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Is France the next to fall to populism?

December 8th, 2018

How far do the Yellow Vest protests go?

Emmanuel Macron was always an unlikely revolutionary. Graduate of the ENA, high-flying civil servant, investment banker with Rothschilds, and later Minister of Finance and the Economy: his was the model of an insider’s path to power. And yet En Marche was a revolution of sorts. Despite Macron’s own background, his election was in its own way a rejection of the status quo. His style, however, was never fitted to that role – if it was even a role he accepted, which is doubtful.

Instead, perceptions of Macron’s straight-talking have morphed from a refreshing honesty to an out-of-touch arrogance with remarkable rapidity and his approval rating has dived from a net balance at the start of the year to the wrong side of -50 now. That might not be quite as bad as Francois Hollande registered at times (one poll once found only 4% with a positive opinion of the former president) but it’s still awful – and it is worse than Hollande scored at the equivalent point in his presidency.

Hence, relatedly, the Gilet Jaunes protests. Ostensibly, these were about fuel tax rises but in truth the anger runs much deeper, hence the continuance of the protests despite the cancellation of the tax rise. Indeed, that lack of both a focus on a specific grievance and of a national leadership to the protests is what makes them particularly dangerous.

    The fact that the opposition is seemingly as much to a way of politics as to an individual policy is a serious problem for the government, in that it cannot easily be appeased by a U-turn.

If the protests are to peter out, the more likely causes will be bad weather and Christmas rather than anything political; Macron is fortunate that this has happened now rather than in April or May. Even so, without addressing the deeper grievances, they clearly have the potential to spring back up again later.

Similarly, while the lack of a political leadership to the protests is in one way an advantage – there is no direct physical threat to the government in the same sense that there would be in an attempted military coup, for example – that also makes them more amorphous and impossible to settle through direct negotiation.

And of course, France is a country rightly renowned for its revolutionary edge, if for the wrong reasons. Forget 1789. Forget 1968 even (though the parallels are potentially there). At the last presidential elections only last year, some 40% voted for either the populist hard right under Le Pen or the populist hard left under Melenchon in the first round. A lot of people are very disillusioned with politics-as-normal and have been willing to cast their votes accordingly.

Where does France go from here? My guess is that without a revolutionary leadership to the protests, the violence will continue for the time being until it becomes clear that they’re futile, that the state isn’t going compromise on essentials and that life has moved on. Macron, however, has suffered a blow from which he will find it hard to recover. His popularity is probably shot permanently and a large part of his authority with it.

For the time being, he remains less unpopular that just about any other serious candidate for the presidency in 2022 but he’s now in a position where someone could easily do to him what he did to Fillon in 2017 – though those with more knowledge of French politics than me will need to identify potential candidates. More seriously, if Macron no longer has any credibility as a candidate from the outside (and it’s odd that he ever did), and the Republicans and PS have not recovered from their battering last year, where then to the voters turn? The populist surge running across much of the West is far from exhausted and France is as susceptible to it as anywhere, in its own way.

David Herdson