In late 2018, economic and political divides in France sparked the Yellow Vests movement. Panelists discuss how the movement differs from other populist politics in Europe, and what implications it may have for President Macron's agenda and the country's relations with Europe and the United States.
SORKIN: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “The Future of France: Growing Discontent and the Yellow Vest Movement.” I’m Amy Davidson Sorkin, the—I’m a staff writer at the New Yorker, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion with our amazing participants—Ambassador Jane Hartley, Sheri Berman, and Célia Belin. And I just—the image we had up a minute ago was so striking, and a just a reminder, I think, of why this is such a timely meeting.
This is the 11th weekend of the yellow vests protests in France. Also the first since some members of the movement put forward a list of candidates for the first time for the European elections. Emmanuel Macron has embarked on a tour of the country for a grand national debate. And at the same time, even as we’re meeting right here, the British parliament is in the middle of one of its regular Brexit meltdowns. Just a reminder that as much as the yellow vests are in some ways defined by their sense of isolation, they’re really not alone. So we’ll be looking at the future of France, and also in some ways of Europe.
Jane, why don’t we start with you. How did—how did France—how did Macron get to this moment? Is it—is it really about gas taxes?
HARTLEY: He’s probably asking the same question, but. (Laughs.) I think you have to go back, and you have to talk about Emmanuel Macron and when he won. And I was actually in France when he was economics minister. I had left by the time he won. But in winning, he really did something quite remarkable. He won with a party that didn’t even exist for a year when he won in May of 2017. He won as the change candidate. And to some extent, the anti-establishment candidate. Remember, it was his own party. It was unlike other presidents that has a Socialist Party or a Republican Party behind them and under them. He also ran on a platform of economic reform. And one of the important pieces of his economic reform was getting more investment into France, labor flexibility and many of the other laws he passed, actually rather easily, in the very beginning.
The French economy obviously has not done as well as he would have liked. I mean, that’s all of Europe. That’s not just France. And wages are going up, but slowly. Unemployment is down, but slightly. And this is particularly true in the rural areas. So I think the fuel tax, which came after, frankly, labor reform and other things that people that had watched France for a long time were surprised at how deft he was at negotiating that. This is a—don’t ever miss the fact that this is a very, very smart man, and a very, very good politician. But the fuel tax seemed to ignite, obviously, yellow vest, this internet-based movement. It was originally about the fuel tax, but then morphed into something much more about social and economic inequality. Across all classes, interestingly, but particular in the rural areas. I think initially, perhaps, some of the things the government tried to do to curb this, as we watched a lot of these photos from Paris and other places in France, was not working.
SORKIN: I wanted just to connect two parts of what you said, about him being the change candidate, the disruptive, the outside of the party, suddenly coming up against that same force when he then tries to get something done. Did he unleash this in some way?
HARTLEY: Well, I think there are two points I’d like to comment on that. One, it is—the yellow vest is a leaderless movement, which makes it harder for a government entity to actually negotiate with. Harder than, for instance, a labor union. And although all of what they’re calling for is sort of based on social inequality, economic inequality, it’s very diffuse. One of the issues was the speed limit. I mean, it’s very, very diffuse. What’s interesting now, in my opinion, with this national debate is that President Macron is doing much more what he did in the campaign, and he’s also playing to his strengths. For one thing, he’s listening. You know, and there are some people that perhaps think over the last year he did not listen enough. So he is out there. He is listening. I think there’s a—there are thirty-five questions that this group throughout the country have to answer.
He also working with, I don’t know if I’d call it the political establishment, but he’s certainly working with majors around the country. And this is something that I think is very important, because he did not have—once again, he did not run as an established party. He did not have that infrastructure underneath him. I think this is a positive for the long term. But I think the real question is—(laughs)—what happens at the end of this? Because, you know, his numbers are up, I think around 31 percent, and I think—you know, and going in the right direction. There is still sympathy—if you look at the polls—sympathy for the yellow vest movement. Less support, but still sympathy. So the question is, how does this end up, particularly when, you know, many of—much of France is asking for more government, more support, more programs, and less taxation?
SORKIN: Célia, who are the yellow vests? Just in a very concrete way—sociologically, demographically, geographically?
BELIN: First of all, it’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s unprecedented. It’s a movement that as Ambassador Hartley said come out of the internet. It’s been a congregation of Facebook users that have found themselves and each other on Facebook groups. They are geographically clustered because Facebook actually changed its algorithm a year and a half ago, after the 2016 controversy, on its role and the role of its pages. And now it privileges a group effect, so local effect. So you have seen local mobilization taking a bigger and a bigger role in France. But that’s for the beginning of the story.
And then you have had experts and analysts trying to really understand the movement. And they found two different analyses. The first one is the geographic analysis. The demographer Herve Le Bras has looked at the—what we call the diagonal of the emptiness in France. It goes from southwest of France to northeast of France. And it’s where you don’t find the major dynamic urban centers, where you find most of rural France, where there’s less infrastructure. And that’s where the majority of the yellow vest people actually come from.
Another geographer talked about periphery France. It’s the France that is, once again, outside of the main urban centers, but also, you know, in the periphery of small to mid-towns. And this France that is feeling disenfranchised, hat is less well-connected. That is why the fuel tax hike makes sense for them, because it’s more and more difficult to get good housing. They have to travel a longer time to get to their work. And then, you know, suddenly the price of fuel is higher and higher. So that’s why it really got on their nerve.
