As protests roil France, Macron faces a wicked problem — and it could lead to his downfall


Peter McPhee, University of Melbourne

Two years ago, the streets of France were filled with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), a grassroots protest movement sparked by a proposed tax hike on petrol.

Though they have shed their yellow safety jackets, many of these disaffected people have joined a new wave of protests that has roiled France for weeks, presenting a major challenge for the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

The protests erupted in late October after the horrific murder of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who had used caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson. Thousands marched in tribute to Paty, but also in support of freedom of speech.

In the past month, protesters have also taken aim at a proposed new security law intended to combat what the government describes as “Islamic radicalism”. Nearly 150 people were arrested last weekend after protests became violent.

Rights groups and journalists’ unions have denounced what they call ‘arbitrary arrests’ at the latest protests.

The roots of Macron’s current challenge

An explanation of the tensions connecting these protests takes us deep into the history of France, as well as to contemporary crises. It also suggests that there is no simple solution.

In 1789, French revolutionaries sought to capture their twin aspirations of religious tolerance and freedom of speech in articles 10 and 11 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

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For French Muslims, every terror attack brings questions about their loyalty to the republic

“No man may be harassed for his opinions, even religious ones”, they insisted, while asserting that “the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man”.

Should these natural rights be curtailed in any way? Yes, of course: as article 4 stipulates, they would be limited to “ensure the enjoyment of the same rights for other members of society”. As to how this would be achieved, “only the law may determine these limits”.

Therein lay the problem. Since “the law” would be made by national legislatures, these limits would always be instrumental — that is, made by elected politicians working within a social and political context. That is Macron’s wicked problem today.

Macron called Paty a ‘quiet hero’ at a memorial service and said he was ‘killed because Islamists want our future’.
Francois Mori/AP

The continuing debate over laïcité

Conflict over limits to freedom arose immediately between revolutionaries and their opponents after 1789. There were ribald, even pornographic, attacks on Marie-Antoinette and the Catholic Church, reflecting a deadly schism between secular, republican France and the church.

For republicans, a central legacy of the revolution has been the principle of laïcité, that is, of a secular public space.

Freedom of religion has been guaranteed in France so long as it does not disturb public order. Religion is seen as a private matter and its observance strictly separated from public life.

This is a deeply held conviction in France. It explains the 2010 law that bans the wearing of full-face coverings in public, including but not limited to burqas and niqābs.

An unidentified veiled woman is led away by police after the law banning face coverings came into effect.
Michel Euler/AP

French supporters of laïcité would find it perplexing, if not offensive, to see one Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, holding Sunday press conferences outside his church, or another, Scott Morrison, welcoming the media inside his church and describing secular events (such as an election victory) as a “miracle”. In France, this might end political careers.

Australian and US commentators have been too ready to criticise France for not being as accepting of difference as their own societies, ignoring France’s different history and present.

Read more:
France’s laïcité: why the rest of the world struggles to understand it

From 1789, Jews, Protestants, Muslims — as well as Catholics — were guaranteed the freedom to worship, but the fine line between religious freedoms and secular public space has always been blurred, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Take Captain Alfred Dreyfus’s false conviction for treason in 1894, followed by his imprisonment and eventual exoneration in 1906. This was profoundly polarising because it embodied the violent divisions in France about the place of Jews in public life at a time of acute anti-semitism.

Dreyfus’s anti-semitic and anti-republican accusers included many clergy
— one of the reasons behind the formal separation of church and state in 1905.

The start of Alfred Dreyfus’s trial in Rennes in 1899.
Wikimedia Commons

Deep national tensions over Islam

Similarly, the beheading of Paty and subsequent terror attack in Nice in late October sparked a profound response because they occurred amid deep national tensions over the place of Muslims in France.

These tensions go back to wars of decolonisation in the 1960s, but were heightened by recent attacks at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan theatre in 2015.

Mourners leave flowers at a memorial to the victims of the knife attack at the Notre Dame Basilica church in Nice.

