Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel

Macron Gains As Yellow Vests Turn More Extreme

The French conservatives may have reservations about the President. But they see him as « one of them ».



Foreigners aren’t alone in being puzzled by France’s “winter of discontent,” as the protracted Yellow Vests protests against President Emmanuel Macron have come to be called. Most of the French themselves don’t quite know how to make sense of it.


An easy explanation is that the country is passing again through some revolutionary or near revolutionary unrest. It has been calculated that crises of that sort have been occurring on average every ten or fifteen years: the price to pay, perhaps, for having turned the storming of the Bastille in 1789 into a national myth.


De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic was established in 1958 in the wake of a settlers and soldiers uprising in Algeria, which was still a French colony at the time. Ten years later, in 1968, students riots almost disposed of de Gaulle. Further crises have been unfolding cyclically ever since then, under variegated pretexts, and with changing protagonists.


Successive French administrations, both Right and Left, have learnt to surrender to popular demand up to a point, in order to stay in business. This is why, incidentally, it has been so difficult to pass or implement badly needed reforms.


The Yellow Vests crisis, however, does not quite follow this pattern. It is more violent, and more radical. It may have started as a modest tax revolt – against the rise of diesel fuel – but has soon developed into a coalition or coalescence of Far Right and Far Left protesters. In American terms, imagine an alliance of the Tea Party, Bernie Sanders, and Islamists.


Jerome Fourquet, a political analyst at the Ifop polling agency, suggests in a recently released book, “L’Archipel français (French Archipelago),” that it has to do with the disintegration of France as a nation-state, under the combined pressure of the EU bureaucracy and mass immigration. He quotes surprising and ominous figures from recent Ifop polls: 67% of the French are indifferent to “republican values,” and 66 % to the “national identity” issue.


Yet the protesters have not been able to topple the administration of President Macron, or to exact any substantial concession. On the contrary, the more violent and extreme — and even, in notable instances, ugly — they grow, the more they seem to strengthen the president.


Mr. Macron is usually described as a “centrist.” Indeed, his mantra is to draw “at the same time” from conservative and liberal ideas. And his hastily improvised party, La République en Marche, which won an overwhelming mandate in the parliamentary elections that followed the presidential election in 2017, is a patchwork of both former Gaullists and former socialists.


His wild card is that the French classic conservatives — still a consequential constituency — like him a lot and see him as one of them, more so in fact than the French liberals. He is a Catholic (he was baptized at the age of 12, on his own insistence). He went to a Catholic school. He was an aide to Paul Ricoeur, a Christian philosopher. His much older wife (whatever one may think about this marriage) stems from a provincial, Catholic, traditional and wealthy milieu: the heart of conservative France.


Mr. Macron picked up a conservative prime minister (Edouard Philippe) and several conservative senior ministers. Even his ex-socialist senior ministers (Jean-Yves Le Drian, for instance) are conservative by their own standards.


Moreover, the policies of Mr. Macron’s administration have been consistently conservative in many respects, especially in economic matters. He abolished the special tax on wealth, launched a complete overhaul of the retirement system, and started a no nonsense reform of public education. Many conservatives say that he is doing the job that classic conservative presidents, such as Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, repeatedly promised but repeatedly failed to deliver.


Conservative support for Mr. Macron plummeted between May and December 2018, because of an opaque scandal involving a presidential aide and inappropriate behavior and talking. Conservative support, though, is rising again in face of the Yellow Vests. What conservatives certainly do not like is the rule of mob.


The French conservatives are currently split into three subgroups: one third joined La République en Marche or openly supports Macron ; another third still supports an ailing conservative party, Les Républicains, but would not be adverse to some alliance with Mr. Macron in the future; the last third is turning to Marine Le Pen's National Rally or, in growing numbers, to Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s neo-conservative party Debout la France. Mr. Macron's ultimate strategy is to consolidate or win the support of the first two of the thirds.


Everything Mr. Macron does now is to be understood within this framework, including his proposals to salvage the European Union. The French conservatives may resent many European policies and the concept of a federal Europe, but they do not believe in a French Brexit or in withdrawing from the eurozone.


Even Marine Le Pen realizes by now that this is the main reason why she lost in 2017. What is instead gaining in popularity among French Eurosceptics is the Italian model — staying in Europe but enforcing a different agenda, with more attention to the individual nations’ rights and identities.


Michel Gurfinkiel, a French public intellectual, is the President and Founder of Colloquium Jean Bodin, and a Ginsberg-Ingerman Fellow at Middle East Forum.


© Michel Gurfinkiel & The New York Sun, 2019


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