Then there’s sort of a sociological analysis of the Gilets Jaunes that puts more emphasis on the social class. So it’s a lot of people coming from middle class, lower-middle class. It’s, you know, what Donald Trump during his own campaign talked about, the forgotten people—the forgotten people of America. But I was struck by the fact that President Macron used the same phrasing when he said, we might have forgotten these people during our reforms, back when he gave his speech in December.
And so it’s this part of France that is more low skilled, with less qualification, or at least is not integrated in the most dynamic part of the economy. It’s a high representation of truckers, obviously from the fuel tax controversy. It’s also pensioners that have seen, you know, tax increases as well. But it’s also people working in hospitals. You’ve seen a sort of a crisis of the hospitals very much there—nurses, care workers—that do a very hard job and get lower pay.
SORKIN: And one of the leaders is a 31-year-old young—a woman nurse from Normandy.
BELIN: So she’s the one that has just proposed to have a list for the European elections. She’s a nurse from Normandy, currently unemployed I believe. But if you see the other leaders, some of them—so it’s a movement that is leaderless. But you have personalities that have emerged with a lot of followers on Facebook. Two of the main characters are themselves truckers. So you’ve seen this sort of congregation of people, even if it’s not a set deal. You also have entrepreneurs. You also have other types of people. But what’s interesting is that it resonates. It’s as Ambassador Hartley said, it got—at the beginning of the movement, it got 75 percent public approval among French public. It’s gigantic. Now it’s down to only half, but it’s—for Macron, this is a specific political problem because it has so much reverberation within the public.
SORKIN: And obviously it’s echoed—the resonances are not just within France. Sheri, how typical is this profile at this moment? Is this—is the French franchise of something that’s going on across Europe?
BERMAN: So I mean, I think that’s a great question. I think what you’re seeing now in France is a kind of particularly French manifestation of a much larger European pattern, right? So if we were just to go back to your comments, right, the sort of—the sociological and the geographical kind of profile of these folks very much matches the kinds of people who we associate with not just protest movements but with populist voting in other parts of Europe. They’re folks outside of the major urban areas. They’re folks with less education. They’re the folks who traditionally—or, have come to be seen as the kind of left-behinds. They’re often also, by the way, people who have not been politically mobilized recently. They tend not to belong to political parties. They’re not union members. And so these are folks who have felt for some time that the establishment and the elites have kind of ignored them, that they’re not being heard, that they’re the forgotten people.
And there is, again some truth to that. So I think that profile, again, is really quite common, and says something about, you know, the kinds of dissatisfaction that are really driving politics in many, many European countries today. One thing I think is important to note about the French case, but that also tells us something about other cases, is that I think a lot of the reason why we’ve seen these types of protests in France is because—again, getting back to your comments about Macron’s election—I mean, Macron came to power largely because of the implosion of traditional political parties in France, right? So his popularity soared as that of the Socialist Party and the Republicans basically just disappeared.
So he was able to present himself as a kind of non-establishment change candidate, because the party of the establishment were gone. And this is also, by the way, true of other kinds of organizations in France. Unions have always been weaker in France than in other countries, but they’ve weakened even more over time. And so the kinds of organizations that would have traditionally captured and channeled dissatisfaction in France or Europe, parties particularly of the left and unions, they’re not really available to perform that function anymore. And so when people get upset and pissed off, rather than turning to local-level politicians, or writing to their MPs, or turning to their union reps, they have that choice much less today, particularly in France. And so Facebook and anger on the streets becomes the way in which that is manifested.
And, again, in other European countries it might be voting for populist parties, but given that Macron was the agent of change, right, and they’re dissatisfied with him, it’s not surprising, again, that the dissatisfaction has taken that form. And as I mentioned before, barricades are a long-standing tradition in France, so, again, you know, there’s something to be said for being historically minded.
SORKIN: I want to read just a quote from the manifesto that the yellow vest affiliate group—and they don’t have all of the yellow vests behind them. Some of them see them as sellouts for even engaging with the idea of the European elections. Their sort of statement was, “We no longer wish to suffer the decisions of European authorities and the diktats of the castes of financiers and technocrats who have forgotten the most important things: the human being, solidarity, and the planet.” You know, you can hear almost anything in there. The—Europe, the diktats, the vague intimations of a conspiracy of finance people, you know, even ecological concerns.
Jane, how has that mapped to French politics traditionally and French now? Is there somebody who can capture that?
HARTLEY: I think that’s been one of the problems, I think, in terms of negotiating with the yellow vests, that their concerns are so diffuse. So in the end, I think most of the discussion—I don’t know what’s going to happen with these thirty-five questions. But my guess is most of the discussions are going to focus around economics, and whether it’s minimum wage or whether it’s tax changes. But, once again, back to my earlier statement, I think what President Macron is doing is a positive. He’s getting back to how he won. It’s hopefully more of a listening tour than a talking tour. (Laughs.) I read somewhere that people knew he could speak, but they really wanted him to listen. So I think—I think he’s doing that well.
You know, the real question comes when you want less taxes and you want more government. And I think the other question is what happens with the Macron agenda. Two of the things that were—
SORKIN: Which is ambitious.
