Utah State University

Macron: The Next Louis XVI? by Kennen Sparks

The first protest against a fuel tax was on November 16th, 2018—at that time no one could have imagined that it would have ballooned into the largest series of protests in France since the infamous 1968 demonstrations. As of writing, the protest of the gilets jaunes(yellow vests that all French drivers are legally required to have in their car) is now comprised of nine “acts,” with promises of future performances. 

The struggles of French President Emmanuel Macron’s government against the gilets jaunescan be explained using ideological power, or legitimacy, which focuses on the ability to get others to do what you want willingly. Another aspect of the protests is the demonstration of the importance of the effectiveness and efficacy of the government. The efficacy of a government is seen when a government can find solutions to basic problems, which relates to effectiveness because a government must also be able to implement the solutions it finds. When a government fails to have legitimacy, efficacy, or effectiveness, in some cases citizens become impatient with the instituted democratic processes.

Macron’s rise to power came with promises to introduce reforms to fix growing economic inequality. One of these reforms, the fuel tax, was meant to support environmental protection but was viewed by many as a policy that disregards those who are not rich because it would cause a spike in fuel prices. Initially, many of the protesters lived outside of the major metropolitan areas and required a car to commute. Now, many low- and middle-class citizens have joined the protests as well. 

The power of the protests is unprecedented—the government has backed out of the fuel tax yet it is still struggling with how to respond to the demands of the protesters. When the yellow vest movement gained momentum, it certainly did not help Macron’s image in many of the minds of the protesters that he refused to respond to them for days. Many of the surveys conducted within the first month showed that nearly 75% of the French population supported the movement. Because of this support, Macron felt the need to respond by scrapping the fuel tax (a first for his government) and promising future reforms for salaries. His subsequent promiseshave not returned any of the legitimacy that he lost—power that is necessary to run France effectively.

The loss of Macron’s ideological power has not been sudden. It is the result of a numberof his policies. Many perceive him to be attacking France from all angles: labor laws, university admissions, and even the railroads. He has also cut taxes for the wealthy and made unfortunate comments about “those who are nothing.” This style of top-down governance and policies perceived as favoring the wealthy coupled with his arrogance has led to a massive surge in loss of willingness to go along with the Macron’s ideas. Some analysts describe this loss of poweras cyclical, starting with the French Revolution when the people overthrew the monarchy, culminating in a months-long Reign of Terror. 

Louis XVI, the last king of France, was slow to recognize the needs of the people. After a poor harvest, they were at wit’s end with being taxed excessively. Historians estimate that nearly 8,500 rebellions had taken place in the 130 years preceding the fall of the monarchy, yet none had been successful. Weakened by wars abroad and outrageous spending, Louis XVI convened the Estates General in order to appease many of the incensed. However, he refused to give legitimacy to the poorer and more numerous Third Estate. His actions culminated in his execution—actions that were interpreted as selfish and paranoid. 

While the French monarchy was clearly authoritarian, there were some aspects of democracy, such as the Estates General. The perceived failure of these democratic processes (reforms never came quickly or were hardly reforms) led to uprisings that led to anarchy and civil war. Both of these leaders have faced a loss of both efficacy and effectiveness, which undermined their legitimacy. The king’s ignorance of the people led to his downfall—and it is possible that the people will use their votes to get rid of Macron come the next presidential election. Without being the ability to find solutions and then putting the correct policies to achieve the desired outcomes, both have been weakened greatly

The patterns between both Louis XVI and Emmanuel Macron are significant: both are not seen as strong by the people, both have faced crises of rising costs of living, and both are seen as favoring the wealthy. There is even comparison between the wives: many hold dubious beliefs about Brigitte Macron, just as they held dubious beliefs about Marie Antoinette. Without strong efficacy, the people could continue to become more and more discontented with the government.

However, just like Louis XVI, Macron is not just a product of his own decisions. He inherited the government from one of the most unpopular presidents ever in France. He also is having to face many issues, such as immigration and Europeanization, that have plagued the French government for decades. Macron will have to not just open dialogue about the issues that matter to French citizens, but also be willing to compromise in order to appeal to those who do not agree with him. 

*Photo taken by K. Sparks. Yellow vest protesters in Lyon, France, Dec. 8th during the Festival of Light.

