was supposed to be one of them, because it’s written on the debriefing of the Council that was given to the press at the end, which nobody thought to update after Macron walked back its inclusion.
As I said, this debate is nothing but a smokescreen whose goal is to make it look like the government cares what people think, so making immigration one of the five topics wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. But precisely because it didn’t commit him to anything and would have been a purely symbolic gesture, it’s really telling that Macron wasn’t even willing to do that. What this incident shows is that, if this wasn’t clear already, he is constitutionally incapable of questioning the central tenets of the neoliberal synthesis, such as the view that immigration and multiculturalism are good and that Europe needs them even if people can’t see that. Although he looked penitent during his speech on December 11, this didn’t last very long and he was more or less back to his usual self by the time he gave the traditional presidential speech on New Year’s Eve. The yellow vests crisis may have taught him that he couldn’t do everything he wanted, but I doubt it did much to alter his fundamental beliefs about what needs to be done.
With this crisis, Macron had the opportunity to strike a historical bargain. He could have agreed to give back some power to the people, allow them to take back a measure of control over some of the issues that have been captured by the elites for decades, in exchange for which they may have been more willing to go along with some of the things he would like to do. But this would have required that he be able to compromise and that he go against the class who put him where he is now, both things he is clearly incapable or unwilling to do except at the margins. The way in which Macron dealt with the yellow vests crisis shows that he is nothing but a mediocre technocrat incapable of rising above his condition and that he never will be anything more. He had a rendez-vous with history and failed to show up.
We have now reached a point where the elites can’t do what they want because they have been thoroughly demonetized, yet are not willing to compromise and give back some power to the people, because they have become terrified of the people in the name of which they are supposed to govern. The result is that nothing gets done, which only increases people’s defiance toward politicians because small, piecemeal reforms can’t produce large, visible results, in turn making it even harder to do meaningful reforms since this requires political capital that has vanished.
Macron will most likely spend the rest of his term with a popularity stuck between 20 and 30 percent, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that, by the end of it, he will have become so unpopular that he won’t even be able to run again, which is exactly what happened to his predecessor. In any case, even if he manages to get reelected in 2022 (which also can’t be ruled out given the state of the opposition and the fact that French electoral law allows even someone with a weak electoral base to win the presidential election and get a majority in parliament), he won’t have the political capital he needs to do any meaningful reforms between now and then. In other words, this is going to be yet another wasted presidency, during which the slow decay of French society will continue.
Macron was supposed to save Europe from the populist wave which threatened to engulf it. Instead, after just one year and a half in power and with three and a half more to go before the end of his term, he is already a zombie who can’t set a foot outside of his palace without a massive police presence to keep the population at bay. Moreover, because the measures he announced to quell the yellow vests movement are costly, France is going to violate its European commitments about deficit reduction. But fortunately for him the European Commission already announced that it was going to give France a pass. Italy, whose populist government the Commission doesn’t like, wasn’t so lucky, even though its deficit is actually lower than France and it has had a primary surplus for years.
Still, as I noted in the first part of this essay, the yellow vests crisis has changed the balance of power in Europe or rather it has made clear to everyone what was already true before (though somewhat hidden from view by the media’s infatuation with the French president), namely that Germany is alone at the helm and that, like his predecessors, Macron will do what Merkel wants. It’s hard to be the leader of Europe when thousands of your own people want to mount your head on a pike and the others are cheering them on. As the formation of Italy’s populist coalition, which so far is very popular, had already shown, the rumors of populism’s death in Europe were greatly exaggerated and the cognoscenti aren’t going to get rid of it by making ridiculous comparisons with the 1930’s in the hope that it will scare enough people into voting the right way. History is full of people who condemned themselves to irrelevance because they refused to change and most of them were at least as intelligent as today’s elites.