HARTLEY: Which is ambitious and, in my view, correct, frankly. But it is going to be more difficult when you talk about civil service reform, which is—which is cutting jobs, but probably quite necessary, and you talk about pension reform.
Could I make one statement on the European elections, though? And I may be in a minority here. But many of the people I’ve talked to in France recently think that the yellow jackets are actually fielding candidates, in the end, as you look at the numbers, could be helpful to Macron. And right now, if you look at polling numbers for the European election, his party is on top at about 22 or 23 percent, I can’t remember exactly.
SORKIN: In the sense—helpful in the sense that it’ll pick off people on the left and the right and leave him as the center?
HARTLEY: Exactly. Exactly.
SORKIN: Of course, I guess—and this goes back to the question of Europe—is it’s—in a way, it’s a dangerous game to assume that there’s some sort of ceiling on the number of extremists, and that you’re picking off people from the far left and far right, as opposed to just adding more.
Sheri, how have you seen that play out sort of across Europe?
BERMAN: So, I mean, I think it’s important to recognize that European elections for many years now have acted simply as a sort of—you know, sort of vent. So they always happen to—they always reflect dissatisfaction with the power that’s in power. And they tend to actually capture, ironically enough since it’s voting for European elections, a very large anti-Europe vote. So people are mobilized to vote to express their dissatisfaction with their national leaders and their dissatisfaction with Europe—which, again, is completely counterintuitive but that’s sort of the way it goes.
Yes, Macron’s party now is sort of slightly above. Again, the elections aren’t until May. But, you know, the question is not just how many potential votes these new lists pull from the extreme left and extreme right in France, but, again, what that does to Macron’s ability to kind of govern with an even more diffuse and disparate set of opponents. And also, of course, more generally, what it might mean for Europe, right, which clearly is at an inflection point, and will have even more trouble going forward, not only if its parliament is now even more kind of divided but if its national leaders are weakened. I mean, that Macron may get the most votes, but still end up with only 23 percent is not ultimately what’s going to give him the wind in his sails to kind of make somewhat more dramatic initiatives, I think.
SORKIN: I feel almost remiss in—when we’ve been talking about the common themes among populist parties, we haven’t talked about immigration, which is a unifying theme in a lot of countries. Less so with the yellow vests, Célia, or?
BELIN: So once it had morphed into something bigger than the protest against the tax hike on fuel, it did have some component of an anti-immigration platform. However, it was never fully—it is not the message there, I truly believe that. It is more an opportunistic moment from some on the far right to try and bring their own platform. It is fundamentally an anti-elite, anti-establishment movement. It is also very much a visibility movement, a movement of people who are saying: I want to be seen and heard. The symbolism is clear. They are wearing the yellow vest, which is the highly reflective yellow vest you are supposed to wear on the highway not to get, you know, run over once you are stuck there. And so—and everybody has it. It’s in your car. It’s very cheap. It’s easy to put on. And so there’s a symbolism of people asking to be heard.
And what I think is at play here is it’s a deep crisis of the democracy of representation and a demand for the democracy of participation. So people have felt for now decades that their elected official, their representatives are not—are not working for them, are not deciding in the direction that suits them, in particular because—you mentioned Macron as a change candidate. You have to remember that in France we’ve had several change candidate. Sarkozy was a change candidate from Chirac. Holland was clearly the change candidate from Sarkozy. Macron was the change candidate. And every time the perception—true or false we can debate—from the public has been that whoever they elect, it’s the same policies. It’s the same direction. And some of it, a big part of it is, is also the impression that it’s because of the European Union, you know, main economic guidelines, et cetera, that constrain the capacity of the people in power to actually take decision.
So there’s a form of now rebellion both in France and at the European level against national government and against the European Union on saying: People should be able to participate and should be able, if they want to, to throw away the table and to change politics completely. So that’s why I think it’s taking the form of a popular—protesting in the streets, et cetera, because the feeling is that whatever we do in the booth at the moment of voting doesn’t change anything. We need to—we need to participate more strongly. We need to scream.
SORKIN: To scream and to throw. (Laughs.) I wonder you could talk a little bit about the violence—again, the image we saw. You know, eleven people have died, one I believe because of the roads being blocked and traffic accidents. But also one number I saw that was striking is that eighteen people have lost an eye in the protests because of the police decision to use rubber projectiles, pellets, whatever you want to call them, including one prominent—
BRENNAN: Just on Saturday, yes.
SORKIN: Just on Saturday. And I just want to read the quote that he gave—Jerome Rodriguez—that he—the way he described what happened to him after that. He called it attempted murder orchestrated by a police officer mandated by Macron and his dog. The dog being a reference to the interior minister. So that’s a sense of some of the anger and the edge that’s there. But how—just talk about the violence and the role that this is playing in this.
BELIN: I think on this particular incident it’s still being investigated. It’s still completely unclear. But yes, it’s been a violent movement. There’s violence to its core. There have been almost two thousand civilian injured, but also one thousand of police forces injured. You’ve had almost five thousand arrests over the course of the several months that it has happened. And you’ve had—you’ve had violence in all—not only—you know, you’ve all seen the Arc de Triomphe and the looting in Paris. But you’ve had also local violence. One of the element that’s very striking is that the anti-elite, anti-establishment has now turned against the media, and against journalists. You’ve got journalists being chased down the streets. You’ve had local press buildings being burned down. You have criminal acts. So a very serious state of tension between some of the protesters.
