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Why the UK and France are facing ‘fundamental transformations’

Political upheaval is building on both sides of the English Channel. British Prime Minister Theresa May postponed a vote on her Brexit plan. French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to increase wages to try and appease Paris protesters. What does all this mean for the two leaders and the EU? Nick Schifrin talks to Anand Menon of King’s College London and the Brookings Institution's Célia Belin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    These are nervous days on both sides of the English Channel.

    As we reported earlier, Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to postpone tomorrow's Parliament vote on a deal to cement Brexit, the U.K.'s leaving from the European Union.

    And, in Paris, President Emmanuel Macron promised to increase wages and implement reforms to try and placate demonstrators who've been protesting throughout France over the past few weeks.

    Here's foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Paris is burning. And Britain is consumed by Brexit.

  • Jeremy Corbyn:

    The government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    European leaders trying to respond to the forces of populism are now being consumed by them. Their countries face fundamental transformations, and they face serious threats to their power.

  • Julien Bertard:

    Our enemy is not just Macron. This dates back 15, 20, 30 years, and it's been a long time since the anger has been growing. Today, it explodes. And I think it's not yet over.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For the fourth straight week, on Saturday, demonstrators faced off with French police. In downtown Paris, they created homemade barricades and had running clashes with armored vehicles and tear gas.

    They call themselves the Yellow Vest protesters for the fluorescence every driver has to carry. At first, they objected a gas tax hike, but now this is France's biggest political crisis in a half-century, a sort of primal scream by citizens who feel left behind.

    In a prime-time address, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to cut retirees' taxes, raise the minimum wage, and push tax-free year-end bonuses. He tried to sound contrite.

  • Emmanuel Macron:

    My only worry is you. My only fight is for you. Our only battle, it's for France.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When Macron was elected in 2017, he was a barricade to growing anti-European populism, and faced off against President Trump.

  • Emmanuel Macron:

    We all share the same responsibility: Make our planet great again.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Macron was also an outsider with no built-in constituency. And now left and right grassroots anger demand fundamental changes that challenge his center-right policies.

    Today, he declined to reinstate higher taxes on the rich, and protesters promised to keep fighting.

  • Jean-Marie Camus:

    Instead of speaking on TV, he should just come and see us here. He should listen to us. That's exactly what we want, to be heard.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That sense of being ignored helped spark Brexit. That vote blew up traditional British party politics. That means, today, there's no majority support for a hard Brexit, another referendum, or Theresa May's middle ground.

    The controversy is over the border between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a separate country that's part of the European Union. Today, cars can pass easily because there is effectively no border. The Brexit deal would keep Northern Ireland inside the E.U. orbit. May and the E.U. say it's the best deal possible.

  • Theresa May:

    All the analysis shows that, if you wish to deliver Brexit, if you wish to honor the result of the referendum, then the deal that does that, that best protects jobs and our economy, is the deal that is on, the government has put forward.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has helped guarantee the deal the government has put forward would fail.

  • Jeremy Corbyn:

    People are in despair at the state of these failed negotiations, and concerned about what it means about their jobs, their livelihood, and their communities, and the fault for that lies solely at the feet of this shambolic government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Theresa May promised to renegotiate the issue over the Northern Ireland-Ireland border, and she will travel to Brussels on Thursday.

    But, today, top European Union officials said there will be no renegotiation.

    To talk about both sides of the channel, I'm joined from London by Anand Menon, professor of European politics and European affairs at King's College, and here in the studio, Célia Belin is a visiting fellow at Brookings and a former adviser to the French Foreign Ministry.

    Thank you to you both.

    Anand Menon, can I start with you?

    Theresa May faced an automatic defeat today in Parliament. Is — did she have any other choice but to pull the vote?

  • Anand Menon:

    No, I don't think she did.

    And it wasn't just the question of facing a defeat. I think the real issue facing the prime minister — because, in these weird times in Britain, everyone knew she was going to lose. I think what eventually made Number 10 scared was the scale of the defeat they thought they were going to suffer, by well over 100.

    And it was that, I think, that made them decide to delay the vote, because a defeat of that scale, and the future of the prime minister is in doubt.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Professor Menon, there is no majority support for Theresa May's version of Brexit. There's no majority support in Parliament for having a second referendum, nor of a kind of harder Brexit.

    Are we looking at the more likely scenario of a crash out of the E.U., and does she have any options?

  • Anand Menon:

    Well, it's worth saying there's absolutely no majority support for a no-deal Brexit either, but this is the nub of the problem in this country, is, Parliament and indeed the country are profoundly divided, and there isn't a majority for any outcome.

    I think what the prime minister hopes is, if she waits until January, lets tempers cool, let M.P.s face the prospect that, if they don't vote for this deal, one outcome might be a no-deal exit, which would be profoundly damaging, it might focus attention and might help her to win some of the votes that she needs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Célia Belin, if I could switch to France for a minute, President Macron offered an increase in minimum wage today. He offered tax cuts for the middle class. He acknowledged the anger.

    Is that enough to assuage protesters that have no particular leader?

  • Célia Belin:

    There was a lot of expectation this speech.

    Emmanuel Macron hasn't spoken, didn't speak for the past three weeks. And so the people (INAUDIBLE) were expecting him to make dramatic or surprising decisions. And to say the least, it's probably not enough. They were not very impressive.

    Part of the reason is that they're trying to enter an anger that has been brewing for decades now. It's the anger of — that is shared across the West, the anger dealing with underemployment both here in Europe and in the U.S., the anger about wage — the non-evolution of wage, the transformation of this economy from an industrial economy to an information age.

    All of that has really hit very strongly lower-middle-class, working-class, and these are the people protesting. But their demands are very varied. And so it was very hard to actually provide an answer.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Have those protesters, the middle-class, the working-class, have they felt he's been out of touch, that he's been tone-deaf, that he hasn't really understood what they're talking about?

  • Célia Belin:

    It's what they're been saying about him for the past year-and-a-half, since he has been in power, his attitude is out of touch, his attitude has been perceived as arrogant, for a few little sentences here and there that seemed to be showing a sort of a distrust of lower-middle-class.

    So there's — there's a class element behind it. But, more generally, people have been saying that this government has been blind to what was going on, on the ground, mostly because it came out of a new party with very little local support, sometimes a lack of — a deep lack of (INAUDIBLE) and so a lack of understanding of what was going on.

    And, in many ways, it has been deaf also, deaf to the demands of the past three, four weeks. And so one of the demand was also a demand on social justice, maybe reinstate the wealth tax, which is something that Macron has been unwilling to do. He is not questioning his own economic policy at this stage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Professor Anand Menon, if I could zoom out with you for a little bit and talk about the future of Europe, European officials have talked to me about how they need to punish Britain, basically, and make it difficult for Brexit to go through.

    Is the desire from some officials in the continent to hold the E.U. together and make sure no one else tries to leave the E.U., is that preventing them from giving Theresa May some of the concessions that she may need?

  • Anand Menon:

    I think, to an extent, it certainly is.

    There's a — there's a general understanding, I think, amongst the remaining E.U. member states that non-membership ship has to look significantly worse than membership, because, otherwise, the danger is that others would look at Britain doing well outside the club and say, hello, why don't we try that?

    I'm not sure it's a particularly right strategy, because I'm not sure there's any other member state that is ready to take the sort of decision that Britain has taken. But that certainly informs the thinking in Brussels.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Célia Belin, if we are talking about the people who are trying to hold the E.U. together, whether punishing Britain or not, President Macron was part of that group.

    And do his problems mean a setback for him more globally, and a setback for the people trying to resist some of these populist movements in both Europe and United States?

  • Célia Belin:

    Well, unfortunately, I think this might have impact outside of France, as you point out.

    On the European parliamentarian election that are coming up next year, Macron had very much taken the lead of the progressive camp vs. the nationalist camp that was led to by Matteo Salvini in Italy or Viktor Orban in Hungary.

    And this crisis weakens his voice very much. What he might also have — he might decide also to put together — to put forward is a proposal — proposals regarding the Europe that protects, a Europe that is more protectionist in the world.

    It is something that he has touched upon previously in his Davos speech a year ago, for example, saying that to perpetrate the system, people need to take care of the losers of globalization, of the people that have been forgotten.

    And the irony is that, in spite of the fact that he had correctly diagnosed the situation, he did not necessarily put in place this necessary reform. He might be obliged to. He might come to the next E.U. election with a new platform. This remains to be seen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Célia Belin of Brookings and Professor Anand Menon from London, thank you very much to both.

  • Anand Menon:

    Thank you.

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