Macron’s vapid populism fades as his Waterloo awaits
The rebellion in France underlines that its leader's poster-boy politics cannot revivify an unpopular EU
Eighteen months is a long time in politics. May 2017 was springtime for centrism. Emmanuel Macron’s crushing defeat of Marine le Pen in the French presidential elections was seen by political “moderates” as a global setback for the electoral forces which had voted Brexit in Britain and put Donald Trump into the White House.
But all was not as it seemed.
Despite posing as the anti-populist, Macron’s rejection of the old parties and his reliance on a network of young, social media-savvy supporters to create momentum was typical of his own populist “anti-politics”.
Macron was going to reform France without tears and save the EU without cost. He won by exuding a benign but vapid Europeanism on the campaign trail. He would get things on the move again as France’s economy stagnated, but without upsetting anybody. The French could be local, European and global without hard decisions or paying any price. That was enough to bounce him from obscurity to the presidency.
De Gaulle knew that “to govern is to make choices”. But he also knew that a successful president needed a bedrock of support. And in the absence of one, Macron has come crashing back down to Earth.
His popularity has nosedived and France is ablaze with protests by the Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests, which erupted, initially, over a planned rise in the tax on petrol and diesel. France has, of course, been rocked by protests before. The Elysee Palace denies the president is considering a state of emergency – which probably means he recognises that it could provoke a display of open defiance that would challenge France’s institutions in a way not seen since the radical student protests in May 1968. Back then, the ruling Gaullists mobilised even greater crowds to swarm down the Champs Elysees and put the protesters back in their ivory towers.
The difference this time is that it is the ordinary people –the “just getting by” majority – who are mobilising against the trendy politics of the elite. And Macron is the poster-boy of all that is politically trendy on the Continent. He is a believer in the vision of the technocrat to guide the economy and society, who many saw as the figurehead of a new type of Europeanism which would revivify the EU itself. This approach signally failed to diagnose the true nature of the discontent. However pretty his face, the technocrat, in Paris or in Brussels, is not the respected figure he once was.
Democratisation of opinion forming via the internet has undermined deference. And what antagonises ordinary folk is that they are asked to pay the price for the elite’s grand policy reversals, with little accountability. In the case of the Yellow Vests, it is fuel taxes and bans on diesel cars, once promoted as energy savers.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg in a Europe seemingly incapable of governing on behalf of real people. So Macron’s current woes should be instructive for anyone presuming a fresh face is all that is needed to revive the European project. Macron may well be young, but he is in thrall to yesterday’s nostrums. After all, he recently backed a single European army to complement the single currency, hardly a proposal ordinary voters are clamouring to see realised. Last year’s saviour of Europe has turned out to be an obdurate defender of an elite agenda which offends vast swathes of the right, left and, not least, centre.
By making Macron their standard bearer, the EU’s leaders backed a bubble that was waiting to burst. This is the EU that Remainers wish us to rejoin, ideally with the UK electing a Macron of its own. But we all need to recognise that populism of the centre – adrift from the concerns of any constituency of any size – cannot hold. To think that an image makeover will cure the European model is dangerous. Macron faces his own Waterloo if he can’t push through his policies against a mutinous populace.
But France’s crisis should dispel the Remainers’ fantasy that a bit of centrist populism in the UK can magically resolve the discontents that led to Brexit or to the EU-wide collapse of faith in the old order.
• Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited