The first historical reference that occurred to us at TAS, when reading of French president Emmanuel Macron huddling in the Elysée Palace with his inner cabinet and security officials to figure out what to do in response to violent riots across France was: Well, he didn’t hightail it to Baden-Baden.
Maybe he should have. But it was a different time, and it would have been in vain.
The last time a riot in Paris shook a presidency to its socks was 1968. President Macron, the author of a political autobiography of sorts titled Revolution, was not born then, but he invested considerable time this year commemorating the 50th anniversary of what are euphemistically called “the events of May.” He joined the aging soixantehuitards generation in assuring that France became a nicer, better country thanks to that spasm of nihilism and the reforms that followed.
Flattery and self-satisfaction are poor substitutes for leadership.
The tax revolt of the past three weeks caps a year that had not gone well for the French president. Though he gained a parliamentary majority in the wake of winning the presidency in 2017, his ad-hoc party, La France en Marche (France on the Move), is made up largely of amateurs and opportunists with little loyalty to the boss and probably even less sense of what he stands for. But as reforms proposals have stalled, the suspicion arises that neither does he.
He seems to have even less sense of his own countrymen’s alienation from the political class and the changes in French society that they have dealt with for the past two or even three decades mainly by kicking them down the road or bailing out one sector or group of people by taxing the others. Fittingly, it was an increase in the tax on fuel, already at between seven to eight dollars a gallon, that provoked a truckers’ revolt.
The teamsters, known as gilets jaunes (“yellow jackets,” from the safety vest they are required to wear) had done this sort of thing before. Driving truck caravans at low speeds or taking long breaks in the middle of intersections has become an almost annual ritual between the overweening, overtaxing state and an industrial section in a strong position to force the government to retreat or mollify yet another initiative that is perceived as unfair.
The outrage this time went beyond causing nationwide traffic jams. Teamsters and their supporters took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. The more excitable among them — or, more likely, thugs of the extreme lefts and rights seizing opportunities to cause trouble — began throwing heavy objects at policemen. They destroyed property (the French word of rioters is casseurs, wreckers), defaced national monuments with spray-guns and hammers. Violence cannot be tolerated, Macron intoned. Of course not.
The remarkable thing is that no one in Paris ruling circles seems to get it, notwithstanding it happens over and over. This time, Macron blithely pitched the fuel tax hike as a measure designed to protect the environment. That neither he nor anyone around him had enough sensitivity to realize that for the vast majority of French people, a tax is a tax is a tax, is about as good an indication as you will find of the very socio-political conditions that Macron rode to power.
If he does not know what brought him to the Elysée, how can he be expected to know what to do there?
De Gaulle knew. De Gaulle knew the job description of a president of France.
De Gaulle, faced with a comparable situation on the ground that was, however, sociologically quite different, did not huddle with civilian aides and ministers in the Elysée Palace. He did not like the Elysée Palace and anyway the men there had no answers. He flew to Baden-Baden, HQ of the French army in Germany, whose commander was General Jacques Massu.
It was noted in the days immediately preceding this excursion, 29 May, that army units, including tanks, were converging on the insurrectionary capital.
During a 90-minute meeting with Massu, de Gaulle negotiated the support of the army for the restoration of order after weeks of anarchy. His own government, led by prime minister Georges Pompidou, had opted for a policy of concessions, giving in to the students demanding university reforms and the industrial and public service workers demanding wage hikes and changes in working conditions.
De Gaulle knew the real issue was elsewhere: who has the power. Concessions, which he did not necessarily oppose on the merits, would in the circumstances of a power vacuum only lead to more demands and a spiral into civil war.
Massu assured the president that he agreed. Massu had been unhappy with the way de Gaulle ended the Algerian war some six years earlier, but he was still the young soldier who had signed on with the leader of Free France. Legend has it that when they met at Baden-Baden, de Gaulle said, “So, Massu, still the jerk?” — “Yes, General — and still a Gaullist!” Massu was no patsy, and some deals were cut, in particular an honorable amnesty for his fellow-officers who had mutinied against the abandonment of Algeria.
De Gaulle returned to Paris, stopping at his country house at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, which is in Champagne. The next day, May 30, he spoke to the nation. The key line was: I am here to protect France from the disorder fostered by totalitarian communism. He dissolved the National Assembly, called new elections, and deferred a referendum on reform. He made it clear that, should anarchy persist and organized subversion continue, he would use the constitutional powers at his disposal to insure the French people were able to return to work and school.
The parliamentary elections, a month later, gave him a large majority.
Can Macron and his circles see things so clearly, when their whole self-image is founded on the notion that they are better, and they know better, than everyone else? That their solutions are wise even when everyone else sees them as stupid and punitive?