And when you look at the type of people that have been arrested that are confronted to a judge, there was an interesting report that showed that many of them are actually first-time offenders, which is very surprising, also probably because some of the smartest, you know, most violent element are actually smarter at just—at leaving at the right time and not getting caught, versus, you know, the clumsier person who just—but gets involved into a violent movement.
Part of it is the fact—the very problematic fact that this movement is still leaderless. Every time a leader emerges, the rest of the sort of the crowd decide to shoot it down. So the most recent example is the gilets jaunes list for the European election that is probably not going anywhere. It’s too early to tell, but it has already been heavily criticized. And some of the main leaders of the movement are refusing to take any responsibility in becoming true leaders and they’d rather stay agitators, continue having a lot of followers on the internet, but refusing to take responsibility for what’s going on.
SORKIN: And refusing to take responsibility almost as a statement—like, I am not going to take responsibility—rather than just dodging that question.
BELIN: Yes, exactly.
SORKIN: Sheri, you talked about how France knows something about barricades. Does this feel different, perhaps because of the leaderlessness, or?
BRENNAN: Well, I mean, I think we’ve seen things like this in France and other countries before. But the question is, you know, sort of thinking through the implications of this kind of thing. I mean, I think as Ambassador Hartley said before and as you also mentioned, I mean, the advantage of these kinds of movements, right, that develop quickly through the internet is that, again, you can gather very large numbers of dissatisfied people together. And it’s the dissatisfaction that really drives this kind of movement. But without organization, it tends to be more negative than positive. It makes it much more difficult for these disparate folks to kind of figure out how they can work amongst themselves to actually get change. And it makes it much more difficult for those who want to respond—government leaders, whatever, ministers, mayors, to actually respond, because there’s no one to talk to, there’s no hierarchy of demands, there’s no ability to negotiate.
And so, again, I think one of the things that we’ve seen is that this is more common in France than elsewhere, but it’s also kind of generally a problem, I think, with some contemporary forms of protest and debate that we’ve seen not just in Europe but in other parts of the world that tend to flare up through these kind of, you know, internet kinds of—internet kinds of mechanisms, which is it’s very good at mobilizing discontent. It’s not good at all at taking that discontent and turning it from something negative into something positive. And this—again, this both represents a challenge for the people involved, but also for those authorities who’d like to respond to it because, again, think about what Macron did. He’s like, OK, I’m cancelling this tax. OK, I’m coming to talk to you.
And each time he gave one of these kinds of negotiating moves or he gave a concession, it just wasn’t enough, because there was another part of the movement that showed that it wanted something else. So this—I mean, it complicates dealing with problems where there’s no organization or institutional apparatus.
SORKIN: And, Jane, you know, you talked about Macron’s domestic agenda. He also had a very ambitious European agenda. How—where is that now? Has this affected his ability to be that kind of leader within Europe?
HARTLEY: I want to comment on what you said, but I’ll answer the question first. Yes. I mean, it was interesting. I was watching the news the other day. They were talking about Davos. And at Davos this year, where last year Macron was absolutely a leader and, you know, there—I think there was a sigh of relief from many people around this room and in other institutions like this when he won—when he won after Trump’s election and when he won after Brexit. This year at Davos, no U.K. representative, for obvious reasons. Macron wasn’t there. Xi was not there. You know, it is worrisome. Merkel no longer—well, still in power, but leaving. You know, if you’re looking for—Macron at one point, I think, was viewed as the leader of the Western world. And right now—and I think he’s doing exactly the right thing. It doesn’t mean—and obviously he was just in Egypt. I mean, it doesn’t mean he’s not going to have a foreign policy agenda. But if you were him as a politician right now, you would focus on your domestic agenda, which is exactly what he’s doing.
SORKIN: And you were going to comment on?
HARTLEY: Oh, just in terms—I agree totally with what you’re saying. It makes it harder for governments to negotiate with a leaderless movement and one that has very—has very diffuse demands. It reminds me a tiny bit of what happened in this country quite a few years ago in terms of Occupy Wall Street. It was springing up around the city and around the country. But actually, the organizers themselves didn’t agree on what they wanted. And when you tried—or, when people in government tried to talk to them, you know, the obvious thing would have been to try to get some type of fiscal legislation or tax legislation or something. There was no agreement. And it was—you couldn’t get to an agreement. And obviously in terms of that movement—and I’m not comparing it exactly—in terms of that movement there was no negotiating with them. And at some point it did fizzle away. Now, the Trump election still may have a piece of that, so it’s not—
SORKIN: Not entirely. (Laughter.) And we haven’t even talked about where Donald Trump fits in with all of this.
But I think it’s time to open up to invite members to join the conversation with their questions. I’m just again going to remind everybody that the meeting is on the record. If you have a question, wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, and please stand, state your name and affiliation. So those are my notes. Also, to limit yourself to one concise question as much as possible.
And who would like to begin? Right here.
Q: Hi. Thank you for this wonderful discussion. I’m Kimberly Marten. I’m at Barnard College. I’m Sheri’s colleague, so I’m kind of cheating here by offering a question.
But my question is, I’m somebody who specializes in Russia, and we’ve heard a lot about the possibility that Russia is actually getting involved in this somehow. One of the security officers of the yellow vest movement apparently was found fighting in the Donbas in Ukraine. Do any of you have any sense of whether there is any kind of foreign element involved in this?
