Macron’s crisis in France is a danger to all of Europ
Natalie Nougayrède, Guardian columnist/The Guardian,UK
Extreme forces are rejoicing over the president’s predicament. Their ultimate goal is a political takeover of the continent
For Europe’s sake, Emmanuel Macron needs help – not our scorn or hatred. A young, reformist French president who promised a “European renaissance” finds himself struggling at the helm of a country that is fast becoming “the sick man of Europe” again. It was a telling moment last weekend when rioters disfigured the face of a statue of Marianne, the republic’s symbol, at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Just three weeks earlier, world leaders had gathered there with Macron for the centenary of the Armistice. If the “sad passions” that Macron has warned of many times take hold in France, an entire continent will be affected – not just one man’s political career.Extreme forces across Europe are busily rejoicing over Macron’s gilets jaunes predicament. From Britain’s hardline Brexiters (both left and right) to Italy’s far-right strongman Matteo Salvini, not to mention Putin’s propaganda outlets, the relish is unmistakable. Upheaval and chaos in liberal democracies is what they thrive on. The prize the extremists seek is a political takeover of Europe in next May’s European parliament elections. Events in France are ominous, and their significance extends far beyond one country’s borders.
Not long ago, Macron proudly branded himself as the arch enemy of Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, two leaders whose trademark policies target migrants, political opponents and the rule of law. Macron is weakened, on the defensive, and ever more isolated.
Scenes in France these past two weeks may seem, to some, like a revival of the May 1968 uprising, but a more pertinent parallel may be 6 February 1934. That day, gangs of far-right nationalists marched on the French capital and clashed with the police in violence that left 15 dead. The events of the day served as a founding myth for that generation of France’s far right.
Macron has certainly made mistakes. Most of the protesters have genuine, if chaotically expressed, grievances. They consider themselves the “invisible” people treated with contempt by Parisian elites, and now they’ve made themselves very visible with their fluorescent vests. Public opinion is behind them.One of their most eloquent members is Ingrid Levavasseur, a young nurse and single mother of two from Normandy. Last week she spoke movingly on television of her struggle to make ends meet, and of her sense of deep injustice: “Some people complain that we block roads, but they don’t complain when they’re stuck in traffic jams on their way to ski resorts, do they?” she asked softly.But France’s crisis has more sinister undercurrents, embodied by another gilets jaunes spokesperson, Christophe Chalençon. A blacksmith from the southern Vaucluse region, Chalençon is openly anti-Muslim and has called for a military-led government to be installed – “because a true commander, a general, a strong hand is what we need”. Far-right outfits such as Action Française are meanwhile trying to make a comeback.Today’s announcement that tax rises would be suspended is probably too little, too late. French anxieties are threefold. There is the fear of losing power and prestige; the fear of the economic impact of globalisation, and the fear of losing a “national identity”. The country also suffers from deep domestic fault lines which one president alone could hardly heal in just eighteen months.Entire social groups feel pitted against one another: young versus old, unemployed versus employed, rural versus urban, unqualified versus educated. Such divisions exist in many countries, but in France they take on an existential dimension because of the ideal of egalitarianism historically associated with the republic. Many French people feel reality doesn’t reflect what they are entitled to have.When Macron ran for office in 2017, he promised a “revolution” (it was even the title of his campaign book) to address a widespread need for domestic renewal and a rebooting of French prestige, not least on the European stage.