French President Emmanuel Macron is at a pivotal point in his presidency. Since November of last year the gilets jaunes have steadily and determinedly challenged his efforts to implement further aspects of his program. The gilets jaunes themselves are a popular, and possibly populist, uprising that presents itself in opposition to the established order in France and draws its support from extreme, and more moderate, elements of both the left and the right. What began as a protest against increased fuel costs has morphed into a broader challenge to the French state as it currently exists. At each step along the way, Macron has been slow to respond, so slow that he has been unable to get in front of events and has allowed the protests to grow into the existential threat they currently are. His own arrogance has played a significant role in this so far; his refusal to hear the grievances of regular people in the beginning gave the protests space to develop. When he finally did cave to the pressure over the fuel tax in December it was too little too late – the gilets jaunes had already moved on, increasing their demands. This cycle has been characteristic of Macron during the three months since the first demonstrators took to the streets, and it has placed him in a position where he must now make an existential choice. Facing pressure from both the left and the right in equal measure, he has placated no one and effectively alienated moderates from all sides. He has boxed himself into what can only be characterised as his Feuillant moment and he must begin to actually hear what the people want if he is to escape with any semblance of security.
Moderatism at all costs
The Feuillants were a political group born from the French revolution. They emerged from a schism within the Jacobin club between moderate representatives and more radical democrats. The moderates who went on to form the Feuillant club were, ironically, opposed to the continued activities of the popular political societies – like the Jacobins – which they viewed as harmful to the revolution. While they acknowledged the importance of popular efforts in bringing about the constitution of 1791 and in the revolution more broadly, they argued that their time was past and it was up to elected representative to steer the future course of events. They would struggle for the rest of 1791 with the radical Jacobins over the control of the provincial affiliate clubs. Ultimately, they would lose this effort in no small part due to their conviction that the popular societies be sidelined.
The supposedly moderate position of the Feuillants alienated them from both the more democratically-minded radicals and the absolutist monarchists – who fundamentally disagreed with the revolution. This position reduced their appeal to everyone other than the king himself, who brought prominent leaders of the Feuillants in to the government, creating the one and only Feuillant ministry during the revolution. The acceptance of this elite patronage would return to assist in their undoing as it further aligned them with those who would become the enemies of the revolution and did nothing to ingratiate them to the other side, the resolute monarchists.
In the end, the Feuillants were doomed by their intransigence and inability to hear the demands of the people – whether those on the left or the right – which caused them to misalign themselves politically. The result was their failure to cultivate a political base to support their cause. In 1792, after the king was overthrown, a list of 841 Feuillants was published accusing them of treason, monarchism, and aristocracy. Unlike many of the other victims of the revolution, no tears were shed when they were marched to the guillotine.
Macron faces a similar predicament now. In his efforts to get elected he was able to unite moderate centrists and the left in support of reform and opposition to the threat of the far-right. He has squandered this coalition through not fulfilling central promises and instead reforming society in favour of existing elites. This was not his promised ‘revolution’ and he is currently paying the price.
Une révolution sans revolution
A large part of what has placed Macron in this position is his attitude towards governing and popular opinion. Like the Feuillants before him, he has resisted hearing what the population he purports to govern wants and has pressed ahead with his own vision and philosophy. This has been compounded by a, not unjustified, feeling among the electorate that he sold them a lie. This is most evident in the selective way he has pursued his policy changes – selective to the point of fostering suspicion about who his supposed ‘revolution’ was really for.
His imperious way of governing is well known, but it manifests largely as an indifference towards the concerns of common people. Like the Feuillants, he seems to ignore the clamouring of the people to be heard and have their concerns addressed. There is no room in his revolution from the centre for popular democracy after its help was exploited to elect him. He has repeatedly expressed ambivalence towards his popularity in polls, arguing that he was elected for a fixed term and is unconcerned about what people think until he faces the electorate again. The gilets jaunes are, in part, a response to this. They are a digitally enhanced popular movement that values an unconstrained connection to the people. As with his revolutionary forebears, this could pose an increasingly problematic challenge to his rule.
