I was on a train from Bratislava to Budapest recently when I found myself contemplating France and its recent predicament. The purpose of my journey through central Europe was to observe the seeds of the “illiberal democracy” that is proclaimed by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and challenged by Emmanuel Macron. I’d travelled from my mature democracy to a region of Europe where autocratic nationalists have firmed up their power by playing on people’s fears and resentment.
My perspective is that of a privileged French woman born on the right side of the iron curtain. I come from the birthplace of human rights, and was going to talk with people who have elected leaders who oppose the values of public freedom and tolerance of difference, equality between women and men, checks and balances – everything that represents the strength and unity of Europe. My country France is governed by a young, democratic and charismatic president. And so I felt affection, sadness and anxiety for them, as they were not lucky enough to live on our side of the continent.
But it was also on that train that I read about the events taking place in France: the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protests. I saw the anger and distress of a middle class hounded out of gentrified cities, caught out by the disappearance of public services and local shops, knocked for six by unemployment, and pushed to the limit by a threadbare purchasing power.
What I also saw was the political expression of hateful violence – racist and homophobic, with echoes of France’s 1950s populist “poujadist” movement. This was the simmering violence of a country split down the middle between the towns and the suburbs, between elites and the common people, between the winners and losers of globalisation; a country on the verge of exploding, characterised by the resentment and radicalisation that have been piling up year by year.
The train made a stop in Visegrád, the birthplace of the Visegrád Group – the coalition of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia which has become notorious for rejecting any form of European solidarity over migrants. Macron pointed the finger at the Visegrád Group when he denounced the “populist and nationalist leprosy” on the rise in Europe.
The trouble is, this young president has now lost touch. Pulling in to Visegrád station, my anxiety changed direction. Where is the leprosy? Is it in Europe’s east or west? For those who, like myself, see no other solution than a unified Europe in a globalised world, a Europe facing China and Russia and deprived of the support of the United States, Macron was like a gift from heaven. In 2017 the uproarious French presidential election had at one point seemed likely to come down to a showdown between Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who have more similarities than differences – particularly in their shared hatred of the EU. The man who beat both was this reformer who came out of the blue with neither a party nor a political base.
In a politically moribund landscape, Macron was the sole bearer of optimistic values – the opposite of populist parties that feed off their hatred of the system and elites. And yet he conquered the Elysée by defending as a priority the unpopular European project – a high-risk strategy.
Now the carriage has turned into a pumpkin. Macron’s popularity has plummeted to 26%. Opinion polls for the 2019 European parliament elections predict that Le Pen’s National Rally will be level with Macron’s La République En Marche – if not far ahead. According to political scientist Pascal Perrineau, he has lost three parts of his voter base: the left and the centre-left through his fiscal measures in favour of the rich; pensioners who have suffered cuts; and the middle classes and young voters. With these last ones, the bottom is falling out of Macronism: there is no longer any centrism as defined by Macron’s famous “at the same time” expression.
Our presidents have often been laden with an original sin. Nicolas Sarkozy remained tainted by an early episode in which he holidayed on a billionaire’s yacht, and François Hollande’s image was tarnished by his initial fiscal policies. Macron has lost – paradoxically – by forgetting his own “at the same time” slogan: tax handouts to rich investors (a flat tax on capital) were not balanced by a gesture to France’s poorest. It slipped his mind. And he hadn’t realised that a large proportion of middle-class people were at the end of their tether.
His phrases stigmatising “people who are nothing” and claiming “I only have to cross the street and I can find you a job” didn’t help, and the diesel revolt was the final straw. Because of his political inexperience, his intellectual arrogance, his hubris, and by taking himself for a solitary Jupiterian hero, Macron has locked himself into the image of the president of the rich. Now, France – which prefers equality to freedom – is slapping him in the face.
Macronism was magnificent – but so far it has failed. I get the feeling of a huge waste. Walking down the Champs Elysées last Sunday and seeing the rioters’ destruction from the night before offered a hint of what we have ended up with. The most anti-populist leader France could have hoped for finds himself actually reinforcing populism. And the experience of his centrist cousins doesn’t bode well: Barack Obama gave rise to Donald Trump, Matteo Renzi to Matteo Salvini, and Angela Merkel’s departure could result in chaos.
Is Macron leading us towards an Italian scenario? “I hear everyone’s anger,” he told an assembly of mayors last week. Let’s hope so. Multilateralism is disappearing, great powers are flexing their muscles, and Europe is splitting at the seams just when we need it most. Ironically, it took Brexit for the British to realise it – a bit too late.
Marion Van Renterghem is a French journalist.