G7 is a great opportunity for Macron to model himself as the new leader of Europe
To his detractors, the French president is arrogant but he has the intelligence and wisdom to unite a fractured continent
Last year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published a report that said people in France had the lowest chance of escaping their socioeconomic circumstances than any of the 71 countries surveyed. That basically sums up the frustration at the heart of France: a division between those who benefit from the system, and those who do not.
That report came to mind this weekend as the Group of Seven met in the chic seaside resort of Biarritz on the southwest coast overlooking the Bay of Biscay, known for its surfing and therapeutic waters. French President Emmanuel Macron chose the location carefully: it’s a glorious backdrop to highlight France’s advantages.
It was also an opportune time for the gilets jaunes, the anti-elite movement behind France’s longest-running protest since the Second World War, to regroup. The protests had dwindled over the past few months but the G7 summit gave them cause to mobilise once again. Their plan to hamper the summit was successful: Biarritz police locked down the town. Even surfers were banned from the sea.
To understand the divisions in France, you have to look back to the Notre-Dame fire in April. The Gothic cathedral is the cultural and spiritual icon of France. The day after the fire, Mr Macron went on television pleading for national unity, and the “haves” – France's wealthiest – came forth pledging about $955 million to rebuild it.
Mass demonstrations held by the gilet jaunes, a shadowy grassroots political movement that loosely takes up the plight of the have-nots, had begun in November last year, initially as a protest against fuel taxes. The movement had originated online through petitions, without a set leader, inspiring marches throughout France. Notre-Dame exemplified the disunity between the billionaires who pledged to rebuild the cathedral and those who see Mr Emmanuel Macron’s pro-business unpopular reforms as unjust.
At the same time that Notre-Dame money was being pledged, cuts were being made in schools in deprived areas, where residents were suffering. A common refrain of the gilets jaunes was that those from the peripheral cities of France – the real heart of the country – were subsidising the success of the cities and getting little in return.
Over the next three days, they are expected to discuss the Amazon burning, and Brexit and the future of the international trade system, in particular the US-China tariff war. The arrival of US President Donald Trump caused ripples, as suspected, with reports suggesting he had expressed frustration at an agenda dominated by what he considers “niche” issues: climate change, African development and gender equality.
Mr Trump has made it clear that multilateral alliances are a waste of time and in some ways, he is right: meetings of the elite usually are more of a photo opportunity. But this time, I feel the G7 is a great opportunity both for activists and for Mr Macron. In their own way, both need re-branding.
I see him as someone hardworking and straight-talking; someone France needs to kick it into the 21st century
I am a fan of the French president but most people I know are not: they feel he has made massive crucial mistakes alienating people with his arrogance (he is a former Rothschild banker). I see him as someone hardworking and straight-talking; someone France needs to kick it into the 21st century. But he needs to tone down his image as a reformer who is going to destroy the thing the French treasure most: the good life. The French like change to happen slowly, and not to threaten the status quo.
But for Mr Macron post-G7, this is a chance to take the lead in Europe. France is the continent’s second largest economy next to Germany. Angela Merkel is serving her last term as chancellor. Brexit and Boris Johnson make Britain an unknown quantity. All this European instability gives Mr Macron a chance to come forward and really shine: to put France at the lead of Europe.
For the gilet jaunes, post-G7 there is a chance to galvanise as activists who get things done with pragmatism and organisation. Instead of burning cars and attracting angry recruits online, they can use their platform to highlight the plight of the marginalised and promote the grievances of their power base: pensioners, artisans, the low-paid.
The French word mépris – meaning contempt – sums up their strategy, which can only go so far. The public have tired of weekend protests that brought gridlock to cities and made most people roll their eyes. No one took the yellow vests seriously because they did not take themselves seriously. They had the air of children who could not believe they were getting media attention, so they handed the bullhorn to the first person in the crowd. They need to become more strategic and have a real movement, with a real manifesto. Most of the time, the general public did not even know who they were, or what they were fighting for.
Today the annual return to work and school after the summer holidays begins in France. La Rentreé is a uniquely French thing, publicised widely, written about, discussed, philosophised about on TV and radio. It was always my favourite time of the year when I was living in France: it has an air of reinvention and starting fresh.
Mr Macron can use this time wisely to gain his own personal momentum, to take the lead in a fractured Europe, and to reinvent his own, often unpopular image. He is seen as a president to the rich, which is not entirely fair, but he has to have more policies like last year’s “no kid left behind”. It promoted children starting school at the age of three rather than six and banning mobile phones from the classroom, with a focus on rundown areas where the number of pupils has halved from what it should be. Mr Macron is a far more intelligent, sophisticated leader than Mr Trump and far more solid and grounded than Mr Johnson. The world needs strong leaders to take charge: it could be Mr Macron.
As a dual French-British national, I am watching with interest the next few months in Europe and what it means to France, particularly after the October 31 Brexit deadline. If it plays it right, this could be France’s big moment. Europe needs a strong moral voice. If Mr Macron thinks carefully about who the real French are today – not just in Paris, but those living on the margins – and how they play into the larger European and global picture, it could be his voice that echoes around the continent.
Janine di Giovanni is a Guggenheim fellow, a senior fellow at Yale and the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria
Updated: August 25, 2019 03:24 PM