Compounding this is his failure to deliver on major platform promises he made during the election. His much touted labour reform significantly liberalises French labour law, making it much easier for firms to hire and fire workers, but the accompanying support for workers and retraining programs that were promised have yet to materialise. Similarly, he has slashed the wealth tax, narrowing its reach from all assets over 1.3m euros to only real estate – effectively handing the wealthy a huge tax break. At the same time, neither his promised tax relief for workers and low-income people nor his promised increased public services have been implemented. These policies have quickly led to him gaining the moniker “president of the rich” and they do little to change the perception that he is out of touch with regular people.
Even the policies that he has introduced in an effort to placate the protesters have the air of second-rate efforts. The promised wage hike is simply a re-announcement of a policy that was already being implemented; the tax cuts for pensioners only apply to the absolute poorest due to a technical loophole in the calculation of income; and the other proposed benefits for low-income workers were proposals that had been planned for the better part of a year. Understandably, this lack of any new concessions has done little to placate the angry protesters. It also potentially speaks to a disdain for citizens themselves – the assumption that he could pass off existing programs as new policies is a politically tone-deaf move that indicates either profound arrogance or complete ineptitude.
Largely, people are angry that Macron’s revolution seems to be nothing of the sort. His obstinance in opposition to the demands of the electorate, like the Feuillants before him, is dooming him to unpopularity and when he has changed aspects of the existing order it seems to only be in favour of the elite. His approval ratings have collapsed, harder and faster than any president before him and they currently show no sign of recovery. Macron now faces a choice, whether to follow his current course to the end or to break with his stubbornness and hear the will of the people.
None can reign innocently
This is a pivotal point for Macron’s tenure as president. He is not yet in an irrevocable situation but if he leaves things to progress in the way they have been it could quickly spiral out of control. The two broad choices he faces are to heed the calls of the protesters by placating, and hopefully coopting, their more moderate elements in his struggle against whatever systemic problems he wishes to fix or he can retrench and continue with his philosophically high-minded but antagonistic approach.
The first of these two paths would bring about the best outcome for both himself and likely the large majority of France’s citizens. It would involve listening to, and actually hearing, the demands and needs of the people he purports to lead – something that he has been unwilling to do – and shifting his approach to accommodate their grievances. His new tour of the country is a first step in this direction, but the way in which he uses the opportunity it provides will determine its success or failure. Aligning, even marginally, with some of the more centrist gilets jaunes could help recalibrate his proposed reforms and assist him in any future confrontation with the guardians of the established order. This could be the course that actually brings about his promised ‘revolution’ if that is truly his goal.
Staying the course, on the other hand, will be problematic for his agenda and regime. His slow responses to the protests to date, if continued, will only create more hostility to him and whatever program he wishes to move forward with. This series of events could, if left to spiral out of control, frustrate his entire presidency – removing any remaining legitimacy from his mandate. In the extreme, struggling on in the face of growing popular hatred would only turn more citizens against the established system and could foster increased support for the more extreme, and revolutionary, ideas that were aired during the presidential campaign – particularly the rewriting of the constitution and the end of the Fifth Republic.
Given the stark choices, the path forward should seem obvious. Unfortunately, neither he nor his administration shows any concrete signs of recognising this. Macron is currently on a tour of the country, listening to grievances aired at town hall meetings. This is a good first step, but it appears that his administration is not yet acting on the complaints it is receiving. This tour could very well turn into simply a public relations exercise, resulting in further feelings of betrayal by citizens. At the current rate, Macron and his government could still blunder along the second, more chaotic, path whether they intend to or not. Preventing this and choosing to change course would be an act of leadership worthy of the type of president Macron has said he wants to be. The question becomes, is he the visionary he claims or can he not see past his own ego?
Macron is facing his Feuillant moment, the one where he can choose stubbornness in the face of what the population wants – supporting unpopular elements and ideas; or he can bend and join the anger against unpopular gatekeepers and establishment forces to bring about a truly revolutionary change in the governance of France. The Feuillants refused to see the truth about the political ground they occupied and paid an extreme price for it. Hopefully, for his program and for the people of France, Macron gains a modest amount of humility and understanding of his position. A president, even a De Gaullist president, must govern with the will of the people.