Why it’s hard not to gloat at the travails of French president

DOMINIC LAWSON: Why it’s hard not to gloat at the travails of the strutting French president who called Brexiteers liars

We mustn’t gloat about the public uprising in Paris. Some of it has involved setting fire to buildings. And there are some pretty unpleasant types among the demonstrators.

But when I consider how much of a blow this might be to President Macron’s plans to exploit Brexit at the UK’s expense, I can’t help but feel a frisson of schadenfreude.

Macron, a former banker, had set out to persuade the British financial sector to move en masse from London to Paris, partly on the argument that the French capital would be a much more congenial place to live, after the City of London had been cut out of the regulatory embrace and privileges of the European single market.

Inferno: Protesters set cars on fire as they clash with riot police on Avenue Foch near the Arc de Triomphe during Saturday’s demonstrations over high fuel prices

He had been having some success. The latest annual survey by Wealth-X showed Paris beating London for the first time in the number of ‘ultra-high net worth’ people choosing to move there: ‘London lost ground mainly as a result of the growth of 17.7 per cent in the ultra-wealthy population of Paris.’ 


This is chiefly the result of Macron scrapping France’s wealth tax on all items apart from property assets and abolishing the top marginal band of payroll tax.

The editor of the French financial daily, Les Echos, observed that ‘Macron has effectively halved the tax paid by the very wealthy’ and had been ‘doing a belly dance to attract wealthy Londoners to Paris’.

No wonder so many French people call him ‘The President of the Rich’. 

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Which would be a much less dangerous epithet in a country with a revolutionary tradition if Macron did not also appear so insensitive to the needs of those struggling to make ends meet — for whom the cost of fuel, especially in rural France, is a particular worry.

Macron has made himself the hero of the international green lobby by denouncing President Trump’s abrogation of the Paris Accord on climate change (declaring ‘We have no Planet B’) and by introducing swingeing increases in fuel taxes. 

Over the past 12 months the price of diesel in France has risen by almost 25 per cent. 

This explains why the protesters are known as ‘gilet jaunes’ (yellow vests): they have taken to the streets wearing the high visibility clothing required, under French law, to be carried in every vehicle.

French President Emmanuel Macron waves to citizens on Sunday as he assesses the damage caused by the ‘Yellow Vests’ protest a day earlier

The demonstrators are numbered in their thousands, not millions. But — according to the most recent polls — their cause is backed by the overwhelming majority of the French people.

The same polls show Macron’s popularity is now even lower than his much-derided predecessor Francois Hollande at the same stage of his Presidency.

For all the chaos in British politics as a result of the struggle to get Brexit through Parliament, Theresa May is more popular in Britain than Macron is in France.

This must be a cause of anguish to the French President. For if Brexit is a success it would destroy him.

He has, more than any other European leader, expressed his own political vision as a direct rebuke to the idea of national self-assertion (making him a hero to British anti Brexit campaigners).

At the Salzburg EU summit in September, Macron denounced the British politicians behind Brexit as ‘liars’ — a most unusual intervention in a gathering where leaders are not meant to take sides in the debates of neighbouring countries.

The point is, however, that, especially in rural France, for which the president has such apparent contempt, the EU is not at all popular, and Frexit would have mass support.

I got a sense of this from my father, Nigel Lawson, who has for many years lived in South West France.

Demonstrators hold a French flag near a burning barricade during Saturday’s protests

He had been president of Conservatives for Britain, while it campaigned for Brexit. 

When I asked him if this had affected his domestic social life in any way, he said that while he had become persona non grata with many of the English expats in the area, the local French had been nothing but supportive.

Macron understands this very well. When interviewed by the BBC’s Andrew Marr in January, and asked if the French people would also have voted to leave the EU if given the chance in a referendum, Macron replied: ‘Yes. Probably.’

France is in the Eurozone: one of its problems is that the single currency has been wonderful for German industry within the EU, but has been asphyxiating the less efficient southern European economies.

Indeed, unemployment in France is still scandalously high. And while Macron’s fiscal policies are well motivated to create more attractive conditions for employers, his threats to the UK in the context of Brexit will only add to France’s economic difficulties.

Specifically, if the port of Calais were to adopt a ‘go-slow’ customs approach — and British trade deflected via Dutch ports — it would devastate Hauts-de-France, the northernmost region of the country, which already has the nation’s highest unemployment and poverty rates. 

Jean-Paul Mulot, a member of the Hauts-de-France regional council, warns that French obstructionism, post Brexit, would be a ‘suicidal economic mission’.

It would be no consolation for Mulot and those he represents if Brexit also meant more financiers settling in Paris, encouraged by Macron’s policy of seducing the super-rich.

Although any of those based in London must now be looking at what is happening on the streets of the French capital, and cancelling whatever plans they might have had to take up Macron’s kind offer.


Apologies — assuming you noticed — for my absence from these pages over the past couple of weeks.

I was at the world chess championship match between Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and his challenger, the American Fabiano Caruana. Believe it or not, I am the elected President of the English Chess Federation; so it was not only a thrill for me to attend but a duty.

And it was thrilling to witness the two greatest chess players of the day locked so closely in mental combat that it was only a rapid play-off that could settle the struggle, after all 12 scheduled games of the match were drawn. 

This fact seems to have alerted the attention of the producers of Have I Got News For You. 

On last Friday’s show the panellists took it in turns to mock the event for being ‘boring’. Its script required the guest presenter, Jennifer Saunders, to pretend to yawn and declare that this was all so dull that she was ‘losing the will to live’.

Yes, I know this is meant to be a comedy show: but the ‘joke’ that chess is boring is itself tired and predictable. It is also stupid. There is nothing dull about a brilliant football match being drawn. 

The same applies to chess. And, as it happens, no chess match in history had attracted so many viewers online. 

Malcolm Pein, the chief executive of the charity Chess in Schools and Communities, said that as a result of the match in London ‘we have seen a lot more interest in school chess. A lot more people phoning up for lessons’.

This is such good news. Chess provides so much of what we should want for our young people in an age dangerously characterised by instant gratification and the quick fix. 

It calls for deep concentration, hard work, self-reliance, patience — but also imaginative creativity: in fact the attribute entirely lacking from that hackneyed mockery of chess on HIGNFY.

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