What’s next for France after the autumn revolt of the Yellow Vests? President Macron has already made significant concessions to the protesters, including an extra 100 euros a month for those earning the 1500-euro per month minimum wage and suspension of a surtax on many pensioners. Thus far he’s been rewarded with continued unrest (66,000 Yellow Vests marched on December 15, down by about half from the week before, while on December 22 the number decreased to about 30,000) and a significant jump in the polls for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National, whom he defeated to win the presidency in 2017. Le Pen’s party now leads Macron’s 24 percent to 18 percent ahead of the European Parliament elections in May 2019. Those elections now promise to be not only a referendum on Macron’s presidency but an indication of whether the French people support their president’s vision of a strong European Union as France’s best ally in maintaining its generous welfare state.
The Macron-Le Pen rivalry is a tale of two languages. Macron speaks the deracinated language of European technocracy. A former mergers-and-acquisitions banker and graduate of France’s elite school for top civil servants, he is at home with the polite euphemisms that are de rigueur in such circles, where one speaks of “incentivizing investment” rather than abolishing the wealth tax, and of “restoring competitiveness” rather than cutting corporate taxes while asking pensioners to pay more. To the ears of many French voters, Macron’s fluent econo-speak comes with a faint German accent: Part of his reform agenda is borrowed from Germany’s Agenda 2010, which weakened job protections and cut pensions and unemployment benefits. In his lexicon, “structural reform” means what “no pain, no gain” means to a weightlifter: you accept sacrifices now in the hope of reaping rewards later.