Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser for the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy
Friends and foes have called France’s President “Thatcher”. The Gilets Jaunes protests are his miners’ strike.
Last Saturday, an organised mob laid waste to Paris, burning cars, vandalising the Arc de Triomphe and engaging in pitched battles, for which they had travelled to Paris equipped, with riot police.
They had infiltrated and hijacked a drivers’ revolt: the original “yellow jackets” were angry at diesel tax rises and reduced motorway speed limits which they saw as symbols of an urban-based government that imposed the burdens of climate policy without caring for their way of life.
The original discontent had caught Paris off-guard, but the violent assault on the capital, and the extremist demands of some of the decentralised movement’s spokesmen, provide an opportunity for Macron to reset his administration after almost half a year of drift.
While the broad group of demonstrators, whose number has been decreasing over the last several weeks, have grievances that are the stuff of ordinary politics, an increasingly radicalised core, egged on by an official opposition dominated by the extreme right Marine Le Pen and extreme left Jean-Luc Melenchon, has turned revolutionary. One Gilets Jaunes spokesman, Christopher Calençon, has even called for Macron to be replaced by a general.
When the coal miners presented their first demands for higher pay to Thatcher in 1981, she conceded. The country lacked the reserves of coal to keep the lights on and time to convert power stations to burn oil instead. But she ensured that her Government was better prepared for the next confrontation when it came. Arthur Scargill’s decision to call a strike without a ballot divided the miners, stripped the strike of considerable legitimacy and weakened their ability to disrupt industry and power generation.
Scargill wasn’t interested in a policy dispute; he wanted to bring down the democratically elected government of the country. So it is with the violent “casseurs” and their increasingly radicalised spokesmen.
Macron was elected 18 months ago and subsequently won an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly. He has a mandate to reform France and should be given the space to implement his reforms. There is no justification for him to heed calls by Le Pen to resign, or from the “centre” right leader of the Republicains to put the fuel taxes to a referendum. His personal approval ratings may be low, but so are those of his opponents.
With last Saturday’s violence, the Gilets Jaunes have converted themselves from political opposition to a revolutionary movement threatening the democratic institutions of the French Republic. There is increasing evidence that they are being egged on by the far right and that what had been a broad based-movement is being narrowed to a hard knot of fanatics.
This development, though dangerous, is one that Macron can turn to his advantage. There are two issues here: the ordinary politics of tax policy, and the assault on the Republic. France’s constitution allows them to be dealt with separately.
The ordinary politics can – and is – being dealt with by the Prime Minister. A moratorium on the tax increase buys some time. Macron is right not to concede on the principle. Diesel cars will go the way of coal mines as new and cleaner energy generation technologies are brought into use. But the costs of environmental adjustment fall most heavily on people who live in smaller towns and the countryside who already miss out on the fruits of the urban engines of economic growth. Though many of these people are not natural Macron supporters, French political culture expects them to be taken care of, and a mooted increase in the wealth tax may be the way to show solidarity.
The threat to the state, however, is the responsibility of the President, and needs to be met robustly on two levels.
The first is a matter of the exploitation of social institutions. In Thatcher’s time it was labour legislation, which she reformed to limit its use as a tool of political disruption. In our day it’s social media. It has been casually written that the movement formed on social networks. While such insouciance might have been acceptable before Facebook and Twitter had transformed themselves fully into advertising juggernauts, we now know that their algorithms facilitate radicalising propaganda. They are easily abused to funnel people towards extreme positions by stirring up and capitalising on anger. As a friend from Sao Paolo told me reflecting on Saturday’s riots: this feels like what happened in Brazil.
The pattern is a standard one: create chaos, paralyse the authorities, and wait for the people to demand a strongman – a military man, perhaps – to restore order. Three measures are required (with legislation, if French law doesn’t permit this already) to disrupt the anger funnel.
- Social networks should record, and publish in electronically accessible form, the beneficial owner of all advertisements in France. Advertisements themselves should also be made to carry this information.
- They should be made liable for content that incites violence on their platforms. Germany’s NetzDG law provides such mechanisms (though they can be tailored to focus on incitement to violence rather than to operate against hate speech as necessary).
- Courts should be able to order closed discussion groups on Facebook to provide their content and metadata where there is reason to believe they are being used to incite violence against or threats against the institutions of the republic.
The information gleaned should allow for the effective disruption of the anti-republican extremists in the Gilets Jaunes movement.
At the same time, Macron needs to get stuck back into the business of politics. He cannot afford the luxury of a De Gaulle-style “Jupiterian” presidency. Unlike the general, who relied on his personal authority to preside over the crises of decolonisation, Macron is trying to build an ideological reforming movement from the ground up. He needs, in effect, to get back on the domestic campaign trail and make the case, not against the Gilets Jaunes, but for Macronism.
He and his deputies in the Assembly need to make themselves available in their constituencies regularly to argue for his government’s policies. These occasions won’t be glamorous. They will be in the back rooms of bars and restaurants or on plastic chairs in draughty community halls. The chicken will be made of rubber and the coffee vile. But their job isn’t just to be legislators. They’re the people’s deputies and need to live among them.
This needs to be complemented by direct and accurate social media output and further use of mainstream media channels. The party needs to build up its network of regional media officials to organise locally-known activists and spokespeople to get the party’s message across. When her back was against the wall, Thatcher could always rely on the Daily Telegraph to support her. Its presence gave hope to beleaguered supporters and took up space on the political spectrum, and thus helped define where the centre of opinion lay. Where is Macron’s equivalent house journal? Can one be created, bearing in mind technology and the media landscape have changed so it would probably be an online operation?
Finally – and this is an aspect Thatcher understood well – he needs to choose his enemies wisely. A centrist, as the Iron Lady said, apparently quoting Bevan, risks getting run down by traffic in both directions. Macron’s situation is more complicated, and defies road-based metaphor. Politics is shifting from its post-1960s phase where economics was more important than culture, to one where cultural questions dominate but don’t entirely overwhelm economic ones.
The new far right defines itself culturally. Its enemies are not the rich per se, but an urban mobile and educated population who share the characteristics that their predecessors attributed to Jews. Though all this group detest the extreme right, a solid proportion are relatively affluent leftists who still think politics is defined by material inequality and have become disillusioned by Macron. To win them back, his economic reforms need to be accompanied by a rhetorical shift leftwards and a more direct style.
One of the more powerful moments of the 2017 campaign was when he visited a factory and started arguing with the workers. They didn’t agree with him but they respected the fact that he treated them as grown-ups. If his presidency is to succeed, this is the Macron we need to see.