Brexit is a shambles. Brexit may never happen. Brexit no longer means Brexit. How could anyone possibly envy what it is doing to the May government, the Tory party, and the British nation? This is what crowds out everything in the English-speaking press from Europe. And to some degree it is true. But are we missing the bigger story.
When you look across the Channel, you see that the great hope of European centrists and centralizers, Emmanuel Macron, seems to have lost control of his country. The Yellow Vest protests and associated unrest have claimed a dozen lives in France. This week Macron will unveil a new suite of policies, and he is promising “profound changes.” But this is his second time promising a major overhaul of the French economic system.
Macron was elected while promising a “Jupiterian” presidency. Seriously, he used that word. But recently he is reduced to giving hours-long speeches that remind one of a Cold War Communist functionary. This was billed as a listening tour. Here cometh the man, trying to breathe life into a dead political paradigm. But no amount of hot air can restore it. An IFOP poll released last week showed 85 percent of French people think Macron should pay more attention to their concerns. A Pew poll conducted last year showed that 80 percent of French people believe children living in France today will be worse off financially than their parents. Half of French people say their own financial situation has gotten worse or a lot worse in the last year alone.
The protests forced Macron to rewrite his budgets. He introduced a 10-billion-euro package of tax cuts and income rebates that broke E.U. budgetary rules. The offer of forgiveness came quickly from Brussels, but the whole mess highlighted the hypocrisy of a European Union that blesses French profligacy in one breath and punishes the Italian sort in the next. And even this hasn’t satisfied his critics. Many of the competing spokespeople of the Yellow Vests have torn into Macron because he refused their demand for imposing a “solidarity tax” on the rich. Another French public-opinion poll found that 75 percent of French people agree that Macron can be called a “president for the rich.”
The entire program that Macron ran on — the one that so excited centrists of all parties across Europe — is dead. Except for one item: privatization. Shouldn’t American conservatives be excited about privatization coming to the French economy? Given the French record on privatization, probably not. When French politicians talk about privatizing state assets, the result is almost never the creation of a competitive market that drives up quality and drives down prices for service. Instead, the result is giving friends from school — part of the clubbable Parisian elite — a license to extract wealth out of a state asset, with the implicit promise of taxpayer-funded bailouts when the enterprise grinds to a halt. Next on the agenda is selling part of the government’s stake in French airports. A sale of government-run French roads led to declines in road quality and massive toll hikes after 2005. The company that bought it, Vinci, is considered to be a front-runner for the stake in French airports.
Macron’s failure is toxic for the center-left and center-right that want to revive the European Project. His great unpopularity is further discrediting his dreams of a “Renaissance” for the European Union itself. And his tin-eared response to domestic unrest is setting up a European election that may see France send loads of Euroskeptic MEPs to Brussels, where they will be joined by more coming in from Italy and beyond.
And it is reason for the rest of the world to have a rethink. History erupts in Paris first, and then it spreads. An old order dies and is reborn as a new one. Macron is hoping that even if his popularity is dipping below 20 percent, he can win again if the alternative is Marine Le Pen and her far-right Rassemblement national. But in fact, the alternative may be socialist Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In Macron’s failures, I see one potential future coming into view: Mélenchon in France, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, and Bernie Sanders in the U.S.