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 neighbors
How do you say “humble pie” in French? Modest tart?
Two waves of violence have erupted in France over the past two months – one as a response to the government (In Macron! ) and the other against the state, shattering the notion that France is politically quiet, even though the US and UK are still far from the French standard.
Paris is burning
Having witnessed so many defining events in Paris in the past 10 years (terrorist attacks, Notre Dame fire and numerous protests to name a few) the latest episode of violence is very frustrating. It has implicated many aspects of French society — the mayors, the police, the social structure of its cities, the firefighters (tragically), and others. In particular, my frustration is directed at the far left to the far right in French politics and the foreign press.
It is all too tempting to spend time assessing who is at fault in this bout of violence, and wondering how a redistributive socioeconomic system that records low levels of income inequality, and a city that sees massive investment in its suburbs, can be so fragile at its periphery. Many experts and political officials are preoccupied with this question, so I prefer to ask two different questions – why do the French seem to protest so much (and why other countries don’t), and what are the long-term effects of the riots for France and its neighbors?
One clue as to why the French protest so much is that the French state is overwhelmingly present in their lives – it does almost everything for them. The country provides cheap education, health care, pensions, and transportation, and in most cases it does a pretty good job. It also regulates the lives of its citizens with a fair amount of “fait pas ci, fait pas ça”. This relationship leaves little room for flexibility and is generally not a relationship built on trust. It’s a distant relationship, but a frictionless dependency.
In this context, it should be noted that France is running out of fiscal space. With government debt soaring and state spending (% of GDP) close to 60%, there is little room for spending discontent to quell. France’s financial constraints may soon begin to emerge, and political innovation may be one way out of this, but perhaps not before more riots. Another alternative might be to adopt a categorically pro-growth and re-industrial economic philosophy, but I don’t see this happening since it is alien to the mindset of the average French policymaker.
Changing political mindsets is difficult in France, and Emmanuel Macron deserves credit for trying. The debate over pension reform was an attempt to reduce the burden on the state, and in this sense an attempt to financially “modernize” France. What sets France apart from an international point of view is that the French right does not have strong views on the economy (there are a few proponents of low taxes for example), but they do tend to get excited about questions of freedom and identity.
For this reason, the recent riots play into the politics of the right (the left-wing NUPES group to which Jean-Luc Melannchon belongs has generally been discredited in the past two weeks)
For the right at least, the 2027 Elysee race has been kicked off by riots, and the left-right divide will grow significantly, with the right turning into a more crowded space.
Having written about the rise of the alt-right in a note last week (spud), one of the elements I watch is how much the major frontrunners on the right (Ciotti, Wauquiez, Philippe) succumb to the temptation to become even more nasty on issues like identity and immigration. Michel Barnier, a normally moderate politician, couldn’t resist doing just that in 2022. In the US, Ron De Sanctis recently recorded a slanderous homophobic promotional video.
On the right in France, Édouard Philippe is the frontrunner, and over the course of his career he has shown himself to be respected, and his patience will be tested by overly simplistic proposals from the far right. Arguably, the great challenge for center-right politicians is trying to address the multifaceted aspects of issues like immigration in a measured way, amid a barrage of bile from the fringes of the political spectrum.
Internationally, the images of the riots (which, in my view, have been bypassed by the foreign press) do France a disservice, removing its prestige appeal and projecting its foreign policy. And Emmanuel Macron acknowledged this, saying that such a scene would most likely not have happened in Germany.
However, while some countries may enjoy the lull of France’s wit, they must also be aware that the factors driving protests – inflation, immigration and integration to name a few, are beginning to crop up in many others, and government has finally screwed up on this. the week. Mark Rutte in the Netherlands. These factors constitute another experiment in the great democratic recession.