While almost all Muslim organisations in France were prompt and unequivocal in repudiating those murders, elsewhere in the Muslim world, some were hostile to the freedoms accorded to media outlets such as Charlie Hebdo to publish caricatures mocking Islam and its prophet.

Leaders in Turkey, Morocco, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere condemned the magazine and called for consumer boycotts of French products.

Charlie Hebdo’s defence was that it mocks everybody, and it followed with an obscene cartoon of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Read more:
Liberty, equality, fraternity: redefining ‘French’ values in the wake of Charlie Hebdo

Macron has insisted the respect due to all religions must be balanced by the right to freedom of expression, no matter how offensive some caricatures might be to people of faith.

He has defended the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish the caricatures, even though some might be banned in other countries as deliberately offensive, even racist. While France has anti-hate laws, its highest courts have also been very reluctant to penalise satire.

At the same time, Macron’s minister of national education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, has targeted “Islamo-gauchisme”, the supposed undermining of French republican values by left-wing academics and intellectuals infected by feelings of guilt for France’s colonial past.

Can Macron find a solution?

These tensions have now spilled onto the streets in unanticipated ways, as they have become embroiled with deep anxieties and divisions about decolonisation, policing and the limits to secularism. All of this comes at a time of economic despair and strident criticism of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic.

In this context, violent police raids and a sweeping national security law, which would make a criminal offence to publish photos or film identifying police officers and expand police surveillance powers, have sparked widespread discontent.

In early December, the Macron government announced a revision of the security bill. This alone will not staunch a profound crisis of confidence in the foundational values of the republic: secularism, freedom of speech and respect for religious plurality.

In such a situation, the siren calls of cultural stereotyping may become louder, and Macron may need a “miracle” of his own to keep France out of the hands of Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement National (National Rally), formerly known as the Front National, at the presidential elections of April 2022.The Conversation

Peter McPhee, Emeritus professor, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As Emmanuel Macron heads to Australia, the relationship is more important than ever

File 20180430 135837 1f76s11.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Malcolm Turnbull would do well to take his lead from Emmanuel Macron on climate change.
AAP/Michael Reynolds

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

When French President Emmanuel Macron visits Australia this week for talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and other ministers, it will be an occasion of more than usual significance.

Coming on the heels of Macron’s talks in Washington with US President Donald Trump, Macron’s meetings with Turnbull will be informed by his impressions of an idiosyncratic presidency.

High on the list for discussion will be trade, including Australia’s desire for quick progress on a free trade agreement with the European Union. Regional security interests and climate change will also have an airing.

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Macron-Trump summit has high stakes for France’s embattled leader

Beyond all of that, Turnbull and Macron will no doubt seek to build on the amity apparent in France last week during the opening of the John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux, where French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave a poignant speech.

For many young Australians, this earth was their final safe place. For many of them, this earth was the final confidante of a thought or a word intended for a loved one from the other side of the world. Loved ones who would only learn the sad news several months later.

More can be made of these occasions than is warranted, but the centenary of the end of the first world war provides an opportunity for two liberal democracies to reaffirm their commitment to human freedoms and the rule of law.

Australia and France may find themselves on opposite sides of the world, but in an era disrupted by China’s rise and Russia’s flagrant disregard for international norms, these sorts of relationships become more important.

Perhaps surprisingly, Macron will be only the second French president to visit Australia in the history of relations that go back to the mid-19th century, when consular links were first established. (The only other one to visit was Francois Hollande in 2014 for the G20.)

The first and second world wars strengthened those bonds, but it is probably fair to say Australia and France have not been as close to each other as might have been given their extensive trading and investment partnership.

That may be about to change, given the need for Australia to nurture its security relationships beyond the American alliance at a time of considerable uncertainty in global affairs.

While the US relationship remains the cornerstone of Australian security, a broadening of defence ties with other like-minded Western democracies – and regional powers like Japan – becomes more pressing.

The UK’s Brexit is putting greater onus on Australia’s European ties, which will no longer be viewed through London’s prism. This may turn out to be a benefit to Australia of Britain’s Brexit debacle.

