Macron’s overhaul of pensions is a response to what the French conservative right has wanted to accomplish for two decades, without success. De Gaulle used to say, “Between me and the Communists, nothing,” by which he meant: as long as his only opponent was the Communist Party, he would always keep power. Macron believes that social democracy is no longer a threat to his rule. So, if he succeeds in siphoning off most of the old conservative and center-right voters, the Gaullists and the Sarkozy-ites, then there will be nothing between him and Marine Le Pen. If populist far right is his only opponent, he will always win. It’s a risky game.
The concessions Macron’s government has granted to placate the Yellow Vests’ demands—a six-month moratorium on fuel-tax hikes, followed by its outright cancellation—seem too little, too late. “Doesn’t anybody up there get that we’re all on anxiety meds because we’re that miserable?” asked one protester. “We’re not asking for the moon, we just want to have decent lives.” As one protester said last night, “If President Macron is confident in his proposals, he should submit them to a referendum. We’ll see the result.”
The Ramadan Affair has reopened the historical split over laïcité within the French left, but the dispute has found new grounds—about whether national identity is something fixed or evolving, about what place Muslims and immigrants have in the country’s future. These cleavages, which divide not only the French left but society in general, are something Emmanuel Macron had hoped to elude. But today, in the wake of the Ramadan Affair, Macron finds himself caught up in the return of this controversy. If President Macron fails to pull the country out of its socio-economic doldrums, he will have to face a dangerously sharpened identity politics.
Among the many ideas put forward by Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, was to institute an annual speech to the French parliament, a sort of State of the Union à la française. He also introduced a raft of bold proposals for streamlining government. But even bolder than his proposals was the speech itself, and the American-style executive it seemed to usher in.