4 Comments

  1. Noa Levin

    April 22, 2019 at 5:23 pm

    This post brings to light an important discussion of the role popular protests play in democracy. We often take for granted our democratic right to voice concerns with our government’s policies, and the right to protest is certainly an important way of holding elected officials accountable. Governments that refuse to recognize their citizens’ right to protest could certainly be considered less democratic, and the recent protests of the gilets jaunes present a great case for examining this further.
    However, I do think some distinction should be made between the circumstances of the protests in 18th versus in 21st century France. Louis XVI was not a democratically-elected president, and French citizens had no say in his appointment. Contrarily, Macron was elected democratically – and the fuel tax was included in his platform. Thus, while not every French citizen chose Macron as their elected leader, there has to be some legitimacy in the outcome of the election – and indirectly, the decision to institute a fuel tax. This is not to say that French citizens should not protest a law they disagree with, but are the extremity and violence of the gilets jaunes protests justified? To what extent does French democracy exonerate Macron, if at all? How can we reconcile the right to protest with contesting a policy of an elected politician?

  2. Joseph Bodnar

    May 1, 2019 at 9:23 am

    The post does a good job arguing that the yellow vest protests represent a crisis of legitimacy for President Macron. The 2017 presidential election marked the collapse of mainstream governing parties and set a record high rate for abstentions. Macron won the presidency through voter discontent and disenfranchisement. Macron also won without a socially rooted party and as a result has governed without the party infrastructure necessary to be adequately responsive to societal demands. This feature of his presidency is compounded by his seeming lack of empathy for ordinary French citizens (as the post mentions: “those who are nothing”). This article’s emphasis of growing inequality is similarly important. The political scientists Acemoglu and Robinson demonstrate that the danger of democratic backsliding is higher where demands for redistribution exist.

    I think the weakness of En Marche and the weakness of the party system as a whole have left the French state without the institutional means of producing and absorbing the impact of change at a moment where change is demanded. The yellow vest protests have laid bare the deterioration of institutional means of representation in France.

  3. Nicholas Cook

    May 1, 2019 at 10:13 pm

    The commonalities between Macron and Louis XVI are interesting; however, I think the differences in the current situation Macron is facing and the situation Louis XVI was involved in are important. Although the Estates General was a legislative body and Louis XVI called it when faced with protest against high taxes and Macron faced a protest against taxes and economic inequality, Macron did repeal the Fuel Tax and gave into the initial demand by the yellow vest movement. He definitely was not ignorant of the people and if he is to continue governing he has to rely on the people. As Noa notes, the king was an authoritarian ruler and Macron was elected in. The whole governing system is different and Macron has legitimacy in that he was democratically -elected. In addition, I have to believe that the French Parliament today under democracy has more power than the Estates General did under the authoritarian King, as the King had to call for it to convene. It will be interesting to see how Parliament deals with the yellow vest movement, and how their actions could calm the movement or even possibly heighten legitimacy concerns of the entire political system. As Juan Linz & Alfred Stepan say in The Breakdown of Democratic
    Regimes, if the government is not able to deal with a crisis, the political system is more likely lose legitimacy through passive obedience being replaced with support for a disloyal opposition who would resort to violence, as the opposition to Louis XVI did.

  4. Leslie Schmuldt

    May 7, 2019 at 10:15 pm

    I also would like to push back against this analogy. While both Louis XVI and Macron faced wide-spread revolutions, many other leaders faced uprisings (such as de Gaulle). Another distinction that isn’t clear in this post is Macron’s popularity. Though Macron certainly has lost popularity, he was not very well-liked during the elections. Even though Macron won 66% of the vote, many voters voted against Le Pen, not in support of Macron. The post also argues that Macron is seen as inefficient, but this is not really true. A defining characteristic of French democracy is the efficiency of the executive branch. French presidents have much more power to accomplish their policy program during their term. Macron has passed legislation, it just is unpopular. Macron won on a centrist platform, and much of what he has passed in office has leaned to the right. Though Macron is struggling to end the gillet jeune protests, he has displayed efficiency (too much efficiency) in other areas. What is more interesting about the protests is their longevity and lack of centralized demands. Though the National Rally has claimed responsibility for the protests, much of the protestors do not align themselves with the party. Lacking a political party backing, the sheer disorder of the protest continues to defy the odds as it lasts on and on.

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