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The Rough Year Ahead for France

Macron's concessions to the Yellow Vest protesters won't fix a problem that's fundamentally about the European Union.

Demonstrators in Bordeaux on December 22 (Nicolas Tucat/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s next for France after the autumn revolt of the Yellow Vests? President Macron has already made significant concessions to the protesters, including an extra 100 euros a month for those earning the 1500-euro per month minimum wage and suspension of a surtax on many pensioners. Thus far he’s been rewarded with continued unrest (66,000 Yellow Vests marched on December 15, down by about half from the week before, while on December 22 the number decreased to about 30,000) and a significant jump in the polls for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, whom he defeated to win the presidency in 2017. Le Pen’s party now leads Macron’s 24 percent to 18 percent ahead of the European Parliament elections in May 2019. Those elections now promise to be not only a referendum on Macron’s presidency but an indication of whether the French people support their president’s vision of a strong European Union as France’s best ally in maintaining its generous welfare state.

The Macron-Le Pen rivalry is a tale of two languages. Macron speaks the deracinated language of European technocracy. A former mergers-and-acquisitions banker and graduate of France’s elite school for top civil servants, he is at home with the polite euphemisms that are de rigueur in such circles, where one speaks of “incentivizing investment” rather than abolishing the wealth tax, and of “restoring competitiveness” rather than cutting corporate taxes while asking pensioners to pay more. To the ears of many French voters, Macron’s fluent econo-speak comes with a faint German accent: Part of his reform agenda is borrowed from Germany’s Agenda 2010, which weakened job protections and cut pensions and unemployment benefits. In his lexicon, “structural reform” means what “no pain, no gain” means to a weightlifter: you accept sacrifices now in the hope of reaping rewards later.

Macron won the presidency by infusing these tired technocratic euphemisms with uplifting moral suasion. In the gym, both pain and gain accrue to the same body. In politics, the analogy breaks down: The winners and losers are often different people. Macron sought words capable of transmogrifying individual pains into collective gains. Thus, a fuel tax hike like the one that triggered the Yellow Vests uprising could be presented as the price to be paid for hastening “ecological transition” in the “general interest.” A surtax on pensions would help to end the scourge of youth unemployment. His innovation was to embed familiar technocratic tradeoffs within a moral economy of long-term redemption through short-term suffering.

Marine Le Pen speaks an entirely different language, an earthy Gallic dialect immediately intelligible to those who see themselves as the losers called upon to pay for gains directed mainly to others—those whom Le Pen excoriates as “the arrogant elite,” of which Macron is every inch the embodiment. He is the golden boy—“the spoiled child of the system and the elites,” as Le Pen once called him—who went to all the right schools, pleased all the right superiors, rose rapidly to the top, and won election to the presidency at the age of 39.

The French, with their penchant for putting a twist on Anglicisms, have lately become fond of the phrase parler cash, which means to speak bluntly. Marine Le Pen parle cash: “The emperor has no clothes,” she mocked amidst the Yellow Vest unrest. “When Macron was a candidate, they told us he was a professional, an expert in economics, rigorous to a fault.… In fact, he’s a total amateur, totally unprepared, and totally indecisive.”

Such is Le Pen’s revenge. In the televised debate between the first and second rounds of the presidential election, Macron demolished his opponent’s confused efforts to explain how she would withdraw France from the euro, as she had threatened, while continuing to participate in a “common currency”—the fallback position to which she had retreated when it became apparent in the closing weeks of the campaign that abandoning the euro was an unpopular option. Le Pen became lost in her notes and flailed, trying to parry Macron’s professorial interrogation. Now, Macron finds his policies under relentless interrogation by the Yellow Vests, and Le Pen has been liberated to dismiss as a feckless amateur the “professor” who previously humiliated her.

How can Macron respond? Macronism always rested on the assumption that France’s problems stemmed from being out of step with its European partners. Writing anonymously in Slate’s French edition, a high civil servant at home with Macron’s technocratic idiom put it this way: The driving force behind Macronism is “the feeling that France’s situation is abnormal, especially in regard to the [very high] level of public spending and social protection.” The implicit bargain was that Macron would change France to look more like its European partners; in return, Europe would assume national security and economic regulatory functions that the nation-state could no longer fulfill. But Macron has always been careful to say that he favored not just any Europe but only l’Europe qui protège, the Europe that protects. He has accordingly tried to cast himself as a “progressive,” whereas opponents such as Le Pen and Italian vice-premier Matteo Salvini were “nationalists.”

But so far, the European Union has not taken Macron up on his invitation to position itself as a protector rather than an enforcer, and rhetorical divisions between the French and other Europeans seem to be growing. European leaders I’ve spoken to seem to see the recent uprising as confirmation of Macron’s own description of his countrymen as “Gauls resistant to change.” Macron, meanwhile, has given some ground to the nationalists, saying that one source of the rebels’ anger is their “fear” of  “an ultraliberal [in the sense of “ultracapitalist”] Europe that no longer allows the middle class to live decently”—a rather damning accusation from a man who normally presents himself as a staunch defender of both the European Union and global capitalism. Meanwhile, a temporary respite has set in. The number of demonstrators in the so-called Act Six of the uprising was down sharply, and the emergence of an overtly anti-Semitic element among the protesters has damaged the movement’s image.

Pierre Person, a Macron aide involved in planning the strategy for the May 2019 European parliamentary elections, says that success will hinge on his party’s ability to make Europe’s protective function credible to voters whose fears the president so accurately described. It is hard to see how this can work: France’s European partners, already wary of Macron’s reforms, are now so resistant that when the European Council met in mid-December, Macron’s proposal for increasing the EU budget was dismissed with a one-sentence statement deferring further consideration until next fall. Macron may be willing to consider angry Yellow Vest voices. But in Europe’s high councils, the only acceptable—or salonfähig, to borrow the German term that literally means “acceptable in the drawing room”—language remains that of the technocrats, who continue to insist that one model fits all and no change is required. Astonishingly, the unrest in France has thus far elicited little acknowledgment from Brussels of the need for change in EU governance practices. If President Macron is to win his battle with the populists, he will need allies, yet the EU, having papered over its differences with the populist government in Italy, seems content to pretend that it can continue on its charted course despite the prospect of still more severe turbulence ahead.