Jupiter and the baptism of fire
Early this year Emmanuel Macron astonished the world by announcing that he intended to govern France in the manner of a “Jupiterian” President — “a remote, dignified figure, like the Roman god of gods, who weighs his rare pronouncements carefully”. This bizarre remark followed a decision to suspend his normal Bastille Day Q & A session with the French media in preference for a more ex-cathedra pronunciamento in the ambience of the gilded pavilions of Versailles. His courtiers said the decision was taken ostensibly because the President’s “complex thought process lends itself badly to the game of question-and-answer with journalists. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first intoxicate with hubris!
Strikes, demonstrations, uprisings and the trenches are a part of the French way of life. During the nineteenth century, when Napoleon Bonaparte founded the corps d’inginieurs publiques, he ordered them to design very wide boulevards so that it would be easier to control the mobs during social upheavals.
Between 17 November and 8 December, an estimated 1 million people were involved in the so-called Yellow Vest protests in France. Given the scale of the mayhem, looting and violent destruction, it is a surprise that there were only 2 casualties. Some 874 people were wounded and 2,203 taken into police custody. White middle class people suddenly discovered they had difficulty paying their children’s school fees or supporting elderly parents whose retirement pensions are currently worth nothing. Teachers, doctors and civil servants are finding it difficult to make ends meet and to live the sort of lives that they and their parents had been used to.
The French, as my gentle readers would recall, overthrew their feudal aristocracy through a violent revolution in 1789 under the banner of “liberté, égalité et fraternité”. When former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai what he thought were the consequences of the French Revolution, Zhou famously replied, “It is too early to tell”. I spent some of my most formative years as a student in France. I had mistakenly believed that the revolution had created an egalitarian society. I was surprised to find that France is almost as class-ridden as Britain. They got rid of the feudal monarchy only to replace them with monarchical presidents. President François Mitterrand, for example, used to behave with the hauteur of an Egyptian Pharaoh. Our reincarnated Jupiter belongs to that spirit.
France’s oligarchs in government and the private sector have been drawn predominantly from the aristocracy of talent –graduates of the “great schools” such as École National d’Administration (ENA), École Polytechnique and École and Normale Superièure. Competition for entry is fierce. The new aristocracy are under-stated in their lifestyles. They consider it bad form to flaunt personal wealth. They drive mostly old Renaults and leave glistening new Daimler-Benzes to the nouveaux riches Arabs. They wear laid-back, navy-blue overalls. The only tell-tale signs are their home addresses: Neuilly, Avenue Montaigne, Trocadero, Saint-German-des Près. There, you will find that the door-knobs are plated in gold and walls are lined with art works worth millions of Euros.
The recent uprisings were triggered by a new government policy to increase taxes on petrol by 2.9% and on diesel by 6.5 percent. The aim is not only to balance public finances but also address the challenge of gas emissions and climate change. Earlier in the year, the price of diesel had been hiked by 20 percent. With the announcement of the tax hike on petrol and gas, Macron maintained this is necessary so as to “protect the environment” and “combat climate change”.
The protesters were of a totally different view. They saw it as the last straw in the attitude of a government that has lost touch with the real-struggles of ordinary citizens. They describe the president as a “privileged” and “arrogant” statesman who has lost the common touch (if he ever had it). They see him essentially as representing a neo-liberal global elite that protects the interests of the 1 percent who control 50 percent of the world’s wealth. The demonstrations went beyond those immediate grievances to issues of inequality, wealth redistribution, salary and pension increases, minimum wage, social security, social justice and breakdown of the social contract between government and citizens.
The administration was rather taken aback by the ferocity of the protests. Art galleries were broken into and venerable art works smashed to smithereens. A marble horse, most probably by Auguste Rodin, was destroyed at the Louvre. Cars and buildings were set ablaze. Police were stoned. Many removed their helmets as a mark of solidarity with the protesters. Shops were looted. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called the situation “a crisis” for both society and democracy. The French retail federation estimated that they lost some Є1 billion. François Asselin, leader of the confederation of small and medium –sized businesses estimates that they lost as much as Є10 billion from the protests. The tourist industry would no doubt have lost even more. In 2017 alone, Paris recorded as much as 40 million foreign tourists.
In what was clearly a volte-face, Macron announced that the tax hike would be “permanently shelved”. He conceded that the protests were “deep and in many ways legitimate”. In a rather penitent mood, he declared: “I assume my share of the situation – I may have given you the feeling I have other concerns and priorities. I know some of you have been hurt by my words”. He also announced that the minimum wage will increase by 7 percent as from 2019. He shelved the tax on low-income pensioners and also announced that overtime will no longer by taxed while firms will be encouraged to give tax-free end of year bonuses to workers. He however refused to reinstate the tax on the wealthy which he claimed would only “weaken” the capacity of the private sector to generate future jobs.
A scion of the provincial bourgeoisie, Emmanuel Macron was educated at the École National d’Administration. He served in the civil service elite corps of Inspecteurs des Finances before joining Rothschild & Cie, which sits atop the world’s greatest investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Lazard Frères. It was from Rothschild that he was appointed Minister of the Economy, from where he launched his extraordinary political career.
Macron came to power with the image of a “progressive saviour” who would redeem France and build a momentum for progressive change. He has turned out to be a disappointment. His aristocratic hauteur has not helped matters. In July 2017 he was quoted as saying that trains were a wonderful means of public transport because therein you would find all manner of people – “people who succeed” (like himself) and “people who are nothing”. When confronted with the grim realities of youth unemployment, he coldly responded: “Instead of kicking up bloody chaos, some of them would be better off going to see if they can get a job over there,” pointing in the direction of an aluminium plant in Ussel.
In a recent opinion piece, French-Senegalese writer and film maker Rokhaya Diallo wrote: “Unemployment, discrimination and poverty are at the root of the daily humiliation French people feel which has now transformed into a general despondency. The French political elites will find it hard to pacify this public anger unless they commit to introducing radical changes to the way this country is governed.”
Although things have quietened down for now, many feel that it is not yet Uhuru. One yellow vest protester, Benjamin Cauchy, was quoted as saying: “These are only half-measures. We feel that Macron has got a lot more to give.” Ant-racism groups are also concerned about his remarks that more would be done about immigration. Jean-Marc, an auto mechanic expressed dissatisfaction with those half measures: “He is trying to do a pirouette to land back on his feet but we can see that he isn’t sincere, that it’s all smoke and mirrors”
Emmanuel Macron no doubt came to power with a lot of moral capital. He is losing it rapidly. Reinventing himself as a champion of Europe has not done him any favours. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi describes him as “a nice man with a good-looking mum” (referring to the fact that Macron is 40 while his wife is 66). Far-Right leader Marine Le Pen has been scornful: “France will be led by a woman: either me or Mrs Merkel”. Macron’s proposal that Europe creates its own military alliance in defiance of NATO and the Americans has caused ripples across the Atlantic. During the last NATO Summit President Donald Trump shook his hand so vigorously that he was nearly thrown off balance. Jupiter, clearly, has feet of clay!