SORKIN: Who wants to start with that? Jane, or?
HARTLEY: I’ll take a guess. I actually don’t have any information. But it is—using social media, as we’ve seen in our own country, to cause disruption, and particularly disruption of established governments, is something I think Russia’s been doing for quite a while. I think they have been more aggressive in this area lately. And, you know, if you talk to people in Britain, there are many people that think during Brexit there was—there was involvement there. I don’t know about France, although I have heard the same thing. But I—but I don’t—I don’t know if anybody has more up-to-date information than I do.
BELIN: I don’t have specific information on that topic. I don’t think the social protests needed Russia to exist. I truly think there was sort of a malaise in France and uneasiness with the—actually, not just the Macron government, but I think one or two decades of failed reforms or difficulty to the reform the country. And it’s a crisis that affects not just France, but all of Western democracies.
And so—but Russia might have had an influence in just putting fuel on fire. One element that’s clear is that Russia Today has gained an immense popularity in France among the gilets jaunes movement. From the fact that the gilets jaunes have been so anti-media and have completely dismissed, you know, the main cable news TV, even though they keep talking about it, watching it, going on their shows, but also trashing it and chasing journalists down the street. The only journalists that had true access to the gilets jaunes are from Russia Today for being extremely sympathetic, for inviting them, and feeding their sort of arguments very much. Another small media company, Brut (ph), that we mentioned earlier, also has some sort of credibility among gilets jaunes. But basically, that’s where we saw a clear, you know, sort of Russia connection.
But I think the paradox might—it might just come from the populist movement, from the nationalistic sort of international that is going on right now in Europe. And so the exact implication of the Kremlin I couldn’t judge.
SORKIN: Right here.
Q: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, CNBC contributor.
The ambassador rightly points out that they demand lower taxes but more services. I don’t know if, Célia, you could explain that cognitive dissonance. Do they not understand it’s, ultimately, their money? I mean, how does—that seems to be true across France generally, even beyond this movement.
BELIN: Wouldn’t everybody want that? (Laughter.)
I think it’s a question of purchasing power, actually. So it’s a double question. It’s a question of purchasing power. So you want lower taxes because with the increase of—the creeping up increase of everything, the cost of fuel and the cost of lodging and the cost of the education and—not education per se, but everything else around it—and the cost of food, et cetera, you’ve seen people with wage stagnation for, like, now two decades that have seen their life degrade little by little. But at the same time, by being French they are deeply attached to welfare state and to public services—to education, to a local hospital that would function, to a railroad system that would be efficient and close to home, to all the element that they were all so used to. And from—and there are—there has been studies showing that overall, you know, public services have sort of improved in France, except they’ve improved so much more in urban environment than in rural environment, where you’ve seen school close and hospital close, et cetera. So it’s this dissonance that make the gilets jaunes capable of asking for less taxes to have a little bit of a relief, and at the same time much more public spending.
SORKIN: Sorry, in the back there.
Q: I’m sorry. I’m Jacqueline Albert-Simon, a U.S. bureau chief of Politique Internationale. I am also resident scholar at the Institute of French Studies at NYU.
I appreciated very much your conversation. The question did not come up: What is the outcome? What could be the outcome? There are probably a couple of options you might want to talk about. When Macron’s two months’ debate is over, among the things you might want to talk about is that nothing will happen, as is often the case, or that there may be another constitution. The French constitution gives unlimited powers to the president. It was written by De Gaulle for himself and there have been objections to it. So I wonder what each one of you feels about the possibility of a new constitution or even a Sixth Republic.
SORKIN: I will just put in, in terms of the two months you mentioned, the great national debate is due to run through March 15. And in a way it’s the most Macron thing ever in that he’s come up with thirty-five questions, he’s going to eight different towns, he was on his feet for six hours. But where does it end? Jane, do you want to—
HARTLEY: (Laughs.) Sure. I was hoping you’d start down that end, but—(laughter).
I think that’s the real question. I think this is extremely smart politically what he’s doing. I think he actually almost had to do it. What was happening was certainly not working. Once again, when you look at the polls, the support for the yellow vests is down, but the sympathy for their positions is not down at all. So, you know, what is the endgame here? You might know more than I.
I don’t see a new constitution, but I think there is going to be a tension between—you know, right now President Macron has said he was not changing his policies on things like the wealth tax, still wanted to go forward on civil service reform, pension reform. I would expect, in terms of the constituencies we’re talking about, much of that is going to be not that popular. So what does—what does he do? I know there’s talk about increasing the minimum wage.
And I—you know, when you go out in France in these rural areas, which I had done quite a bit, it’s like some of the rural areas in our country. You can see it that downtowns are hollowed out. A lot of the local bakeries and other things have moved out. I know at one point during the campaign, when economic—Macron was debating economic policy, they were talking about trying to create regional hubs in these communities, which is something we’ve talked about here. He was talking about more apprenticeship and training, which is extremely important. My guess is they have to do more of that. They have to emphasize it more. They have to probably put some money behind it. That is where you are going to run into the fiscal situation, where there are going to be, I think, more government programs, whether it be in education and training or other things, and a demand for less taxes.
The other thing that I don’t know what will happen, but there are a lot—there’s a lot of talk about referendums also on these issues. I certainly haven’t talked to anybody in the Macron government about this, but if they’re looking at Brexit they can’t be too happy about doing referendums. (Laughs.)
