At the beginning of a recent journey to Ireland from Paris, the French taxi driver asked me how our new king was getting on (many of them think Ireland, Scotland and England are the same place). I immediately launched into the obligatory, angry lesson in Irish history for his benefit. When I calmed down, I told him that his majesty was doing fine, or least a lot better than the prime ministers who have served him.
I even mentioned that well over ten years ago I met Charles III, ahead of a momentous visit by the late Queen to Ireland. The Queen’s visit went very well, despite obvious security concerns, and it played an important part in reconciling Ireland and England. Since then, Charles III has visited Ireland a number of times. Given this experience, Charles could at least have crossed the Channel.
With the French state having marked the passing of Elizabeth in an elegant and warm way, Charles had nothing to fear for himself, save that an arrival into France might seem like stepping into a scene from Les Misérables (not so long ago London was a grumpier town than Paris). Piles of rubbish, fires and violent riots are the order of the day, all it seems, because Emmanuel Macron has in the eyes of the French people, been behaving like a king.
I have a lot of sympathy with Macron’s desire and need to drag the French pension system into the 21st century, and he has the heft of demographics and France’s weak financial state to back him up. That pension reform has become a battle ground, has much to do with other factors – deep frustration at an inflexible labour market, the use of article 49.3 to pass the pension reform law and the perception of Macron as ‘Jupiter’, an imperious, aloof ruler.
I think he has missed a significant political trick in not making more of the fact that his government has managed to bring unemployment down to multi-decade lows, and there have also been some improvements to gender income inequality.
However, the pension reform debate has jaded Macron, which given his role as the indispensable European politician, is not good. It has also started to draw into focus what French politics will look like when he ‘retires’ and how his party will fare.
Given the role of France in the world, I have no doubt that a crisis or two will pop up where he can prove his mettle.
A bigger, ambitious project for him is how to improve French democracy. Granted his personal aura and the use of article 49.3, many French people would believe that he is not well suited to undertake this, but at the same time, there are very few French public figures who have the ideas and will to change the way its democracy functions. Indeed, it seems to me that, like many other countries, there are more French politicians who are content to make political capital through the vandalization of the democratic apparatus.
The task, given that there is such a gulf in trust between the French state and its citizens, may lie in giving more power to them. Citizens juries and citizens assemblies have been tried, but unlike other countries where these mechanisms have worked well, there is little appetite on the behalf of the state to implement the recommendations of the citizens assemblies. Macron has notably not done so.
For the moment, he should heed the words of Thomas Jefferson (a statue of whom is not far from the Assemblée) that ‘The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere’.
Macron and colleagues may also want to challenge their opponents to come up with realistic solutions to solving France’s financial weaknesses and to enlivening its democracy. So far there are all too few willing to do so, and the longer their silence endures, the greater the final crisis will be.
For his part, Charles should have held his nose and carried on.