On October 1, I posted a blog titled, “French Followers Eat Their Young.” While the discussion was mostly specific – it was about the dramatic decline in popularity of French President Emmanuel Macron, who in just 18 months had morphed from Boy Wonder to Bete Noire – my overarching point was general. It was about how followers, electorates in liberal democracies, now make it inordinately difficult for leaders to govern.
What happened in France in the interim, between early October and early December, was, then, a fiasco I foretold. After a series of actions intended to reform France’s long-stagnant economy, the government announced still another: it would raise taxes on fuel. It was the last straw. It was a move guaranteed to enrage ordinary working people, that is, precisely those who had already concluded that Macron was an arrogant elitist who cared not a whit for any but his own kind.
Their response? Widescale protests that continue to stop France in its tracks – even though the government has already caved. Even though the government has already bowed to the street and agreed to retract the tax hike.
France has a long, robust tradition of strikes, of protests, of people taking to the streets when they are angry and aggrieved. But now tradition and technology have been joined. Now social media made it possible for a leaderless, rudderless, amorphous group of angry citizens to bring the government to its knees virtually overnight. (In short order an online petition coordinated by a cosmetics saleswoman had garnered a million signatures. And by mid November some 300,000 people were blocking roads and fuel depots all across France.)
But here’s the thing. Though the original demands of the demonstrators were almost immediately met, they have not been satisfied and they have not stopped. On this Saturday in the center of Paris, hundreds have already been arrested, tear gas has already been fired, and shouts of “Macron Resign” have already been ringing through the streets.