Macron must write a new national story for France

Macron must write a new national story for France

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte walk outside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 16, 2019. (AFP)

Only minutes before the Notre-Dame Cathedral went up in flames last month, French President Emmanuel Macron was recording a solemn message to the nation. In what was expected to be a highly anticipated address, the president was to outline his plan to end the months of protests that have crippled France. The speech never made it on to television. Gifted the mother of all political diversions, Macron rushed to the 850-year-old Parisian landmark, vowing to rebuild the charred building, with scant reference to repairing the divided nation. 

Within 24 hours of the fire, France’s three wealthiest families had pledged a staggering €500 million ($558 million) to repair the building. Lauded by the president for invoking patriotism, the donations soon rose to over €700 million, as France’s great and good stressed the importance of their cultural heritage. Such generosity baffled many in France, especially the core of the “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) protesters, who initially demonstrated against an increase in fuel prices by a few cents. To them, the “president of the very rich,” as dubbed by his predecessor, has completely failed to heed their concerns and fears, instead darting to the cause of Notre-Dame without seeing that his nation also requires urgent repairs.

In the shelved speech, which was leaked to AFP, Macron spoke of plans to lower taxes for the middle classes, paid for apparently by cracking down on tax evasion and through a review of his highly unpopular decision to cut a “fortune solidarity tax” on high earners. However, such announcements, had they been made, would have done little to appease protesters drawn largely from peripheral towns, cities and rural areas across France, including many women and single mothers.

Most of the protesters are the secretaries, IT workers, factory workers, delivery workers and care workers who make up the backbone of France. Their essential challenge is that, despite being hardworking people, their low incomes hold them back. A tax system perceived as unfair, unrealistic fuel taxes, an out-of-date minimum wage, and tax cuts for the wealthy have led to calls for Parliament to be dissolved and Macron to resign.

Macron darted to the cause of Notre-Dame without seeing that his nation also requires urgent repairs.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The president has seemed unable to rally his people around his pro-business agenda and, as the demands of the demonstrators increase, it is clear that France’s divisions run deep.

All nations have a national story; a narrative that, through good times and bad, gives their people cause and purpose. Great nations like France have deeply instilled identities, developed over centuries. France’s national story is at the center of its modern challenges — the equitable, forward-thinking and successful republic that was born from the tyranny of absolutism is failing in one of its founding principles: Equality.

A long line of French intellectuals have positioned France as the inheritor of the glory of Rome, its “eldest daughter,” a robust republic with domestic ingenuity and a muscular state to match. However, as the elite philosophize as to the genesis of their republic, the Yellow Vests — much like the immigrant communities that have periodically descended into violence — are expressing that wider France and the suburbs have been left behind. The many merits of globalization are lost on communities whose livelihoods have been negatively impacted by France’s shrinking prosperity.

Macron is in a bind. The 41-year-old pro-business, pro-Europe centrist has staked his political future on insisting he would never give into popular protests. To him, the French state cannot continue lurching from slowdown to slowdown, whilst the public enjoy some of the shortest working hours in the world, lulled into a false sense of comfort by generous public services and bulletproof labor laws that make firing a nightmare for any employer.

France must move forward, but as the leader of a party that was styled as a grassroots movement to listen to the people, the president will have to make short-term concessions to address the concerns of ordinary working people. For an immigrant population that is in the millions and for the 80 percent of people that do not live in the capital, Macron must write a national story that will allow a once-great nation to thrive on its diversity, just like the Rome its intellectuals aspire for it to be.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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