Comme une lettre à la poste

Arthur Goldhammer
14 January 2019

I try not to be cynical–well, not too cynical–about politics. Too many people already are. But when the president formerly known as Jupiter takes up pen and paper and asks his citizens–ceux qui ont réussi comme ceux qui ne sont rien–to help him figure out how to run the country, my patience wears thin. Of course, he doesn’t mean it: a few sentences in, right after saying no subject is taboo, he indicates that restoration of the ISF is off the table. And he notes that he was elected on a platform of reform, which he intends to carry through. Nevertheless, he will be glad to hear suggestions from all of France and Navarre concerning matters such as adding a dose of proportionality to legislative elections, admitting immigrants, overhauling the tax system, reducing carbon emissions, paring back the legislature and the bureaucracy, and making government more responsive.

This is the nebulous Macron of the campaign, the Macron aux yeux doux who wants to be all things to all people en même temps. “Tell me what you want and I will tell you who I am.” This great national debate is an exercise so puerile that I am surprised he allowed himself to be talked into it–or did he come up with it on his own? After a weekend in which the number of Gilets Jaunes on the march increased, giving the lie to any notion that Macron’s firmness on New Year’s Eve had put paid to the movement, the president has presented the French with the kind of mixed message said to induce schizophrenia: On the one hand he says the country is in such a shambles that he needs help even seeing what needs to be done, let alone enacting change; on the other hand, it’s steady as she goes, I have already enunciated exactly what needs to be done, and nothing can divert me from my fixed course.

Evidently he has no clue what the enragés really want, which is no surprise, since they have no idea themselves, beyond on veut sa peau. His game seems to be to buy a little more time in the hope that his structural reforms will finally produce the desired results. We can spend three months collecting your innermost thoughts on how many immigrants you’re willing to tolerate if, in the meantime, you let me proceed with the plan to revise unemployment insurance and pensions. And please don’t plague me about Europe. While no question is off the table, you’ll notice that I carefully avoided any mention of the EU, sovereignty, the euro, or l’Europe qui protège, because you and I both know these things are going nowhere and Le Pen is touting the new brown Europe that she and Salvini and Kurz are going to build, which I don’t want to talk about. So let’s change the subject to proportional representation. Meanwhile, les chiens aboient et les caravanes passent.

I’m sorry. This is not going to work.

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6 Comments

  • Ray says:

    Do structural reforms even work?

  • Anonymous says:

    I cannot share your cynicism: politics is the art of the possible. No one ever gets what they want in pushing a political agenda, but there can be some play in the joints. I read the letter and I watched the debate with the mayors last night. Macron was impressive: “Il est a l’hauteur du boulot.” “Yes”, there are basic things he will not give in on and he defends, but he is not close-minded. Remember Hollande and give some reflection on where France could be now. I have spoken to locals in my rural corner of southwest France about the President’s letter: One, a member of a “profession liberale”, told me he and a group of his friends are going to craft a response with recommendations specifically concerning education. “I supported the ‘GJs” for the first two weeks”, he said. “I thought they were right to bring the concerns of the countryside to the attention of the government. Then I saw they were more interested in getting rid of Macron than changing the country for the better. The President is making an effort, so we will, too.”

  • Anonymous says:

    I do not share your cynicism. “Politics is the art of the possible”, and no one pushing of supporting a particular agenda gets everything they want. I read Macron’s letter and watched the first debate with Mayors last night. Macron has strong convictions about some policies –eliminating the ISF is a good idea, is one of them– but communicated last night that he is willing to consider alternatives and take suggestions regarding policies he has no strong convictions about. He demonstrated that he was “a l’hauteur du boulot” –think back to Hollande for comparison.
    In my corner of rural France, the President’s invitation is being taken seriously. A local told me that while he had supported the “GJs” for the first two weeks of the movement, he became convinced their only goal was to get Macron to resign. This man is a member of a “profession liberale”, part of Macron’s base but he has never been politically active . However, now, he and his friends plan to respond to the invitation offered by the President to make concrete suggestions as to how education in France could be changed for the better.
    Macron’s stamina (amply displayed last night), will stand him in good stead in the months to come. Transforming France (the goal he has set himself) will take every ounce of his energies. It remains to be seen, for sure, whether the dialogue Macron has invited the French to participate in will take the wind out of the “GJs” sails. The alternative to Macron –Marine Le Pen– is unacceptable, as you wrote previously. “Yes!” Right now, she is the cat licking up the cream, but I would not count Macron out –and I do not ascribe to him the utterly cynical motives you express in your last post.

    • Susan Emanuel says:

      I ageee with “ Anonymous” that Macron should not be counted out – and that he is playing his cards shrewdly. I have heard that the “foulards rouges” are mobilizing to show support, however belatedly.

  • Ronald Tiersky says:

    Ron Tiersky comments:

    I agree with much of Art’s analysis but have a few points nonetheless.
    Macron is intelligent and knowledgeable beyond a doubt but it’s now clear he’s far from the skilled, subtle politician with terrific instincts that he seemed to be in the campaign and early on. (Something like Obama.)
    En meme temps, he’s no fool. He must have contradictory calculations about what to do and how to do it. The one thing he seems certain of is the need for implacable determination. But his destabilization by the gilets jaunes showed him less implacable than he thought he was. His confidence in his instincts was shaken. Thus the sorry choice to do the cahiers des doleances. I agree that it’s unlikely to work much at all, if only because the number and kinds of demands and suggestions are now way beyond letting a hundred flowers bloom. To say the gilets jaunes have no idea of what they want is incontestible because there is no such thing as a gilets jaunes leadership to formulate policy.
    But there was a common demand at the beginning–the new fuel tax that set off the wildfire. And that demand was more than just the fuel tax. It was fury about the increasingly unaffordable cost of living and declining standards of living for so many–le pouvoir d’achat problem. What if Macron had announced–damn the 3% EU budget deficit limit (and en meme temps his reputation among the private sector, the Germans and Brussels)– an immediate twenty percent increase in the smic and pensions below a certain level? (Mitterrand had tried something like this.) It would have created enormous new problems but Macron would likely have been seen as defending le Peuple, a kind of patriot. Yet in fiscal terms it would have been a huge risk.
    As for the ISF: it’s hard to understand why Macron doesn’t explain the strategy more often and better. That is, few people benefit from getting rid of it and not much money is lost. The issue, for Macron with his entrepeneurial hat on, is to court ambitious, skilled people to invest and start new businesses in France. Not, as he puts it very well, “to be the president of the rich but the president of those who want to get rich.” (A Deng Xiaoping way of thinking.) His stubbornness has to do with, he thinks, realism about economic motives. (cf. the Economist and WSJ)
    Think what the situation would be if the private sector had genuinely gotten behind Macron’s program. If French GDP growth had not declined by half a percent but increased. If unemployment had declined say .3% more to become clearly under nine percent, i.e. a trend.
    So Macron is hated. How did this happen to a leader with praiseworthy motives? How did his and the country’s situation get so out of control in the blink of an eye? Macron needs a lot of help from a lot of people, especially private sector powers. It’s a bit unfair to put so much blame on the president himself.

  • mzuber says:

    Finally, I agree with Ron, it is a bit unfair to put so much blame on the president himself. This has been building up for the last 30 years…..

    Martha Zuber (Paris)

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