France is the country that has gone furthest down this path. Its president, Emmanuel Macron, came to office through his new party, En Marche, claiming to break free of the old Left and Right. For this reason, he has been labelled a “centrist” by conventional media commentators.
The problem with this characterization is that it ignores how the spectrum has been upended. In the new configuration, Macron cannot be properly viewed as a centrist. His government represents the extreme, elitist pole of the new spectrum. Its combination of policy preferences – aggressive supply-side economics, deepened technocratic European federalism, uncompromising social progressivism – might as well have been written by attendees at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The result has been the widespread “gilets jaunes” (“yellow vests”) protests. The fact that overwhelming public support for these has not diminished even as their violence has increased should be a stark warning about the limits of this disconnected, elitist agenda. We need to understand how extreme Macron’s proposals really are.
His government’s policy would have targeted household consumption of petroleum products with very steep tax hikes. They amount to 24 cents per litre for diesel fuel and 12 cents per litre for gasoline, rising higher as time goes on. That French petrol prices, at nearly £5 per gallon, are already among the highest in the world, simply did not seem to matter. Nor did the evidence that for most people, especially rural and modest-income households, use of these products is neither a luxury nor an indulgence, but an unavoidable and inflexible part of their daily expenditures.
Notwithstanding, the French government ploughed on with technocratic certitude. That the yellow-vest movement, described as a “jacquerie” (or “peasants’ revolt”), appears to have won ought to be a warning to carbon-tax proponents elsewhere. Carbon taxes are both bad policy and bad politics.
The evidence from France is that unmodified elite tax preferences can be perilous for governments – indeed, for social order itself. The further problem for France is that its newly-polarised political spectrum does not offer a better choice.
The lesson from this unedifying episode is that it is incumbent upon pragmatic conservatives to fill the gap between the two poles of extreme populism and extreme elitism. This must involve adapting conservative insights and ideas to the contemporary challenges facing low- and middle-income households.
Conservatives must get back to basics – including tackling populist issues such as rising house prices, exorbitant energy costs, unbalanced trade relationships, and declining employment opportunities for working people. Generating inclusive growth in a globally competitive market economy should be the objective for modern conservatism.
France’s recent political crisis exposes the limits of the new populist/elitist political configuration, the deep unpopularity of carbon taxes, and the need for a conservatism on the side of working families. These are lessons that leaders around the western world should heed.