Do Emmanuel Macron and Les Gilets Jaunes Spell the Doom of Centrist Populism?

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By Sammi Chen

Emmanuel Macron’s rise brought a new excitement to centrists around the world in 2017. With a wave of populism that produced Brexit and Donald Trump, brought sweeping far-right victories to parliaments around Europe on the right, and elevated Bernie Sanders―a man much less scary than his right-wing counterparts but extraordinarily problematic on policy nonetheless―on the left, centrism seemed doomed.

And then came Macron. At 39, Macron, despite his background as a wealthy investment banker, seemed to have all the appeal of a populist leader―youth, looks, a knack for social media-based organizing, no experience in elected office, insurgent poll numbers―with none of the problematic policies. When Macron defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen by a 32-point margin in the presidential election, it looked like centrism had found its footing in the era of populism.

Those who know me knew how excited I was by this; upon Macron’s victory, I posted “Vive Le Centre” on Facebook in all caps and more exclamation marks than I care to admit. ¹ But with the rise of les Gilets Jaunes, or the Yellow Vests, it looks a lot like Macron’s brand, while successful on the campaign trail, has translated into unsuccessful policymaking.

The movement erupted in late November in response to Macron’s government announcing the introduction of new fuel taxes to combat climate change. Anger at the fact that the tax would directly target fuel consumers, combined with the fact that Macron had previously abolished the wealth tax―a tax that targets all of a person’s wealth in addition to an income tax―engendered much anger among the working class. Those who were particularly affected were the rural poor, who eke out a living paycheck to paycheck and often can’t afford fuel without sin taxes. Macron’s background also makes him particularly vulnerable to working class resentment, and his policies have made him seem elitist.

Macron’s controversial policies represented, to some extent, the essence of centrism: wealth taxes discourage growth, and centrism seeks to encourage growth with market policy. At the same time, centrism acknowledges where the government’s presence is needed; climate change, which poses an existential threat, is well worth the short-term loss of growth affected by the fuel taxes.

But like all good centrist policies implemented in response to difficult situations, Macron’s was painful, making necessary short-term sacrifices for long-term gain—a term which here means “continued existence as a planet.” But short-term pain does not make good populism. One rarely sees riled up crowds chanting, “What do we want? / Success down the road! / When do we want it? / After we adopt the necessary measures we need right now to achieve that eventually!”

It certainly seems like we were fools to believe that Macron’s populist centrism could ever feasibly manifest itself in policy; centrism, with its very deliberate moderation and carefulness, seems diametrically opposed to populism, which is traditionally characterized by screaming hordes and a tendency toward extremism. Les Gilets Jaunes is the natural fulfillment of the populist ethos; of course it stands against Macron. And as fires rage in the streets of Paris, populist centrism looks dead.

But it’s not time to sing its dirge quite yet. While Macron has been unsuccessful in trying to implement le centre populiste, not all is lost.

For one thing, it’s important to keep in mind that this is France. For whatever reason, France has a long history of violent populist uprisings. The abolition of the wealth tax would likely have been much better-received in, say, the United States, which doesn’t even have a wealth tax.

For another, sin taxes, which ultimately hurt small consumers, are not the most effective way to legislate against climate change anyway. That would be heavy investment in and subsidizing of renewables and nuclear energy, neither of which contributes to the greenhouse effect. Such investment, while costing large amounts of taxpayers’ money, feeds much more directly into the economy than fuel taxes. However good an idea such taxes may be, a host of new jobs creating and installing solar panels makes most voters much happier than the abstract (much more weighty, but still abstract) notion of avoiding future threats to the planet.

That kind of policy is the kind being pursued in the United States’ so-called “Green New Deal,” promoted by, most notably, the leftist freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And for all its issues, the Green New Deal currently has support from 81 percent of Americans, including 64 percent of Republicans.

The Green New Deal is problematic―for instance, it vows to bring the country to 100 percent renewables within 10 years, a policy proposal that is likely unrealistic and ignores nuclear energy―and not centrist, but it does show that effective climate policy can be synthesized with populist-friendly job creation to produce great popular support.

Populism also tends to resent the wealthy and powerful, which is why Macron’s wealth tax was so poorly received. But there’s an easy climate change angle on this as well. Oil companies like Exxon spent decades covering up scientific evidence of climate change, and now they should be forced to foot at least a large portion of the bill to solve it. Imposing heavy fines on oil companies to help fund investment in renewables and nuclear power would be a populist way to implement effective climate change policy.

Macron’s story is a cautionary tale; centrists who wish to appeal to populism―which is to say, centrists who wish to survive the current political climate―should be very careful about figuring out which policies they should pass. There are, however, such policies. It’s a cautionary tale, not a tragedy. Vive le centre.

¹ The reader who tries to find this post on my timeline will not find success; Facebook deleted that account because it had the name Aaron Burr, which is not my name.