Underpinning the Australian-French security relationship is the Joint Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership signed in March 2017. This statement encourages the two countries to strengthen engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.

In some respects, the strategic partnership could be regarded as symbolic. But it is having the effect of promoting enhanced contacts more or less across the board, including security, intelligence and climate issues.

The two sides have also been working on a logistical defence agreement to enable closer coordination in the Pacific, including combined force training exercises.

To an extent, this enhanced security relationship has been taking place under the radar. A growing security partnership was highlighted in Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.

Both countries are active in arms control regimes such as the Australia Group, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Proliferation Security initiative.

Cyber security is another collaborative area.

None of this is to say that France has the capacity – or the intent – to be become an Indo-Pacific power. But it should be remembered that it retains Pacific possessions, namely New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna.

Indeed, it’s unlikely that Macron would have made the long journey to Australia if he was not also bound for New Caledonia, where its citizens will vote on independence from France in November this year. Macron will be seeking to forestall such an outcome.

Turnbull and Macron will no doubt dwell on Australia’s $50 billion deal to buy 12 French submarines, and progress made in establishing the Future Submarine Program based in Adelaide.

Whatever criticisms might have been levelled at the choice of the French option ahead of German and Japanese contenders, the FSP will bolster a significant long-term strategic partnership.

Among Turnbull’s preoccupations in his discussions with Macron will be to ensure negotiations on an Australian-EU free trade agreement get off to a good start.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU means such an agreement has come more sharply into focus. France’s powerful farming lobby dictates that it will be a cautious participant in discussions about an FTA that would improve access for Australian primary producers.

Gaining Macron’s personal support for such a process will be important.

In this regard, Turnbull would be able to point out that commercial and investment ties between the two countries are already extensive, leaving aside the fact the EU is the largest source of foreign investment and second-largest trading partner for Australia.

In 2015-16, the EU’s direct investment in Australia totalled $157.6 billion, and Australia’s investment in the EU was valued at $111.8 billion. Total two-way merchandise and services trade was worth $95.6 billion.

Of this, France’s direct investment in Australia was valued at $28 billion, and Australian investment in France at $55 billion. Most of France’s largest listed companies operate in Australia, employing something like 60,000 people. Two-way trade was worth about $8 billion in 2016, weighted significantly in France’s favour.

France itself is the world’s sixth-largest economy, fifth-largest exporter and a financial hub in the Eurozone. Its status as a financial centre will be enhanced post-Brexit.

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Then there is Macron, who has quickly established himself as a unique leader in a European context. His centrism as head of his own movement has not pleased all in the country he leads.

Macron’s relationship with Trump, built partly on their respective statuses as “ousiders”, gives the French president additional heft in an uncertain world.

His willingness to assert positions on climate change and the nuclear agreement with Iran that contradict those of the Trump administration further enhances his credibility. Turnbull would be advised to pay attention to what Macron has to say on a range of issues, not least climate.

As custodian of the Paris Accords, Macron has both a personal and professional interest in seeing the agreement strengthened, not diminished. His advice to the US Congress – “There is no Planet B” – resonated around the world.

The ConversationTurnbull could do worse than endorse Macron’s choice of words.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Macron crushes Le Pen 66-34 in French Presidential runoff

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

With all results except overseas French in, centrist Emmanuel Macron has thrashed the far right Marine Le Pen by a 66.1-33.9 margin in yesterday’s French Presidential runoff election. Le Pen won only two of France’s 107 departments, and was buried by about 85-15 in Paris and its surrounds. In the first round, Macron had won 24.0% and Le Pen 21.3%. Supporters of other candidates gave Macron his huge runoff win. The Conversation

The French polls had Le Pen too high. Final polls had Macron leading Le Pen by about 62-38, a 24-point margin, compared with the actual 32-point margin. Since Trump won the US Presidency, far right candidates and parties in Austria, the Netherlands and now France have underperformed final pre-election polls; they have also tended to drop in the polls in the last week or so before the election.

