Mauricio Macri’s image may be looking a bit tarnished these days, what with the economy going through the wringer, medium-term prospects remaining gloomy and long-term ones cloudy at best, while his foes are busily trying to stir up social unrest. But in comparison with those of many of his counterparts abroad it is still bright enough. It is certainly shinier than Emmanuel Macron’s.
Like François Hollande, his socialist predecessor, Macron, a man of the pragmatic centre who was sworn in barely a year-anda-half ago, soon saw his approval index sink into the mid-20s. And that was before a swarm of “yellow jackets,” thus called because of the fluorescent security gear motorists are obliged to have, suddenly started blocking roads in dozens of towns and then tried to put Paris to the torch by staging what the authorities said were the worst riots France – a country which is used to mayhem on the streets – had seen for years. For Macron –and the many others who thought that if he managed to see off the labour unions and prevent the holy warriors from carrying out more large-scale attacks on the infidels, he could look forward to a fairly pleasant term in office – the onslaught by the yellow jackets came as a very nasty surprise.
To appease them, Macron, who had promised he would not let himself be bullied by mobs of protesters, beat a retreat and put off for six months the planned increase in the diesel fuel tax they are objecting to. His wavering could harm him greatly in the coming weeks and months. By showing weakness, he let it be known that he is not as tough as he had made out. In France there are hundreds of groups who think their members deserve far more than they are getting; they are certain to make the most of Macron’s demonstrated willingness to give way under pressure. The violent protests he is facing are about much more than petrol prices which have gone up for what the French government says are ecological reasons. Along with a huge number of people in other relatively wealthy countries, in France a large majority evidently think their government should be able to provide them with a far higher standard of living than they currently enjoy but that for some sinister reason it refuses to do so. In this respect, they have much in common with the picketers and their leftist or Kirchnerite allies who routinely make life a misery for porteños; they pretend to take it for granted that Macri is responsible for all the country’s many woes and behave accordingly. The difference is that, if the opinion polls are to be believed, in France at least three-quarters of the population support the yellow jackets, while here a similar proportion is heartily sick of their local equivalents.
While on the way to the Élysée Palace, Macron said that once there he would rule “like Jupiter” by keeping aloof from whatever mere mortals got up to though, on occasion he might send down the odd thunderbolt to remind them who was boss. After trouncing Marine Le Pen in the presidential elections, he put together a brand new political party, which won a large proportion of the seats in parliament, and set about tinkering with France in an effort to make her more competitive.
Unfortunately for him, as General De Gaulle never let himself forget, the French have always been a grouchy lot and are notoriously fond of complaining. No doubt many have been pleased to see their president plotting to take over the European Union now that Angela Merkel is about to call it quits, playing hot and cold with Donald Trump and being a big man in parts of Africa that look to France for money, guidance and military assistance, but they are less interested in the theatrical side of the presidency than with what it means for them personally.
As his compatriots have belatedly realised, Macron may be “Jupiter” but, unlike the Roman version of Zeus, he is no miracle-worker. The reforms he went on about when on the campaign trail may have struck them as being sensible enough and much needed, but no matter how attractive “structural reforms” may seem in theory, in practice they are always painful for many who, until the promised benefits finally appear, if any actually do, a decade or so later, find themselves hard pressed to keep body and soul together. Economists say France is not productive enough to continue to afford the generous social services its inhabitants have grown accustomed to and for which they pay through the nose, with taxes reaching higher levels than in most other countries, but few people think they personally are to blame for this unhappy state of affairs.
France being France, what began as a leaderless movement against a minor tax increase could quickly morph into something far more formidable. Like the student riots of May 1968 – which hardly anyone had seen coming but which, after a few days, changed France and had lasting repercussions in much of the rest of the world, some of which still persist – the yellow jacket revolt is one symptom of a deep malaise that has long been lurking just beneath the surface. Politicians have preferred to overlook it because even alluding to the need to take into account the consequences of demographic change, whether caused by a reduced birth rate, increased longevity or the rapid growth of Muslimdominated enclaves – also known as “no-go zones” – in almost all major cities, among them Paris, would require them to make proposals upstanding citizens would regard as outrageous.
For many years, both the French and their fellow Europeans have been uncomfortably aware that the existing order may be fast approaching its end, but few care to listen to those who think they know what in all likelihood will replace it unless some pretty drastic steps are taken very soon. Perhaps Macron, who does understand that for Europe to survive as a going concern it will have to change, is an exception, but as those pesky yellow jackets proved too much of a handful for him, his chances of ramming through the ambitious reforms he thinks are necessary must be slim indeed.