January 29, 2020
French democracy and how to voice dissent
The scenes of police fighting with firefighters in Paris look like a breakdown of public order. Videos of riot police using batons and shields against protesting firefighters in Paris went viral yesterday. Firefighters were on the streets and even set themselves on fire to protest for better pay and working conditions. France may be known for its clashes between protesters and riot police, but firefighters are heroes in the public perception. Marine Le Pen was quick to make Emmanuel Macron responsible for this disunity in the country. Many tweets also link the clashes directly to Macron and his image of an authoritarian ruler against his own people. There is much hatred building up against the French president. Robert Badinter, the well-respected former justice minister who abolished the death penalty under François Mitterrand, reminded all sides that in a democracy nothing excuses violence. Citizens have rights and the means to show their discontent, but under no circumstance are allowed physical violence. Political leaders as well as voters have their responsibility in this deteriorating political climate. It starts with symbols: protesters carrying a carboard box representing Macron's head on a pike recalled death by guillotine, he said. Symbols such as these are toxic.
On a less violent note we are watching the municipal elections and the hype over the LREM-dissident candidate Cédric Villani, a Fields-medal-winning mathematician who is now running to become mayor of Paris. Emmanuel Macron tried to persuade him to back the official LREM candidate when they met on Sunday, but Villani decided to run as an independent. Villani has no illusions of winning this race. His ambition is to remain faithful to the ideals Macron stood for on the presidential campaign trail, for a smarter and more creative society. This campaign could become a marker of how far Macron has turned away from his promises. Two more MPs have left En Marche, bringing the total number of deflections to about 20 since the parliamentary elections in 2017. This is not massive and there is no organised effort against Macron's policies witthin the party, unlike what happened to François Hollande. But it is a sign nevertheless. Stéphane Dupont recalls that a majority of the En Marche MPs came from the centre-left. The stand-off with the CFDT union over the past weeks has left its mark, as did the promised climate package that never came. Left-of-centre LREM MPs might find this a hard time to be in the majority, as Macron keeps a firm posture in the pension reform stand-off with trade unions.