As US poll analyst Harry Enten tweeted, the French poll miss was greater than any US poll miss at the 2016 election. It is possible that European poll overestimation of the far right is due to a vocal minority who support Trump, while the “silent” majority detest Trump and are pro-European Union.

Turnout for the runoff was 74.6%, but 11.5% of those voters deliberately spoilt their ballot, so effective turnout was 66.1%, down from 75.8% in the first round. This drop probably reflects the hard left’s aversion to choosing between a centrist and a far right candidate.

Elections for the French lower house will be held on 11 and 18 June. The lower house has 577 members, elected using single member electorates in a two-round system. These elections are deliberately timed to occur in a new President’s honeymoon period, in an attempt to avoid divided government. Both the lower house and the President are elected for five year terms.

The key question about the lower house elections is whether Macron’s new party, En Marche! (Onward!), can win a lower house majority, making the Presidency easier for Macron.

I wrote about the Obamacare repeal vote and the UK local government elections on Saturday. Yesterday, four polls were released for the 8 June UK general election showing the Conservatives leading Labour by 15-19 points.

Tasmanian upper house elections and polling

The Tasmanian upper house has 15 members elected for six year terms by single-member electorates. Every May, two or three of these electorates hold elections. On Saturday, Murchison, Launceston and Rumney voted.

In Murchison, left wing incumbent Independent Ruth Forrest defeated conservative Independent Daryl Quilliam 56.6-43.4. In Launceston, centrist incumbent Independent Rosemary Armitage defeated the somewhat more left wing Independent Neroli Ellis 52.1-47.9. In Rumney, Labor’s Sarah Lovell defeated conservative incumbent Independent Tony Mulder 52.3-47.7.

Labor’s gain in Rumney gives them three upper house seats; prior to May 2016, Labor held only one seat. There are four left wing Independents, so the left now holds 7 of the 15 seats. Kevin Bonham says the left now effectively has a blocking majority on legislation.

A Tasmanian EMRS poll, conducted 29 April to 2 May with a sample of 1000, has the Liberals on 39% (up 4 since March), Labor on 34% (up 5), the Greens on 15% (down 4), Independents 7% (down 3) and One Nation 3% (down 3). Kevin Bonham’s interpretation, given known EMRS biases to the Greens and Independents and against Labor, is Liberals 41%, Labor 37%, Greens 12% and One Nation 3%.

A 12 Liberals, 10 Labor, 2 Greens split is likely based on this poll, with the final Lyons seat to determine whether the Liberals can just retain a majority. Tasmania’s lower house has 25 members, elected using the Hare Clark system with five 5-member electorates. A Tasmanian election is due by early next year, and will probably be held in March 2018.

The better Premier measure is a spectacular result for new Labor leader Rebecca White; she trails incumbent Will Hodgman by just 42-39, compared with Hodgman’s massive 52-20 lead in March over former Labor leader Bryan Green. However, voting intentions suggest Labor is gaining from the Greens, but not from the Liberals.

Essential at 53-47 to Labor

Labor led by 53-47 in last week’s Essential. Primary votes were 38% Coalition, 37% Labor, 9% Greens, 7% One Nation and 3% Nick Xenophon Team.

30% (up 7 since December 2016) thought the economy was good and 29% (down 7) thought it was poor. 41% thought the economy was headed in the wrong direction and 29% the right direction.

On most spending priorities, far more people thought the government should increase than reduce spending in tomorrow’s budget, but unemployed aid, military spending, foreign aid and business assistance were exceptions. People expected the budget to be good for the well-off and Australian business, but bad for everyone else.

Respondents were confident that Turnbull could deliver secure borders and tougher citizenship requirements, but not confident on other Turnbull promises, such as jobs and growth and a balanced budget. By 61-24, voters were not confident that Turnbull could deliver action on climate change.

66% thought voting should continue to be compulsory, with 27% wanting a change to voluntary voting. 58% said they would definitely vote if voting were voluntary, and another 22% said they would be likely to vote.

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.