Tax rises, yellow vests and a gold desk: Emmanuel Macron's humbling year

When Emmanuel Macron was still France's Economy Minister, he said French politics lacked the presence of a k...

Posted: Dec 24, 2018 10:12 PM
Updated: Dec 24, 2018 10:12 PM

When Emmanuel Macron was still France's Economy Minister, he said French politics lacked the presence of a king -- "A King whom, fundamentally, I don't think the French people wanted dead," he said back in 2015.

With his political movement En Marche! (On the move) Macron won the French presidency in 2017 and stepped into the monarchical void, landing a counter punch on the populist wave sweeping Europe.

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He gave his first address to both houses of parliament from the former seat of French kings, the gilded Palace of Versailles. The newly elected French President vowed to push through liberal reforms and restore France's dignity.

Eighteen months later, the new "monarch" faced a people's revolt. The Champs-Elysees, commissioned by Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, was ablaze as protesters wearing yellow vests clashed with riot police and angrily chanted "Couper la tête du roi!" (cut off the king's head!).

The demonstrations laid bare France's deep divisions, between the urban elites and the rural poor, the winners and losers of globalization. How did the youthful "Jupiterian" leader -- who had upended the political status quo and sent entrenched politicians into early retirement -- find himself so out of touch? Did the fault lie with the technocrat courtiers he surrounded himself with, or was the public support never really there?

Although Macron did not rise to power through hereditary right, he does partly owe his throne to the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen. In the first round of the presidential election, Macron won just 25% of the vote. This result put him head to head with Le Pen in the second round. A great deal of support for Macron came from voters keen to keep the National Front leader out of office.

One could argue that it wasn't his liberal agenda that won Macron the election -- it was fear of the alternative. Was this really a man of the people?

Macron's privileged childhood was spent somewhat removed from the real world. Born into a wealthy family in Amiens, he was a bookish child who -- according to former classmates -- sought the company of adults rather than his peers.

Unlike his predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande, who were politicized at a young age, a 20-something Macron was more likely to be engaged in deep conversation with the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, than out on the streets, going door to door, speaking to voters or local officials.

Macron's career path screams globalist elite. He studied at France's most prestigious and selective school, Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) and aged 32, he became Rothschild's youngest investment banker.

His meteoric rise gave Macron the belief that through hard work and perseverance he could do just about anything. Once elected, the dynamic French President wasted no time in applying his ambitious plan to reform his country, something others had tried and failed to achieve.

Macron successfully pushed through an unpopular rail reform, loosened labor rules, unapologetically slashed the wealth tax to encourage high earners to keep their money in France and promised to overhaul France's cherished welfare state. Critics quickly dubbed him"the president of the rich."

Over the summer, a series of awkward public interactions added to the image of an out-of-touch president. Three exchanges went viral, shocking the public, in the run up to the Yellow Vests protests.

In June, he publicly berated a teenager for cheekily calling him by the nickname "Manu." In the clip, the floppy-haired boy is seen quickly apologizing to the president, who scolds him for several minutes. "You should call me Mr. President!" snaps Macron. The exchange was widely shared on social media, as users expressed sympathy for the teen and accused Macron of humiliating him.

Several months later, during a trip to Denmark, Macron was caught describing the French as "Gauls who are resistant to change." Opposition politicians back home said Macron was "insulting French identity" and showing "contempt" for his own people, while labor unions said the implication was that Gauls were mere commoners, "beneath the kings."

Although Macron later acknowledged he had made a mistake, the damage was done.

Not long after, Macron drew the ire of France's job seekers, when, in September, he told a 25-year-old unemployed gardener he could easily find him work."There are loads of jobs, go on!" he said. "Hotels, cafes, restaurants -- I'll find you one just by crossing the road!" The image of the énarque (ENA) graduate schooling the young man provoked anger as critics took once more to Twitter, to denounce a president who was "out of touch with the people."

Macron's perceived condescending and arrogant behavior coupled with his liberalizing economic reforms fueled populist discontent as the year went on.

Four weeks after Macron's interaction with the job seeker, Jacline Moraud, a 51-year-old from Brittany posted a short video on Facebook, railing against the President over a proposed fuel tax hike. "What are you doing with the French people's money, Mr. Macron?" she asked several times. The video was watched more than 6 million times and Mouraud became one of the first unofficial spokespeople for the Yellow Vest movement.

Six consecutive weekends of escalating violent protests saw thousands of people arrested, 10 people killed and Paris' most expensive neighborhoods vandalized. "No Christmas for the bourgeoisie" was scrawled across the Arc de Triomphe, home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In a bid to assuage the fury of the Yellow Vests Macron gave a televised address. Sitting behind a gold desk he acknowledged he had "hurt people" with his words. He announced major concessions in the shape of financial aid to the least well off. The measures seemed to take the sting out of the revolt, and protests on Saturday were poorly attended.

The question for Macron now is whether he can win back the trust of the French people. Political analyst Dominique Moisi believes this will be hard. "Once you have humiliated people or once people have felt humiliated by you, it is difficult to recreate a process of confidence and trust," he says.

Macron is now offering to listen to ordinary people. Along with the concessions, he announced a six-month consultation with mayors, local councilors, businesses, trade unions and the Yellow Vests to discuss economic reforms. But if Macron does manage to gain their trust how can he continue to reform? If Macron can't deliver a fuel tax hike, how can he see through other promised measures such as pension reform?

And what of Macron's bid to change the European Union? When he came to power German Chancellor Angela Merkel hoped the French President's ambition might breathe new life into the weakening bloc and yet today, he can barely even contain problems at home. Macron was also revered across the pond and his state visit to Washington in April 2017 was the first of Dondald Trump's presidency.

But as the "bromance" between the two leaders began to fade Trump took to Twitter to lambast Macron for his plan to "create a European Army." Clearly, the French president had fallen out of favor with the US president.

Macron didn't seem to mind and he continued to present himself as the forthright and plain-speaking new leader of the free world. Addressing leaders at the centenary of the end of WWI last month, he warned, pointedly, "patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism."

Many saw his speech as an implicit dig at Trump who was forced to listen, stony-faced. Macron added that it was good to have 70 world leaders at the Arc de Triomphe for the memorial but asked how the photos would be seen in the future: "a symbol of lasting peace? Or the last moment of unity before the world falls into disorder?"

Popular revolt in Paris

Just three weeks later, the exact spot where Macron was lecturing the leaders, erupted into chaos as riot police filled the air with teargas and water cannons in a bid to disperse the rioters. People around the world watched in horror as Paris saw its worst civil unrest in more than a decade. With popular revolt taking hold, the king's troubles had just begun.

Macron's reputation has taken a hit at home and on the world stage, particularly in Europe. It's hard to promote reform abroad when you can't reform at home.

What's more, Macron's party could find itself competing with the Yellow Vests at a European level, as the protesters have vowed to field candidates in next year's European elections. Le Pen, who has tried to exploit the grievances of the Yellow Vests, could be the real loser, as polls suggest the far-right would lose a significant number of votes if the Yellow Vests put forward their own candidates. Ironically, the far-left, which has also constantly criticized Macron, would suffer the same fate.

When I met Emmanuel Macron in a TV studio just after he had debated Marine Le Pen and before the second round, he told me his favorite English text was "Le Roi Lear" -- Shakespeare's "King Lear."

But if Macron fails to appease the Yellow Vests' anger -- to engage with the common folk, and to appear less imperious -- he could well fall victim to his own hubris, much like King Lear himself.

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