While Paris Burned
I live in Paris. For the past three weekends there have been massive protests about taxes on fuel (along with more general complaints about government policies). This last weekend it came to a head; there was vandalism at the famous Arc de Triomphe and President Emmanuel Macron’s administration agreed to a temporary freeze on all fuel taxes.
A friend sent me a New York Times editorial which says that such a “retreat is a dangerous gamble,” one which risks conceding even more (like a Macron resignation) to an unorganized protest which has no formal leadership or specific demands.
That is not what I see, living in France. The protest movement has been building for more than a year. Last year the administration cut taxes on the rich, this year it raises them on the poor (a fuel tax being mostly paid by the rural working class). Macron pledged to break the power of unions, which may be inefficient but still work to help the working class. That has begun. He makes big promises of strengthening Europe, which is an institution which works best for the elites. He lectured an unemployed protester about how easy it is to find a job. He employed a security chief who dressed up as riot police to beat a guy up (and probably didn’t fire him when he first heard about it). So I cannot agree that it’s wrong for Macron to retreat a little.
Of course I don’t want him to call new elections or anything. That is harmful to institutions and suggests a return to the Third Republic (1871–1940), when prime ministerial terms were measured in months, not years. But for him to step back, unroll a few measures, and think about his decisions? That is much, much needed. France needs to see that he can admit he is wrong.
I remember the moment I was convinced that Macron could not continue on the same track. Gerard Collomb, a 71-year-old populist/socialist former mayor, a man of the people, had been one of Macron’s first and loudest supporters. Macron awarded him with the interior minister position. He’s a goofball, but people love him. If Macron was the brain of France, Collomb represented the heart. In October, Collomb announced his resignation, stating that “Very few of us can still talk to Macron.” He would run for mayor of Lyon instead. If the heart is convinced that Paris is broken, I thought, what can Macron do for France?
So retreat, Macron. Go to the Elysée Palace and sit in an armchair and stare at the fire and think how you can win the heart of France back. As Obama learned a few years ago, you will not convince people with technically brilliant, dry lectures. To govern a people well, you must love them. Perhaps, in the midst of the burning, Macron will discover a warmer heart.