Rioting in the streets. Filling stations running out of fuel. Panic buying in the supermarkets. A country in chaos. Not a dystopian vision of Britain after Brexit, but France in the here and now under that self-styled champion of anti-populism, Emmanuel Macron.
French politicians invariably claim to be inspired by Charles de Gaulle, and Macron is no exception. His official presidential photograph has him standing in front of a desk with a copy of De Gaulle’s war memoirs open. Macron’s subliminal message to the French people was obvious. Like De Gaulle, I will be a strong leader. Like De Gaulle, I will rise above petty politics and rule in the national interest.
Comparisons with De Gaulle have certainly been made in recent days, but not to the De Gaulle who set up a French government-in-exile in London in 1940, or the De Gaulle who healed the wounds over Algeria in 1958. Inevitably, given the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests that have erupted across France, it is the occupation of the streets of Paris by students and workers in May 1968 that is being recalled.
Like De Gaulle, Macron failed to spot the street protests coming. Like De Gaulle, he seemed out of touch and incapable of a suitable response. And like De Gaulle, he will pay a heavy political price because his USP was that he would never surrender to protesters if they took to the streets and, by abandoning higher taxes on petrol and diesel for six months, he has done precisely that.
There is no little irony in the fact that the man who was seen as the answer to populism has provoked the most high-profile demonstration of populist rage Europe has yet seen. When he arrived at the Elysée Palace, Macron was hailed as a new breed of politician but he was really the past, not the future: the last technocratic centrist in the tradition of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder. [Continue reading…]