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Is the French government too intelligent?

French President Emmanuel Macron meets with representatives of trade unions, employers' organisations and local elected officials at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France December 10, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron meets with representatives of trade unions, employers' organisations and local elected officials at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France December 10, 2018. Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS

President Emmanuel Macron's government has been "too intelligent", the parliamentary leader of ruling Republic on the Move party said this week, sparking uproar. Is this symptomatic of a style of management that has led to the stormy Yellow Vest protests?

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Gilles Le Gendre this week told an interviewer that the government had "probably been too intelligent, too subtle, too technical" in explaining policies he insists will improve French people's living standards in the long term.

Speaking to RFI, trade union leader Pierre Martinez made no effort to hide his irritation.

It’s contempt but it’s in the tradition of this government," he said. "They have to follow in the footsteps of the president, who tells an unemployed man that he’ll find work if he crosses the road. We’re supposed to be too stupid, not intelligent enough to understand what the government’s doing. On the contrary, we understand very well. It’s up to them to think again, it’s not up to us to go back to school or get management training.”

To hear our radio report on the intelligence of the French government click here

Paul Cassia, a professor at Paris's Sorbonne University, was also indignant

"Personally, I find that statement outrageous," he commented. "It's shocking. It shows a complete disconnect between the person who said it and the rest of the population. It shows an arrogance that is absolutely typical of the ruling parties, which explains why they are detested by part of the French population."

Out of context?

Le Gendre insists the phrase has been taken out of context, and, in his defence, one could perhaps translate it as "tried to be too clever", which sounds a bit better.

He was trying to explain that some measures the government has already taken - slashing housing tax for many households and cuts in social security contributions - will raise people's spending power but over the longer term.

But for the government's opponents, from political parties to Yellow Vest protesters, the now infamous statement has been taken as typical of Macron's style of government.

"Mr Macron has gone a little further in a tendency that already existed," Marseille-based sociologist Laurent Mucchielli told RFI. "It’s true that in a way he presents a caricature of this tendency in personifying the government as never before, in giving the impression that he’s the only one in command with a slightly monarchical aspect, that’s how it’s seen."

French centralism and its discontents

Resentment of the central authority in Paris was already widespread.

"You get the impression that in France it’s Parisian politicians accompanied by a small technocracy who all on their own in an office in Paris decide what will be good for the whole of France the next morning," he says. "This style of government, hypercentralised, hyperbureaucratic and hypertechnocratic, has been visible for some time and is increasingly resented in both its facets."

That French centralism goes back centuries.

And so do revolts against the central authority, often over taxes judged to be unfair.

The Yellow Vest protests were sparked by a rise in a green tax on fuel but soon became a challenge to Macron and his style of government, largely by people living in rural areas, small towns or the fringes of larger ones who feel "neglected, despised and abandoned", as Mucchielli puts it.

Macron's critics see him as an arrogant technocrat who looks down on ordinary people.

"That’s not surprising since he’s a typical representative of that technocracy," Mucchielli says. "Someone who has never held elected office, has never had the experience of running a local council. He’s not used to being in contact with either the voters or trade unionists or local councillors, all he’s used to is ministries, technocrats, top civil servants, MPs and journalists."

That has led Macron to misread the public mood, according to Cassia

"On this the president is making a serious error, in believing that the French people are nostalgic for a king," he says. "This idea is quite mad. I’ve never met anyone who’s told me that they’d like to see someone who would be a king, a father of the nation, as president of the republic. Nobody! Ever!"

The government showed little sign of technocratic efficiency this week when it first scrapped some of its concessions to the Yellow Vest protesters then reinstated them within 24 hours.

That was met with derision by the opposition.

“There’s panic on all floors," Christian Jacob, of the right-wing Republicans party told RFI. "At the Elysée [presidential palace], at Matignon [the prime minister’s office], in the Assembly with the MPs, everyone goes whichever way the wind blows. There’s no official line, there’s no line anywhere ... We have a president of the republic who doesn’t control anything anymore.”

Wealth tax and job-creation

And it is not just a question of style but also the content of Macron's policies that have caused the anger, according to critics like Cassia.

"Unemployment isn’t going down. Job insecurity is rising," he points out. "In the public sector we have more and more short-term contracts. France’s deficit is rocketing, it will soon be 3.2 percent. Priority is given to policies that are totally useless. So that in 2019 the CICE [tax break for businesses] will be doubled, money that will be thrown into the bin, or to be more exact in the pockets of some shareholders."

Meanwhile fuel and other indirect taxes have risen, while taxes for business and the rich have been cut.

According the Macron ideology, the tax cuts will bear fruit in new jobs and higher living standards.

Those promises have yet to be fulfilled, however, and if they are not France can expect another turbulent year in 2019.

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