SORKIN: More referendums.
Sheri, how about—how about you?
BERMAN: So, look, I think that there’s a lot, obviously, in your questions.
I agree, obviously, with Ambassador Hartley. I mean, the advantage of this kind of, you know, sort of listening tour is not only that it gives Macron the opportunity to defuse some of the resentment, but also to play back his image of being a person out of touch who does not listen. So, I mean, it could have the effect of kind of, again, both softening his image and allowing people to vent a little bit, which is—you know, can be potentially quite positive, especially when it happens in a, you know, sort of non-chaotic kind of situation.
He had at the very, you know, sort of beginning of his candidacy committed himself not only to revitalizing the French economy, but to changing the way French politics was done. So not via necessarily a Sixth Republic, but via making France’s institutions more responsive, via a new political party that was supposed to bring new voices into the political sphere, right? And so for Macron and for France, this is an opportunity, maybe, for him to reboot and actually do more of what he promised during the campaign, right, which was to square that circle of revitalizing the French economy while at the same time helping those people who were suffering. Being sort of strong and firm in what he saw as French—France needing, but at the same time making the political system, partially through his own party but partially through institutional change, more responsive to people.
I mean, look, the reason why everybody was hopeful about Macron is because he promised the best of all worlds, right? He was sort of in the center, but in tune to the kind of dissatisfaction that was driving extremism in different parts of Europe, right? The question now is, having not been able to fulfill those promises during the first part of his presidency, will these protests reboot him so that he can do a better job of doing that during the second half? If he can’t, we all know who the beneficiaries of that are going to be in France, and indirectly in other parts of Europe. The Italians and everyone else are circling around his corpse. They’d like nothing more than for him to go down in flames because they know what will follow him, and they know that that will, again, increase their own support and increase dissention within Europe, which will play into their hands, so.
SORKIN: What will follow him, do you think?
BERMAN: Well, obviously, Marine Le Pen is the one who’s most likely to benefit. I mean, to a lesser degree Mélenchon, who also seems to have an ego that might be even bigger than Macron’s, and so is eating away at his own potential, I think, to capture some of that discontent. But it will be the populist extremes that benefit if Macron fails.
BELIN: Two points, maybe, quickly.
I don’t think the Fifth Republic is in danger. I think it has actually shown, you know, the solidity of the institutions at this point because Macron, for being elected and for being the powerful president that he is, he’s in place for the next three years without risk of losing his position. He has his parliamentary majority. I don’t think he will decide to dissolve the National Assembly. In any case, unless a party would come to power proposing a Sixth Republic, I don’t think it will happen on the short to medium term.
Regarding what might happen, I think, and I hope also, President Macron has sort of changed his attitude. He has in the first year in power decided to really embody the function, the function of the president, but that has also isolated him from the public. He has now decided to go back to something that he—that, you know, Donald Trump has shown that you should be doing when you’re a president now, which is continue campaigning all the time. He’s sort of back on the campaign trail, in a way. He needs to promote his own ideas. From the fact that he has—you know, the party is himself and he is the party, he needed to be out there and to promote his own ideas. But he also needs this other thing, which is allow people to participate and voice their concern.
The great national debate which is going on right now is one of those elements, but there might be other ways down the line. In this way gilets jaunes is quite similar to Five Star Movement in the sense that one of their main concern is the demand for participation. They both asked for more referendum. Macron has ruled out referendum almost entirely. The last time he spoke during the national debate he said that, you know, he don’t—he does not believe that referendums are a good solution. But he will have to offer some direct democracy remedies. It’s something that is affecting not only France, but also Italy, also the entire Western democratic—democracies, that they will have at some point to find a new, creative way to voice—
SORKIN: Something about the mechanisms.
And, Jane, you were—did you want to add?
HARTLEY: Just one thing. I agree he has to offer something in terms of democracy.
I mean, one thing we should still remember is politically how strong he is. He still does control the National Assembly. The two establishment parties, if you consider two Socialist and the Republican, are still in a bit of disarray, with the Republicans going more right. Socialists could have a strong candidate, but they certainly don’t yet. And in the French system it is also a runoff, and that’s a critical—that’s a critical point. So, in the end, if he would make it to the second round he would be running against one person. And even though his first round it was a pretty close election, he won the second round by 66 percent of the vote. Doesn’t mean—he still has to have the dialogue, though. (Laughs.)
Q: Thank you. Laetitia Garriott de Cayeux.
Sheri alluded to a beneficiary, maybe—sadly—the extreme, in particular Le Pen’s recently rebranded party, the Rassemblement National. It’s very difficult to go fast forward and see what will happen, but can you maybe comment on some of the dynamics you’re seeing, whether the Rassemblement National is trying to exploit already this or is trying to get closer to some of the leaders of the leaderless movement? Are the leaderless movement responding or not interested at all in that engagement? What are the early signs we’re seeing?
SORKIN: Célia, do you want to?
BELIN: Both, you know, far right and far left are going aggressively after the gilets jaunes because it’s been such a popular movement that it seemed worth it, and because some of the demands are similar to their own demands. However, Marine Le Pen has played quite an interesting and clever move there when she has shown her support but also sort of refused to go in the trenches as much as Jean-Luc Mélenchon has done. And by doing so, I think she will benefit from the anger because her party is established. Her party has always been a sort of—you know, a counterproposal to everything else. So at some point, if the gilets jaunes list never exists, well, if you want to protest and be very angry, she sort of is there for you to do that.
