It is always good for the ego and the learning process to revisit bold statements written in the past. This time last year, I wrote in Democratic Twilight that ‘French democracy is in a much better place than its two Atlantic neighbours’
How do you say ‘humble pie’ in French? Humble tarte?
The eruption of two waves of violence in France in the past couple of months – one in reaction to the government (On est lá Macron! ) and the other against the state, has shattered the idea that France is calm politically, though depressingly the US and UK are still not far off the French benchmark.
Having witnessed many of the defining events in Paris in the last ten years (terror attacks, the fire at Notre Dame and many protests to name a few) the latest episode of violence is deeply frustrating. It has implicated many of the facets of French society – its mayors, police, social structure of its cities, its firefighters (tragically) and others. In particular, my frustration is directed at the extreme left to extreme right in French politics and the foreign press.
It is very tempting to spend time assessing who is at fault for this bout of violence, and to wonder how a socio-economic system that is very redistributive and that registers low levels of income inequality, and a city that is seeing massive investment in its suburbs, could prove so fragile at the edges. Many experts and policy officials are busy on this question, so I would rather pose two different ones – why do the French appear to protest so much (and indeed why do other nations not protest), and what are the longer term implications of the rioting for France and its neighbours.
One clue as to why the French appear to protest so much is that the French state is so overwhelmingly present in their lives – it does nearly everything for them. The state provides education, healthcare and pensions and cheap transport, and in most cases does a good job of. It also regulates the lives of its citizens with a fair bit of ‘fait pas ci, fait pas ça’. This relationship leaves little room for flexibility and in general is not one that is built on trust. It is a distant but dependent relationship that provokes friction.
In this context, it is worth noting that France is running out of fiscal space. With government debt rising and state spending (%GDP) close to 60% there is little room to quell discontent with spending. France’s fiscal constraints may soon start to tell, and one way out of this might be political innovation, but perhaps not before more riots. Another alternative would be to emphatically embrace a pro-growth, reindustrialisation economic philosophy, but I don’t see this happening given it is alien to the average French policymaker’s mindset.
Changing policy mindsets is difficult in France, and Emmanuel Macron deserves credit for trying. The debate on pension reform was an attempt to ease the burden on the state, and in that sense is an attempt to ‘modernise’ France fiscally. What is distinctive about France from an international point of view is that the French right do not have strong views on the economy (there are few proponents of low taxes for instance), but tend to get excited on questions of liberty and identity.
For that reason, the recent riots play to the politic of the right (Jean-Luc Melanchon’s left-wing NUPES group has generally lost credibility in the past two weeks)
For the right at very least, the 2027 race for the Elysée has been kick-started by the riots and notably the divide between left and right will grow, with the right becoming a more crowded space.
Having written about the rise of the far-right in last week’s note (Spode), one element I am watching of is the extent to which the main runners on the right (Ciotti, Wauquiez, Philippe) will succumb to the temptation to become more nasty on issues like identity and immigration. Michel Barnier, a normally mild-mannered politician could not resist doing so in 2022, and in the US, Ron DeSanctis has recently recorded a disgraceful anti-gay promotional video.
On the right in France, Edouard Philippe is the front runner, and during his career has shown himself to be dignified, and his patience will be tested by overly simplistic proposals from the far-right. It might be said that the great challenge for politicians for the centre-right is to try to address the multi-faceted aspects of issues like immigration in a thoughtful way, amidst a barrage of bile from the extremes of the political spectrum.
Internationally, the images of the riots (overegged by the foreign press in my view) are damaging for France, and take the allure off its prestige and foreign policy projection. Emmanuel Macron admitted as much, saying such a spectacle would likely not have taken place in Germany.
Yet, while some countries may enjoy the cooling of France’s panache, they must also recognise that the factors that drive the protests – inflation, immigration and integration to name a few, are bubbling up in many other countries, and this weekend have scuppered the government of Mark Rutte in the Netherlands. These factors pose yet another trial in the great democratic recession.