This hollow haughtiness brought to mind a second historical reference, when Jeanne d’Hauteserre, the mayor of Paris’ 8th district, near the Arc de Triomphe and therefore blocks from the presidential palace and the scene of the worst rioting, stated: “We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it.” For a Eurasian from Haiphong, that may be a bit of false modesty, and she does have a strong record as a center-right operative and politician. She may well have expected someone to reply, No, madame, we are in a state of revolution.
Anecdote or historical fact, Louis XVI, the best-known martyr of the Jacobin Reign of Terror, is supposed to have consulted the duc de la Rochefoucault, one of his aides, on some rumors of rioting. There had been some trouble on the east side of Paris, around a notorious prison called the Bastille, now an opera house. It got out of hand when a mob lynched the warden — reportedly not a man inclined to reform his prisoners through acts of kindness, admittedly — and put his head on a pike.
“What’s this, a rebellion?” the king asked when appraised of the trouble. “No sir, it’s a revolution.” Louis did not get it, and hurried off on his scheduled hunting party.
For the rest of the story, consult Charles Dickens or, if you want the deep view, Simon Schama. But for the snappy anecdote, that famous one is hard to beat; which may be why it has a way of recurring.
However, the scary thing is that a case can be made that today’s situation resembles 1789 more than 1968. In Emmanuel Macron’s cluelessness and lack of charisma, it is easier to see the young monarch than the aging but still awesome soldier who twice already had saved France from disaster. Moreover, the intermediary and security institutions were solid in 1968. There were trade unions and opposition political parties with whom the Gaullist republic could negotiate, however much the former wanted to bring it down.
The army, notwithstanding its recent wounds, was reliable. The police and others in the security services were disciplined and restrained despite provocations by extremists. France was a society that knew, and practiced, its ancient mores and honored its republican virtues at least in the breach.
The huge Gaullist majority at the polls in June came as a surprise only to the kinds of people who believe their own fantasies, typically intellectuals and their acolytes in the media. If Macron calls a snap election to reassert his mandate, as some are advising him to do, the surprise might well be an outcome that is in nowise fantastic.
France, of course, is no longer the way it was then, due to the mental and demographic shifts of half a century. Parties, labor unions, churches, “civil society” are not as manifest in keeping the nation in some sort of step as they were then; the irony of Macron’s “en marche” slogan lies therein: he is the head of a country out of step with itself.
Macron may have been aware of this, at least in a vague sense, when he ran as an outsider, for he must have seen how feeble the parties and other political-social institutions were, how easily discontent could be channeled against them. Instead of concentrating on rebuilding confidence in the center, as he suggested he meant to do, he got it into his head that Angela Merkel was definitely out as German Chancellor and there was an opportunity to restore France to its rightful place as leader of the European Union. An added benefit was that he could fob off unpopular reforms on European unity (“values” when arguing with Hungary or Italy or Poland).
It would take a certain degree of vanity or myopia to assume the French would fall for this sort of legerdemain, akin to demanding a tax on fuel in the name of clean air (which is what he did), when the French working class is choking from more visible causes, namely the high cost of living and a tax structure that is already the most confiscatory in Europe. But apart thinking the Germans would pass the baton happily, Macron was certain he, personally, was untouchable in France and people actually liked him.
He was wrong on both counts. Merkel may or may not be on the way out but Germany certainly isn’t giving an inch; and he never was liked, he just happened to be there when all the others in the governing class (he was minister of finance in the previous government) were even more repulsive to French voters than the establishment ever had been. So he was able to say, you hate the establishment, and rightly so. I have a plan. So,en marche, on the move!
He forgot about the French teamsters’ habit of making movement impossible. Especially during the holiday seasons.
Can another anti-establishment figure step up? Logically, the candidate in this scenario would be Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-establishment party par excellence, the National Front of her father Jean-Marie, now re-named National Union. (Rassemblement, often translated as “rally,” National.) This party has a large working class constituency, while also serving as the voice of the kinds of tax-rebels amongst working-middle-class constituencies (like teamsters, typically, or small business owners) that periodically pop up, for example, in the mid-1950s (another historical reference).
The irony for Marine Le Pen is that she had been striving very hard to join the establishment. To achieve respectability, she purged the old Vichy nostalgists, anti-Semites, and assorted haters, who constituted the core of her old man’s party. She even purged him. (He sued.) This had the effect of making her in the eyes of the voters just another denizen of the mislabeled “elite.” Sociologically, she had a pretty good chance in ’17, but it appears now she missed the boat.
The threat to Macron is far more likely to come from another side, the unholy alliance of radicals of the left and radical Islamists. They are united in their detestation of the France de Gaulle personified. Macron will be making their bed if he does not move quickly to placate the yellow jackets, and it would be nice if in doing so he also apologized for harming and insulting them. For the placating, the less Jupiterian heads in his government, notably that of his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, may prevail; the apologies, however, would require the kind of change of mind and attitude that normal Americans have stopped expecting of liberals.