Mélenchon is in a way risking so much more because he’s transforming his own party by being behind the gilets jaunes. You have a lot of inside controversy within his party. He might end up being on the loser side of this one.
However, structurally—and I agree with Ambassador Hartley—at this point, you know, Rassemblement National is still structurally in the minority. It is still a party that has had forty years of history of anti-Semitism, racism, opposition by mainstream parties, which makes it still, you know, a party for which it’s not that easy that a majority of French people would vote. Would this party—and the name change was not enough to fool people, you know, and Marine Le Pen still has the name of her father. And so would it come on a new generation? Marion Maréchal, her niece, for example, would she take the mantle? Would she change the name? Would she make a coalition? There is—there is a question to have whether you could see an Italian scenario of sort of Rassemblement National with the gilets jaunes, a more, you know, populist/nationalist movement.
All of this is too early. She will probably do a good score during the European elections and still be one of the strong, you know, opposing voices without, I think, really affecting the—you know, potentially go as far as winning yet.
SORKIN: Did either of you want to add to that, or? All right. (Laughs.)
Q: Hi. I’m Paul Steiger with ProPublica.
The lessons of history so far are that—are that Luddites lose; that when new technology emerges there’s, you know, tension and strain, but then it ultimately takes over and society moves forward. Is this a time—I mean, you know, all the word out of Davos is, you know, artificial intelligence and moving forward with replacing truck drivers, less-educated workers. Are we seeing a tipping point where the rage gets so great that it stops this? Or is there some way that one can provide—come up with a political way to do a tradeoff where these folks can see some value to them? I can’t think of one, but maybe you do.
SORKIN: Sheri, do you want to—
BERMAN: So, I mean, I think that the sort of Luddite example is a great one, right, because what it does is it reminds us that technological change, change in general, is inherent in capitalism, and that some jobs, some sectors, some entire parts of the economy are going to disappear and others are going to rise.
So, first of all, this is not something new structurally, right? But the question is, in a democratic era—which the era of Luddism was not—how much social and political chaos do you want that economic change to cause, right? So if governments are there to help people adjust to change—people who are going to lose their jobs, whose industries are in decline, whose regions are not dynamic—if governments can help those people, those areas, those groups adjust, then that kind of economic change can have minimal political and social implications.
I think part of what we’re seeing today is that there is a dramatic, dramatic disjuncture between the amount of change people are being forced to confront and the willingness and ability of governments to help them adjust to that. That was the genius of the postwar order, right? It was a recognition after the Depression, after the radicalism of fascism and communism, that if governments didn’t insulate people from change that there was going to be hell to pay. We lost that recognition over the last generation. And to some degree what we’re seeing now, I think, is the backlash to it.
I think Macron somewhere inside recognizes that that is, in fact, at the core the challenge he faces. But again, there are winners and losers. And figuring out how to make that change work so that you minimize the losers without diminishing—minimize the losers without diminishing how much people can win, that’s really hard. But really that’s part of what’s going on here, right? People will protest, they will be angry, they will support radicals if they feel that they have no other way of getting their dissatisfaction heard. And so, again, I think more generally in the West, not just in France, this is something we need to think very, very carefully about.
Q: Bhakti Mirchandani. I work at a think tank called FCLT Global. Fascinating discussion.
I had a question about the European parliamentary elections. There’s a lot at stake with all of the vacancies coming up—European Council, European Commission, ECB, really key vacancies—and with the history of far-right parties doing well in these elections. What do you think the outlook is, and—given what’s happening in France and elsewhere?
SORKIN: Célia, do you want to—
BELIN: What I heard the true specialist of the European Parliament say recently is that there is—there is probably going to be a big push from the nationalist/populist parties all across Europe without actually being able to really change the status quo, which is the domination mostly of the European right—center right—which, of course, you know that within the European Parliament you have groups. You have groups of liberals, the right, the left, and some of them are not extremely logical. Viktor Orbán is still part of the majority, you know, the same coalition as Angela Merkel when, you know, he really has sometimes closer ties to the most nationalistic elements. So you have some contradiction. But this probable majority, a huge—let’s say huge majority of the center right will lead to a center-right Commission. And so, in a way, we are not facing a radical change as far as today, you know. I cannot really predict the future, but that’s what—that’s where the consensus is.
However, the paradox is that it will bring a whole lot of new people that have either anti-European agenda or at least a populist agenda, and that will, you know, make their voices heard either as a blockade mechanism or at least being able to bring up some new topics. So the real question is: Where do we go from there? On the, let’s say, pro-European forces, you have sort of two opposite forces at the same time. The status quo forces were saying, well, the importance is just to preserve what’s theirs. And then you have the integrationist forces, and President Macron has been one of them, that—offering to constantly, you know, move forward, that—it’s very much the French philosophy that if the European Union wants to live it has to move forward, it has to continue integrating. And I think that’s where also after the election we’ll able to see which one of those forces are stronger. At the moment it doesn’t seem that the integrationists are that much stronger, and we might just spend another five years in sort of a status quo.
SORKIN: Did either of you want to add on to that?
BERMAN: I agree with that.
