Emmanuel Macron was born nearly a decade after the 1968 protests and strikes that shook France more than a half-century ago, threatening the presidency of Charles de Gaulle and bringing the country to a halt, but the 41-year-old president’s first few years in office have been highly reminiscent of that turbulent period in French history.
Since becoming president two and a half years ago, the country has been plagued by social unrest and historic protests, starting with the yellow vest (gilets jaunes) movement that erupted over a year ago, and continuing last week with a massive national strike. At least 800,000 people took to the streets across France Dec. 5 to protest the president’s plan to overhaul the country’s pension system, which could push up the retirement age and reduce benefits for millions of French public workers. The strikes have since continued, and on Wednesday, the government officially introduced its plan, leading French unions to call for more strikes. It has been the country’s biggest week of demonstrations since Macron became president, and it comes after more than a year of steady yellow vest protests against the president’s neoliberal economic policies.
The yellow vest movement, which began in October 2018, has caused some of the worst social unrest in Paris since 1968, and has continued far longer than the protests that shook the nation 50 years ago. The past week’s strikes have been even more disruptive, especially to the economy, shutting down trains, flights, schools and museums.
Halfway through his five-year term, Macron, who was billed as the great liberal bulwark against the rising tide of right-wing populism back in 2017, has managed to revive the great protest tradition in France. He also has made it increasingly likely that his 2017 opponent, the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, will come back stronger and even more powerful over the next few years. A French public opinion survey published last month, for example, revealed that Le Pen is gaining in the polls as Macron bleeds support. In the poll, Le Pen is projected to win the first round of the 2022 election, and though Macron still wins easily in the second round, he is down from 66% in 2017 to 55%, while Le Pen is up from 34% to 45%.
Commenting on the poll, Arnaud Montebourg—Macron’s predecessor as finance minister under Francois Hollande’s government—remarked that two years of “Macronism” had already boosted Le Pen by 11 points, and “with a little more effort, Mr Macron will pave the way for a Le Pen victory.” The president “isn’t a rampart against the RN [Le Pen’s National Rally party],” he said, but “a propeller for the RN.”
This trend was rather predictable, and many on the left did in fact predict what is currently transpiring under Macron. Though he ran as an outsider candidate in 2017, creating his own party and promising a new and innovative approach to governing that would transform France into a “startup nation” (as if he could run the government like a startup), it was easy to see that he represented continuity over change. Most French voters recognized this, but grudgingly voted for the lesser of two evils. Like the two front-runners in the 2016 American election, Macron and Le Pen were both widely disliked, resulting in the lowest voter turnout in almost 50 years. Macron’s victory was hardly a triumph over far-right populism, as so many centrists and liberals were eager to believe just a few months after Trump’s devastating win in the United States.
In just a few years Macron has shown us exactly how not to combat right-wing populism and nationalism. Earlier this year, Le Pen’s RN came in first in the European Parliament elections, ahead of Macron’s centrist party, with the highest turnout for the European elections in France in decades. Now, as protests and strikes continue to erupt, the far-right leader will attempt to exploit popular anger to benefit her own agenda. And with a president like Macron, who shows arrogant disdain in the face of any criticism, Le Pen will have the perfect foil for her right-wing populist narrative.
In America, Democrats should be paying close attention to what is happening in France, especially with an election coming up against our own right-wing demagogue. If there is any presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries who most resembles Macron, it is South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who, if successful, would be around the same age as the French president was when he was elected in 2017. Like Macron, Buttigieg is fawned over by the press for his precocious intelligence, and the 37-year-old presents himself as an outsider as he recycles the same old centrist talking points. While Macron studied at France’s elite École nationale and started his career as an investment banker for Rothschild & Co., Buttigieg went to Harvard before cutting his teeth at McKinsey & Company. And like the startup president, Buttigieg is popular with tech billionaires and is Silicon Valley’s favorite candidate.
When Macron won in 2017, many American liberals said that Democrats needed their own version of Macron, and Buttigieg seems to fit the bill. But Democrats should be careful what they wish for. The current chaos in France is showing no signs of letting up, and with only 27% of French citizens expressing trust in Macron, according to a poll taken shortly before the Dec. 5 strike, the young president seems to be feeding the populist beast rather than taming it.
The strikes are set to continue indefinitely, and with a president who sees himself as the CEO of a startup corporation rather than a servant of the people, things will likely get worse before they get any better. For liberals watching from across the Atlantic, the lesson should be clear.
Conor Lynch is a freelance writer and journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Week, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter…