They began as demonstrations against fuel tax hikes, but the French government's decision to scrap the planned rise has done little to quell the "yellow vest" demonstrations. Thousands of protesters gathered in Paris on Saturday chanting "Macron resign" and "president of the rich".
So how did the crisis balloon into a mass movement against the embattled 40-year-old president and his perceived pro-rich policies? The withdrawal of French President Emmanuel Macron from implementing the Polluting Fuels tax, had very little to no effect on calming the tense situation.
The "yellow vests", clad in the luminous safety jackets carried by law in all French cars, began staging nationwide roadblocks on November 17 in protest against tax hikes raising the price of fuel. On Saturday, anti-government protesters wreaked havoc around the country for the fourth weekend in a row, hurling missiles, torching cars and vandalising shops and restaurants.
"It is clear that we underestimated people's need to make themselves heard," government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told Europe 1 radio. "It is anger that is difficult to understand from an office in Paris," he acknowledged. According to French media, the protesters are becoming increasingly diverse, with students, small business owners and pensioners all taking part.
Why are the protesters so angry?
French affairs expert Jean Bogais was not surprised the government's last-minute cancellation of the planned rise in taxes on petrol and diesel had failed to defuse the situation. Mr Bogais, an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, told SBS News on Monday the protests had become a "rebellion" against Mr Macron.
"The tax on fuel was a trigger to this crisis. It was not the biggest issue. The biggest issue is the economy," he said. Mr Bogais said over the past 18 months, Mr Macron had tried to "change the way of life that exists in France ... To change the structure of the social system, how business is done [and] this has negatively affected the most disadvantaged people".
Mr Bogais said one of the president's most controversial policies was slashing France's wealth tax. "His argument was that France needed the rich to make more money to invest in the economy, to invest in startups and this would help everybody. But that has not worked."
He said "growing dissatisfaction in the government" meant violence was "inevitable". "There has been a profound fracture within French society. The government has lost control. "We haven't seen tanks (carrying EU flags not German flags) in the centre of Paris since the World War Two," he said, referring to the government crackdown on protests.
Will Macron survive?
The crisis facing a leader who had been hailed internationally as a youthful defender of liberal values is being closely watched abroad. Spain's El Pais newspaper said it was the first time Macron was "hesitating, giving the impression that he does not know what to do".
He has already offered protesters a string of concessions, after vowing not to be swayed like his predecessors by mass demonstrations. But so far he has refused to back down on a policy hated by the "yellow vests": his decision to scrap a tax on the assets of France's wealthiest.
Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud on Sunday also rejected the idea of a hike in the minimum wage, saying it would have knock-on effects for the whole economy. "We know that destroys jobs," Ms Penicaud told LCI television.
"If we raise all salaries automatically, many businesses would just go bust - or they would have to raise their prices, and no one would pay for their services." Mr Macron will meet trade unionists and business leaders on Monday to discuss the crisis.
He will then address the nation on Monday night, in what will be his first public comments on the demonstrations. Ms Penicaud said the president will announce "immediate and concrete measures" to respond to the crisis.
Russian propaganda accounts? (US Democrat Party’s playbook)
The movement has spread beyond France's borders, with around 400 arrested at a "yellow vest" event in Brussels on Saturday and peaceful demonstrations taking place in Dutch towns. In France, authorities have also launched an investigation into social media activity from accounts allegedly drumming up support for the protests, according to AFP.
And according to Britain's Times newspaper, hundreds of online accounts linked to Russia were used to stoke the demonstrations. Citing analysis by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, the Times said the accounts spread disinformation and used pictures of injured protesters from other events to enhance a narrative of brutality by French authorities.
The political vultures are circling around the French president and there’s much at stake for the world order. Less than a month ago, French President Emmanuel Macron staked his claim as the flag-bearer for globalism. In a speech to 60 world leaders at the Arc de Triomphe, he eulogized the United Nations and declared nationalism the “betrayal” of patriotism.
Last Saturday, tear gas and cobblestones flew in the same part of Paris as protesters trashed the iconic monument and demanded Macron’s embattled government withdraw a proposed fuel-tax increase. For the first time in his presidency, he backed down. It was a humbling moment for opponents of the populist revolts that spawned Donald Trump.
Europe has seen many a critical juncture in recent years, from the Greek debt crisis to the anti-immigrant backlash against refugees and Britain’s Brexit vote. Rarely, though, have so many political vultures been circling around one leader with so much at stake for the world order.
Poland is flirting with the far right and nationalist parties cajoled by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are plotting a rebellion at European Parliamentary elections in May. Meanwhile, Italy has collided with the European Union by taking a defiant stand on its budget spending.
With the EU’s erstwhile firefighter, Angela Merkel, planning to step down as German chancellor, the baton was supposed to pass to Macron to uphold liberal democracy. But Merkel’s power on the world stage was underpinned by a political fortress at home, and the French leader looks anything but solid.
“You can’t make speeches about defending the international order when your popularity is at 20 percent and there are protesters in the street,” said Nicholas Dungan, a Paris-based senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It’s very difficult to get your credibility back.”
It’s a stark contrast to the weekend of Nov. 11 as leaders marked a century since the end of World War I. Macron championed the need for global cooperation while Trump cut an isolated figure. Europe’s divisions were laid bare that day as Polish government officials marched through Warsaw with far-right groups to mark the country’s Independence Day. Macron, though, stood firm as Europe’s statesman.
The images televised around the world last weekend were of burning cars in the French capital. The retreat by the 40-year-old French leader was mocked by Trump. Macron admitted, via his prime minister, that he’s not been able to connect with the French people. “No tax merits putting our nation’s unity in danger,” Edouard Philippe said in a televised address.
The trouble for opponents of Trump-style nativism and protectionism is that there’s no one else to take up his mantle, Dungan said. After Macron was elected in May 2017, he sought to work with Merkel and a friendly government in Rome to deepen European integration. He reached out to Trump to convince the American president to stick to international agreements.
Trump ignored him and withdrew from the Iran nuclear accord and the Paris climate agreement. Trump tweeted that Macron’s climb down over a carbon tax that would raise fuel prices was proof that he’d been right all along.
Merkel, meanwhile, was wounded in German elections in September 2017. She was formally replaced on Friday as the head of her party by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, albeit an ally whose presence boosts the likelihood Merkel will see out her final term. Italy elected a Euroskeptic government in March.
“His ambitions for a strong Europe had already taken a hit from events in Germany and elsewhere,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, an adviser at the Paris-based French Institute for International Affairs. “But he emerges seriously weakened from the recent events. He’s just not appeared up to the level, and France's image has taken a terrible blow.”
At home, his popularity has been sinking, hurt by the failure of his early unpopular changes to labor and tax law to revive the French economy. Macron’s policies are seen to favor the wealthy, and poll after poll have shown the French electorate thinks the former banker is aloof and arrogant. His approval rating is at 28 percent, according to an average of seven polling institutes.
Then came the “Yellow Vests.” The grassroots protest movement was sparked by opposition to his environmental policy of hiking taxes on diesel and gasoline to fund incentives to buy cleaner cars and home housing systems. But it’s evolved into widespread anger about the rising cost of living and declining services in rural and small-town France.
The protesters’ demands have expanded accordingly. Some want to restore the wealth tax, increasing pensions, raising the minimum wage, cutting the salaries of politicians, and even to Macron resigning and replacing the National Assembly with a “people’s council.” Polls show three-quarters of the French support their demands, even if they also disapprove of the violence that’s accompanied many of the protests.
It’s also been felt in the bond market. The yield on French securities compared with Germany, a barometer for political risk, rose to the highest level since Macron was elected. He doesn’t face national elections again until 2022, and he’s always said he doesn’t care about popularity polls. French opposition parties will file a joint no-confidence motion against the government on Monday. It’s unlikely to make much difference.
But European elections and a series of municipal and regional votes over the next two years could shape up as referendums on his policies, according to Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, which looks at political risk.
“Whether Macron will have enough political space to implement more economic reforms will probably be determined by the European Parliament elections, which will likely be interpreted as a ‘midterm vote’ on the presidency,” Barroso said.
Even after Macron climbed down on the fuel taxes, the Yellow Vests have said they won’t dismantle their roadblocks and blockades. While they don’t have the formal organization of populist groups Italy’s Five Star Movement, the momentum is with them. Copycat protests have spread to Belgium and the Netherlands.
Most of its members will vote for either Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally or Jean-Luc Melenchon’s far-left France Unbowed, said Marc Lazar, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris. Both party leaders were defeated by Macron last year and eye another shot at power. The worry for the EU is that neither of them are defenders of the bloc’s integrity.
Any breakthroughs by those parties in May’s European elections will make it difficult for Macron to push on with his agenda -- for France and beyond. “Macron emerges from this extremely weakened and isolated,” said Lazar. “Both at home and in Europe.”
With tumbling approval ratings, France’s president has experienced an unprecedented fall: Emmanuel Macron’s plummeting popularity results largely from his determination to comply with the EU’s 3% cap on deficit spending.
As Emmanuel Macron approaches his 100th day in office, hope that he would reconcile the French with both each other and free market economics is fading. The French president has made strategic errors, particularly in communicating his vision, but his fall from grace is due more to his compatriots’ character.