SORKIN: OK. (Laughs.) All right.
Q: Question for Célia. Tim Kingston, Goldman Sachs Chile.
The cost of the response to climate change. It’s clear that the yellow vest movement is anti-establishment. Is it also anti-environment, as the diesel tax is what got it started?
BELIN: So there is a very strong paradox here because at first it seemed that it was a rejection. You know that the hike on the—on the fuel tax that was planned and that was put in place by the Marcon government actually dated from a law that was passed under the Hollande government? So it was not even, you know, a Macron proposition. And it’s part of a law that is made for the energy transition that France is going through as part of this, you know, climate change program, how to reduce emissions, how to adapt, how to mitigate climate change. However—so there was a very strong pushback on that.
However, once people got to voice their concern, they say—they say two things that are very important. First, they say that elite talk about the end of the world and they are talking about the end of the month. So they are—their programming, their planning ahead is entirely different. They might—they are saying that basically, you know, elite and establishment are concerned with something that they don’t have time to be concerned with, and that their problematic needs to be fixing first and then we can discuss about the other.
But the second element which is at least as important is a matter of fiscal justice. And this you’ve seen with the obsession of the gilets jaunes with the wealth tax or with this idea that it’s always the same people that you tax. And all this talk about solidarity and effort always address, you know, the lower middle class and the working class, and is never addressed to the richest of all. And that’s why they were kind of obsessed with the wealth tax.
And sort of the same with the fuel tax because they said I’m the one driving to go to work, and I live really far, and I have to pay this, and this is completely unfair; you should tax fuel on planes, because rich people take planes, and you should tax cargo because rich people buy stuff from wherever.
SORKIN: So they’re fine with an environmental tax.
BELIN: And so—and they’re saying—yes. And we’re going to suffer climate change. So actually they’re fine. There was a—there is not—you know, now being concerned with climate change is almost across all political spectrum. It’s not polarized like here at all. Even Marine Le Pen cares about climate change, like all of them. And so it’s just who’s going to pay and how, what rhythm, which taxes. So it’s fiscal justice.
SORKIN: That was fascinating. Anybody else have—we’re almost—we’re almost actually out of time, so it has to be a super-fast question.
Q: Robert Worth, New York Times Magazine.
The gilets jaunes is a very white movement, not a lot of immigrants, or at least not a—not a lot of banlieues people in it. And there’s a perception that a lot of state subsidies went to rebuilding and helping people in the banlieues, and that the people who are economically just above them were left out. To what extent is that true? Does it matter?
SORKIN: And we have about a minute, so, Sheri?
BERMAN: I mean, you—
HARTLEY: I can say one quick—
BELIN: I would say a word, maybe. Yes, you don’t have that, you know, rebellion coming out of the banlieues like you’ve seen in 2005. It’s completely different questions. It’s completely different demands from a completely different public. So it’s not—the ethnicity of the gilets jaunes or their immigrant status only comes from the fact of where they come from geographically rather than any other explanation in particular. But it is—it is true that it’s very often in most of Western democracy the lower middle class that feels completely forgotten by the reforms that might focus on the poorest of the poor and reforms that deal with the bigger, you know, upper middle class.
But maybe, Sheri—
BERMAN: No, I mean, I think that’s generally true. I mean, obviously, every country has its own particular dynamics. But if you look, for instance, at the folks who, you know, vote for populist parties, let’s say, in other places, you know, as in the United States, poor folks vote Democrat, right? And in Europe, too, you still tend to get the poorer folks sticking with parties of the left. It does tend to be these kind of lower middle class folks—and again, France has a long tradition of this kind of rebellion as well—who are, you know, members of these kind of sort of upstart or more populist parties. And also, I think there’s probably in France and elsewhere still generally it’s difficult to combine the dissatisfaction of different types of groups, to find the message that can unite rather than divide them, which is obviously something our own Democratic Party is trying to figure out how to—how to deal with today.
SORKIN: And one last fast, fast word.
HARTLEY: OK. Just a good ending.
I mean, it’s something I think that’s being debated in the United States right now. And actually, if you look at many of the Trump voters, you are right. In terms of our social safety net, which is quite strong—and it’s even stronger in France—the lower income often do vote Democratic. What’s been moving, particularly in the Midwest, particularly in some of these hollowed-out cities, is the lower middle class that, you know, has a job—they’re a welder or they’re an electrician—maybe not an electrician; they get paid too much, but—(laughter)—and cost of living has gone up and wages have been stagnant. And they’re quite worried about the future in terms of what will technology be. If they’re not even worried about them, they’re worried about their children. And this is something I think the Democratic Party is trying to grapple with.
Interesting, when President Macron first ran, and—this is when I was ambassador; well, when he was economic minister I dealt with him, and then when he first ran—I mean, one of the key programs he had was what to do particularly in some of these communities in terms of retraining, apprenticeship, and education.
SORKIN: Yeah, where in a sense the existing answers, is what you’re saying, don’t work.
HARTLEY: Exactly. Mmm hmm, exactly.
SORKIN: The get a job, have a home, it’s not—it’s not working in some way, and that’s so disruptive.
Thank you, all three of you, so much for such an interesting discussion. And great questions from—
HARTLEY: Thank you.
BERMAN: Thank you.
HARTLEY: That was fun. (Laughs.)
BERMAN: Thank you. Thanks.