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A nation cannot last in lies

Jan 28,2020
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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a visit to the AstraZeneca factory in Dunkirk, northern France, on Jan. 20, before the Choose France summit. [EPA/YONHAP]
Lee Jeong-min
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

French President Emmanuel Macron is troubled with continued protests, but he is popular in Korea. He is refreshing for the people who are disappointed by the 10-year-long “evils” of the conservative regimes and the liberal administration that created “new evils” after coming to power by promising to eradicate the evils. Macron was inaugurated within four days of President Moon Jae-in’s inauguration in 2017. He stepped down from the post of the Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs, founded En Marche and was elected president. He became a sensation by advocating for centrists, neither left or right. He said that both progressive and conservative politicians increased public spending and transferred the burden from the past to future generations, and they lacked the courage to face reality and cowardly transferred the debts that they could not handle to their children. Voters applauded the 39-year-old man who attacked the incompetence of the politicians that left France in a swamp of low growth and high unemployment and his assurances to treat the “French illness.”

But his real value was revealed in his execution rather than his speech. As soon as he came into office, he pushed to remove the wealth tax, lower the corporate tax and cut welfare budget. In 2018, he went on to increase fuel taxes. The middle-class and working-class people who live in the suburbs of Paris and commute by car opposed the hike. Angry drivers protested in fluorescent yellow vests that were required to be kept in cars in case of accidents, and the protests evolved into a movement to oust Macron. His approval rating fell to the 20 percent level. Eventually, unemployment decreased and the economy rebounded, and he was saved from the crisis. He created an environment where firing was easy, and corporate employment recovered.

This time, he is going all-in on pension reform. The reform, which will result in people having to work more and get less, is a hot potato that past administrations have all failed to pass. Resistance is nationwide. France’s railway union is setting a record for the nation’s longest strike with each passing day.

The French president did not avoid the problem which was displayed by the yellow vest protests. He held a national debate session and personally talked to the union. In front of the workers who criticized him for being “pro-business,” he demanded sacrifice without hesitation. He said that they could not earn more while working less, and government spending could not be increased with a tax cut. He also argued that it was wrong to think workers could be protected without protecting business.

It is not easy to predict the outcome of Macron’s political experiment that put his political life at stake. However, the dignity and leadership demanding sacrifice from the people, knowing that he would lose votes, make him shine.

That is statesmanly dignity thinking about the future of the country, not an election. I was reminded of what former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said: the sign of a fundamental crisis of the time was that no leader could demanded a sacrifice from the people. His words are profound.

No one in the world is willing to sacrifice himself or herself. But some people make sacrifices because if everyone refuses, everyone will be destroyed. It is a better option than everyone dying. It is the fate of the leader to induce sacrifice.

With the general election in April, rosy promises are overflowing in politics. Free public Wi-Fi will open an age of free data, and people turning 20 will receive 30 million won to start their careers. Apartments costing one fourth of their current prices will be supplied.

These are unreasonable populist promises when 2 percent growth can barely be attained. But politicians are confident that they are good populists and they will not face criticism. They say that people use the chances they are offered by society if they don’t get benefits from their parents. Do they believe in Messiah? It is an extreme form of irresponsibility that they are only aiming for votes. It almost feels wicked to me.

The promise to become one of the top 4 venture powers by the Minjoo Party, which motioned a bill to ban the ride-hailing service Tada, is not just contradictory but surreal. Instead of talking about venture power, politicians need to realistically resolve the Tada issue. Then, venture and startup CEOs will not establish a proportional party for regulatory reform. Mentioning venture power while keeping the law banning Tada is only word play. The president’s promise to guarantee taxis’ interest as much as possible while helping innovative operations also has the message that no one will be sacrificed. But a responsible leader should say that there is no solution to satisfy everyone without someone’s sacrifice. The leader should persuade people that little sacrifices need to be made and pains should be shared.

The time for the voters is approaching. No country has become rich after being tricked by flashy deception and sweet rhetoric. Populism of the politicians packaged as a the Messiah is deception for the people. Macron himself said that a nation cannot last on lies.