Macron had a 64 per cent approval rating in late June. That fell to 54 per cent in late July, and 36 per cent by August 3rd. Never has a French president fallen so far so fast. The summer silly season and the 24-hour news cycle, which amplify every misstep, are partly to blame.
Jérôme Fourquet of the Ifop polling company explains Macron’s “brutal re-entry into the atmosphere” thus: “After totally mastering the election sequence, and showing his power in international summits, Macron crashed into reality.”
There is, alas, a great deal of truth to stereotypes about the perennially dissatisfied, ungovernable French. The desire to “burn what one has worshipped” is a national trait, recorded at the coronation of King Clovis in the fifth-century.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left Insoumis or “unbowed” movement, exploited class hatred against Macron during the campaign, addressing him as “Monsieur le banquier”.
François Ruffin, a documentary film-maker turned parliamentary deputy, competes with Mélenchon as Macron’s most vociferous opponent. Ruffin published an open letter in Le Monde two days before the election. “You are hated. You are hated, You are hated,” he wrote. “I hammer it home because … with the bourgeoisie that surround you, you are socially deaf.”
When Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord on June 2nd, Macron’s rejoinder, “make our planet great again!” made him an international hero.
Macron’s promotion of women in his En marche! movement increased their representation in the National Assembly from 27 per cent to 39 per cent. Some 48 per cent of his cabinet are women. They hold the crucial portfolios of defence, justice and labour.
This week a virtually unknown actor with links to the far-left launched a petition demanding a referendum on Macron’s desire to “write a job description” for the first lady Brigitte Macron. Some 300,000 internauts turned a non-issue into a cause célèbre.
Macron’s opponents misogynistically tried to use his wish to define his wife’s role to harm him. Do they expect Brigitte Macron to remain unseen and unheard in republican purdah?
At Macron’s insistence, important legislation passed this summer. The law on the moralisation of political life prevents parliamentarians from hiring spouses and offspring, forces them to justify expense accounts, and ends the slush fund known as the réserve parlementaire.
A law enabling the government to rule by decree is the prelude to Macron’s reform of the labour code. The decrees will be presented to social partners on August 31st, and voted in cabinet on September 21st.
The conviction that France will not reduce high unemployment or restore competitiveness unless employers are allowed to hire and fire more easily is at the heart of the labour reform. The communist CGT trade union has called for mass protests on September 12th. Mélenchon’s Insoumis will take to the streets 11 days later.
Macron’s plummeting popularity results largely from his determination to comply with the EU’s 3 per cent cap on deficit spending. Civil servants, who comprise 20 per cent of the French workforce, are furious they will not receive an inflation-indexed salary rise, and will no longer be paid for the first day of sick leave. Absenteeism costs the state €170 million annually.
Macron called the housing ministry’s announcement that it will enforce a €5 reduction in the monthly housing allowance “incredibly stupid”. The measure, which was decided under his predecessor, will nonetheless take effect on October 1st.
Price of a beer
For the price of a beer in a Paris café, students and defenders of the poor have turned against Macron. A 1.7 per cent increase in the tax that pays for social welfare programmes, the CSG, has also angered voters. They conveniently forget that social charges deducted from salaries will decrease by 3.15 per cent, a net gain for French workers.
The world envies France its brilliant, dynamic, young president. The French appear determined to destroy him. During the campaign Macron promised to do away with the “habitation tax”, based on place of residence, for 80 per cent of the population. Prime minister Edouard Philippe announced on July 4th that the tax cut would be postponed for two years. Macron quickly reversed the announcement, but it was the executive’s worst gaffe.
The habitation tax benefits local governments. Macron further angered the notables who will elect the senate next month by cutting €300 million in other funding for the provinces.
Macron justified his decision to do away with the ISF wealth tax on capital investments on the grounds that a thriving bourse would stimulate the economy. It’s one of his most unpopular measures. For the left it has confirmed he is “the president of the rich”.
Macron’s sacking of the chief-of-staff of the armed forces, Pierre de Villiers, over the pace of increases in the defence budget hurt him with right-wing and centrist voters. “I will not be screwed,” de Villiers told the National Assembly’s defence commission on July 12th. “I’m the boss,” Macron replied the following day at a Bastille Day reception. Macron could hardly have reacted otherwise to de Villiers’s insubordination.
Polls indicate more than 80 per cent of the French crave strong authority. Yet they seem to reject it on the part of a young man. Had the failed conservative candidate Alain Juppé, age 71, become president and sacked de Villiers, age 61, no one would have complained.
It all adds up to a catalogue of petty, often disingenuous, grievances. The world envies France its brilliant, dynamic, young president. The French appear determined to destroy him.