The Yellow Vest revolt in France has been compared to the unrest of May 1968, but this is mistaken. May 1968 has been called a “bourgeois frolic”, a product of discontents caused by rising affluence (including most notably the desire of French students to sleep with each other more often). It took place in a Western Europe where in general liberal democracy was still secure, on the basis of solid Cold War alignments and a generation of growing prosperity for all classes. The police cracked a few heads, and de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic trundled on. The Yellow Vest movement sounds more like the start of the death rattle of that republic.
Historians of the future may see the failure of Emmanuel Macron as even more important than the election of Donald Trump as a milestone in the decline of the Western liberal order. In the USA, the Democratic Party remains intact, and will probably win the next presidential elections in 2020 – though whether they will be able to make much real difference to America’s downward slide is highly doubtful.
With this, conservative nationalism would move into the very heart of European politics, and the European Union in anything like its existing form would cease to exist. Moreover, at this point, the main French opposition would become the Marxist (but equally anti-EU) left-wing movement of Jean-Luc Melenchon’s “Unbowed France” (La France Insoumise). If this becomes the only real choice left to French voters, then liberal democracy will be dead and democracy of any kind may not survive for much longer. As the Middle East since the Arab Spring has reminded us, democracies cannot long survive if the main political forces in the country differ fundamentally about the nature and identity of the state. The threat to democracy will be especially great if the continued rise of France’s Muslim population and harsh police measures by a Le Pen administration produce more and more mass violence on the streets.
How did Macron go so wrong? He has been blamed with good reason for a range of personal mistakes, but it is essential to recognize that his failure has also been that of the French technocratic elite that nurtured him, encapsulated in the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) that educated him. Macron, a former investment banker, is essentially a “third way” technocrat in the mold of Tony Blair or Bill Clinton dedicated like them to an only relatively moderate version of “Washington Consensus” free market economics, and it was only the utter bankruptcy of the mainstream French political parties which allowed him to appear for a while to be anything new or different.
But in his election campaign, Macron appeared to recognize that the only way to get austerity measures past a notoriously recalcitrant and unruly French public was by an “even-handed” approach in which the rich would also be forced to make sacrifices. Instead, the very rich and corporations have received tax cuts, and the entire burden of austerity has fallen on the poor and the middle classes; in other words, an even harsher version of the policies that successive French governments have been following over the past decade, which have driven support for the extreme Left and Right. What on earth made Macron think that this was a politically viable mixture, ten years after the recession of 2008? His failure has allowed not just Melenchon’s Left but the National Rally to portray themselves as the authentic voices of social solidarity and justice.
In sinking their identity and mission in the EU, and in a wider international liberal project that does little more than flatter French national vanity about “grandeur” and intellectual vanity about having been the “Birthplace of Human Rights”, the French elites have lost touch with the crucially important resource of French nationalism, which endures in the population at large. In their different ways, both le Pen and Melenchon understand this very well – and indeed, while many of their policies are very different, the nationalist names of their movements are interchangeable.
To maintain support for austerity, Macron needed both to appeal to French nationalism and to adopt symbolic and practical policies to convince the masses that the rich were also being made to suffer for the good of France. The symbolic ones should have been easiest. As has been pointed out again and again, the failure of President Obama and the Democrats to capitalize politically on the financial crash of 2008 was not just due to their failure to introduce more radical policies. It was perhaps even more due to the Obama administration’s complete failure to hold any leading bankers or state regulators personally accountable for what had happened. In France, Macron needed to launch a rigorous judicial hunt for corruption, tax evasion and money laundering within the French elites and the French banking system. Not too hard to find, one would have thought – but too hard, apparently, for a product of those elites and those banks.
That is impossible with the USA under Trump, and may be impossible with the UK, given its dependence on a City of London deeply mired in these practices. It should be possible within a European Union minus the UK – but not if the West European establishments persist in choosing figures like Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the EU Commission, and in the process turning a studiously blind eye to Luxemburg’s role as a centre of money-laundering.
The crisis of France is therefore part of a wider crisis of the inability of West European elites to change and reform. Thus even as in Italy the traditional party order has collapsed altogether, the German Christian Democrats, oblivious it seems to the precipitous drop in their vote in recent years, have chosen as a successor to Angela Merkel someone who might as well be her clone. Perhaps the tragicomic spectacle of the Brexit shambles in Britain will drive European voters back towards faith in the European Union and the European liberal project. But I wouldn’t bet on that.