President Macron has just addressed the French people for the first time since 1 December. After weeks of violent protests, his address was anxiously awaited, not least after last Saturday when, according to Le Monde, some 136 thousand protesters of all ages and backgrounds took to the streets of France.
What did you expect from the President? What did I or the yellow-vested protesters?
Ah, but the man is no fool! Rather than scold the demonstrators, he made a sweeping apology on behalf of the establishment for having forgotten the suffering of so many of his countrymen, giving moving accounts of the uphill struggle of untold men and women straining to reconcile work, parenthood (or old age and/or illness) and low income. His examples were numerous and vivid enough to sound sincere. He promised there would be change, plenty of change, starting with a 100 EUR hike of minimum wages from 1 January.
President Macron must have read his Piketti! Have you, Mrs Clinton? I am pretty sure Mrs Merkel has, conservative though she may be. As for the right-wing, so-called populist leaders of Eastern European countries slipping into autocracy, they have evidently only grasped what serves them best, the fact that a majority of voters are disaffected, disappointed and feel disadvantaged.
The question is, will the French president be able to deliver on his promises? Can any president deliver on such promises? I very much doubt it. For instance, how on earth can one sole president put an end to global so-called “tax avoidance” and the use of ugly, if not illegal, tax shields. The way things are, no president can satisfy any electorate in the long run.
Companies need investors. Investors want to be remunerated. After all, investing in a company is not as safe as putting your money in the bank. The company therefore needs to pay sufficiently high dividends to be able to dissuade people from putting their savings in the bank. To do so, the company has to cut more corners than the bank, i.e. pay less tax. If that involves hiring experts, offshore entities, fictitious companies, nominee directors and dodgy accounting firms, all of which will take a cut in the avoided tax, so be it. The outcome is less money to the state, and survival of the company.
Since we all want employment for as many of our citizens as possible, we dare not normally rock the boat. There is just one problem: As a result of tax avoidance, the state has insufficient means to care for its constituents. And large swathes of many populations are growing very disillusioned, even angry. Very angry.
Now in Europe, we tend to disagree with people in the US about the value of “state” and human constituents. Whereas in the US, where disadvantaged human beings and their offspring (excepting younger than 12-week-old embryos) tend to be disparaged, Europeans have invested heavily in the so-called “welfare society”. The term basically embodies the concept that all and sundry should have the right to education according to proclivity, healthcare according to need, and sustenance according to circumstance.
In other words, in Europe, states need income. The problem is, however, that a lot of money is being tucked away. Putting taxable money away is expensive, so only those who are very rich can afford to use the available “loopholes” to do so. One such loophole involved defrauding several European states of a total of 55 billion (yes, billion) euros. Here it is explained by Deutsche Welle. This was the largest tax evasion scam ever to have been uncovered in Europe. One reason why theft of so much of our (the taxpayers’) money has attracted only limited attention is that some very prestigious banks were among the culprits (e.g. Santander and Deutsche Bank).
You and I, the French yellow vests, the long-suffering Spanish unemployed, the ill-advised Bolsonaro voters in Brazil, the innumerable abused women of Latin America and Somalia, the underpaid teachers and health workers of the world, we are all being outmanoeuvred by companies that manage to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, (such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon) and by financial acrobats. It was the financial acrobats who brought down the global house of cards in 2008, trading in futures and shorts and whatnot, and they will do so again, because, basically, nothing has changed, because, basically, those who control the rules of the game DON’T WANT THINGS TO CHANGE, because, basically, they are inevitably the ones to win. This is not just a matter for France or the US. This is a global trend and it applies, I suspect, even to Russia, China and Iran.
In the December issue of Le Monde Diplomatique, Secretary General of Amnesty International Kumi Naidoo stresses that human rights are not just a matter of legal rights and freedom of speech. Economic and social rights are equally important. Kumi Naidoo apologises on behalf of the organisation for having so long delayed in understanding that one of the most important reasons why we need the one is to defend the other. I was very glad to see that apology!
What can the French president do? If he raises taxes on big business, he will be out of work tomorrow. He cannot possibly do anything about tax avoidance, because then companies will simply leave the country. There are plenty of other countries. It’s all interlocked, as Kumi Naidoo pointed out in his article celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, today, 10 December.
Although the German authorities managed to uncover much of the cum ex scam, it was only thanks to painstaking efforts laid down by a network of reporters from various news outlets, that the extent of the scam came to light. They also uncovered that it is STILL GOING ON. Read about it. I promise you, this is hot stuff.
My point is that in this case the press actually served the purpose it can and should serve, as a corrective: It exposed what we were not supposed to see.
However, in many countries, most media are owned by the powers that be. Hence they are not free. Hence people will make ill-informed electoral choices and will accept slashes to their legal rights and freedom of speech. Discovering, too late, that they are the ones to go on paying the austerity bill, they will be put in jail for voicing their discontent.
You can just imagine what conflagrations we will see when the climate bill has to be paid. We have just seen a small hint of that scenario in France.