In 2017, the election of Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker, as France’s president was almost unanimously seen in the business press as a sign that the tide of “populism” could be reversed.
It is true that this silver-tongued graduate of Sciences Po and Ecole Nationale d’Administration -- the nurseries of the French ruling elite -- had prevented a far-right demagogue from occupying the Elysee Palace. However, there was much in Macron’s pseudo-regal demeanor and fancy rhetoric -- which included comparisons of himself to Jupiter, the Roman god of gods -- to suggest that he might well trigger a deeper public anger.
This has now come to pass. Macron’s approval rating has collapsed to 26 percent. His “ultraliberalism” faces an increasingly violent street revolt -- one that is supported by a large majority of the population, and stands to benefit the forces of illiberalism.
Over the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators wearing yellow safety vests -- gilets jaunes, as they’re now known -- have poured out on French roadways to express their anger with the “president of the rich.”
The ostensible provocation is Macron’s fuel-tax increases -- many of the protesters commute from rural and suburban areas. And such is their political potency that the French government was forced to suspend the new policy for six months.
But behind the exploding frustrations with Macron’s recent moves -- cracking down on job protections while lowering taxes on the superrich -- lie years of precarious living. Too many people in nonmetropolitan France have grown into the “conviction,” as a commentator in Le Monde put it last week, of “being misunderstood, abandoned or even despised” by the urban ruling elite.
Those wondering how this dangerous political divide opened up in the motherland of revolutionary democracy can do no better than turn to “Returning to Reims,” a recently re-published memoir by Didier Eribon, a French sociologist. When it first appeared in 2009, the book shocked French readers with its account of a famous public intellectual who had concealed his working-class origins and distanced himself from his parents and brothers in order to be accepted into metropolitan intellectual circles.
Coming from a family of window washers, factory workers and domestic cleaners, Eribon was the first in his family to finish secondary school. He brilliantly uses the experiences of his parents and siblings to describe how inequality replicated itself through the country’s educational system. He goes on to analyze how mainstream French politics became indifferent to the plight of ordinary people, opening up scope for demagogic movements.
His father, along with most of his working-class peers, was once on the left, reflexively prejudiced against parties and personalities of the right. Working-class solidarity gave struggling men and women identity and dignity.
But beginning in the 1980s, France’s left grew less responsive to the situation of the workers, and came to resemble its rivals on the technocratic center-right. It replaced talk of “exploitation and resistance” with buzzwords like “modernization” and “reform.”
At the same time, social mobility remained an illusion. One result was that people like Eribon’s father started to see the far-right as a truer representative of their interests. However racist, the far-right seemed to offer a persuasive explanation for the bitter disappointments of ordinary people: Metropolitan liberals and leftists, in its view, were pampering foreigners and immigrants at the expense of the native-born.
The “haves,” Eribon writes, were perceived “as favorably inclined to immigration and the ‘have-nots’ as suffering because of this same immigration.” Therefore whatever racism and xenophobia might’ve existed among the less well-off received an intellectual gloss and political direction.
Eribon, however, offers a compassionate understanding of those driven by a callous elite into the arms of demagogues. He’s aware of how important it is for stragglers and left-behinds to be treated as dignified human beings: “People,” he writes, “first of all have a need not to feel like they are being treated as a negligible quantity.”
Macron, proud of his Jupiterian aloofness from ordinary mortals, has recklessly trampled on that basic desire for dignity, denouncing the subjects of his reforms as “slackers” and “illiterates.”
The gilets jaunes movement has no leaders or structures at present. But the far-right is best placed to exploit its sense of misery, anger and powerlessness. Macron may confirm yet again that the lordly figureheads of liberalism are the most effective catalysts of illiberal upsurges.
By Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.