In a 150 minute, Macronsplaining marathon, the President promised to “rebuild the art of being French”.
The art of being French, whatever it may be, does not extend to national unity.
Togetherness-in-grief after the Notre Dame fire endured for two days. Emmanuel Macron’s plan for a more “human” Act Two of his presidency was instantly and predictably torn apart by Gilets Jaunes leaders.
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Macron's proposals are unlikely to appease the hard core of the Gilets Jaunes. Photo: AFP
The proposals, intended to answer the Yellow Vest rebellion and relaunch his presidency, were also rejected by opposition politicians as “vague…insufficient…merely crumbs.” A spot poll for Le Figaro found that 63 per cent of those questioned thought that Macron’s performance during a two and half hour press conference at the Elysée Palace was “unconvincing”.
A complete failure then? Not necessarily.
President Macron was never likely to abandon the state-shrinking programme on which he was elected in 2017. Important parts of it, such as reform of the country’s byzantine labour laws, have already been enacted.
He went further than many people had expected in responding to the Gilets Jaunes and to the ideas and grievances which emerged during the Great National Debate that he launched in January.
Substantial income tax cuts for middling earners next year; a minimum €1,000 a month pension (which British OAPs could only dream of); better grouped and organised public services in rural areas; a dose of proportional representation in parliamentary elections; an advisory body on action against climate change composed of 250 people chosen at random; more help for abandoned mothers and children; school classes for five to eight-year-olds limited to 24 places; a lower bar and simpler rules for demanding referenda.
He also added a couple of shameless appeals to voters on the centre right before the European elections on May 26th: a tougher approach to illegal migration and a promise to defend the secular French state against “political Islam”.
The press conference replaced a TV address that Macron was supposed to make on the night of the Notre Dame fire. Many of the proposals had leaked in the intervening ten days.
The President spoke for more than an hour before taking questions. He admitted to making mistakes. He apologised for some of his past “wounding” comments to members of the public.
Whatever one may think of Macron’s politics or his occasional arrogance and glibness, this was an extraordinarily energetic and assured performance. Neither the current British Prime Minister nor the current US President could have mastered the detail of so many disparate subjects for so long.
To try to make a rag-tag catalogue of proposals appear to be a coherent programme, Macron invoked the spirit of Notre Dame, without mentioning the wounded cathedral by name. France must “rediscover the art of being French”, he said. It must learn how to defend the “permanences” of French life in a world in which certainties had disappeared.
The president was hoping to capitalise on the spirit of 'national unity' after the Notre-Dame blaze. Photo: AFP
The President said that he was more than ever convinced that his original reform programme – shifting the French social and political dial away from “protection” and towards “opportunity” and “responsibility” – was justified. His reforms were beginning to work with the creation of tens of thousands of permanent-contract jobs.
All the same, Macron said that he accepted that “Act 2 of his presidency” (note the theft of Gilets Jaunes terminology) must be more “human” and do more to help the poor, rural areas and the struggling lower middle classes. New approaches were also needed to close the gulf between citizens and the governing elite.
The more radical and emblematic Gilets Jaunes demands were rejected. There will be no “Citizens’ Initiative Referenda” or popular government online; no big one-off increase in the minimum wage; no abolition of VAT on food and other basic necessities.
Overall, the proposals seem well-judged – or perhaps cynically calculated.
Macron’s plan was not aimed at the diehard Gilets Jaunes who are still turning out for a series of weakening Saturday putsches (20,000 to 30,000 in recent weekends, compared to 280,000 in November). The remaining GJ’s are, in any case, unreachable.
The movement has mutated from its category-defying, rural and outer-suburban origins to something more urban, more traditional and hard left. The Gilets Jaunes and Black Bloc left-anarchist allies will doubtless seek to cause mayhem during the Labour Day demonstrations on May 1st (next Wednesday). They will continue to protest for many weeks to come because protest is now their only identity.
They are no longer a threat to Macron or French democracy.
Macron’s plan was aimed at those who sympathise with the original grievances of the movement and at stay-at-home GJ’s who have abandoned the early roundabout or city centre protests of November and December.
It was also clearly aimed at swing voters, especially centre-right swing voters, in the European elections on May 26th.
To “relaunch” his presidency Macron needs the symbolism of a “victory” for his La République en Marche party. To top the poll on May 26th, he does not need to unite a quarrelsome nation.
He does not need to repeat the 66 percent that he scored in the second round of the presidential election two years ago. He needs something like the 24 percent that he scored in the first round.
Polls already put Macron’s LREM at 21 to 23 percent, just ahead of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National.
Can Macron’s income tax cut and other concessions give him the couple of extra points that he needs? Probably.