- March 5, 2019
- Posted by: Marc Babel
- Category: Europe, France, Politics
Jesse Coates, Lynx Fellow
As the May parliamentary elections draw near, President Emmanuel Macron’s troubled presidency continues to face the furor of almost 17 weeks of continuous protests and public unrest. The Gilet Jaunes movement, originally drawn from rural communities protesting new fuel taxes, has spread like fire throughout France and now continue to consume Paris and other major cities.
Demands have grown proportionately alongside the crowds with many citizens calling for everything from a repeal of Macron’s economic reform policies passed in October 2017 to his resignation and the absolution of his party, En Marche.Despite the Gilet Jaunes, or Yellow Jackets, rejection of centralized leadership, their demands quickly compiled into a core package of grievances: minimum wage adjustments, repeals of new fuel taxes, and contentiously, the reimplementation of the ‘wealth tax’ upon rich urbanites.[i]
Although originally endorsed by almost two thirds of French, headlines have been dominated by increasingly violent and controversial incidents.[ii]In perhaps the most high-profile violent event, cell phone footage depicted protestors in Lyon pelting a passing police van with rocks and other projectiles as it attempted to maneuver through gridlock traffic.[iii]Likewise, a flurry of anti-Semitic acts, vandalism, and chants from various protest groups has elicited sharp criticism from both Macron and protestors alike.[iv][v]However, the majority of rioting and destruction are not believed to be the cause of common protestors and are instead attributed to casseurs, opportunistic individuals belonging to extreme far Right and Left groups, who receive little support from mainstream French citizens.[vi]
During the height of the protests in December, it was uncertain if Macron would give in to protestors’ demands. Despite eventually conceding the Paris Accord fuel taxes and allowing minimum wage increases, Macron’s government remained firm against Gilet Jaunesdemands that it reverse the decision to lift the controversial wealth tax installed during the previous administration.[vii]This decision has remained a lightning-rod issue within French politics sincelate 2017 when Macron upended his predecessor’s policies by implementing flat rate capital gains taxes in an attempt to reverse systemic budget deficiencies and attract FDI within French projects. With tax cuts for the wealthiest French amounting up to 70%, this financial policy was immediately met with widespread resentment amidst middle and lower-class French who reflexively branded Macron a crony of France’s elite.[viii]Earlier efforts to reign in French spending laid the foundations for middle class perceptions of Macron as corrupt if not cruel, coming in the form of particularly visible decisions such as closing commuter rail lines servicing remote communities, schools, medical facilities, and even courts.[ix]Lifting of the wealth tax then, only seemed to confirm French suspicions. His background as an executive banker has doubtless not helped combat these beliefs. The most recent gaffe came last July, when Macron’s reputation as an insensitive and abusive leader was reinforced in an incident wherein a former bodyguard assaulted protesters- ostensibly while wearing police riot gear.[x]
Mr. Macron’srhetoric has also not aided opinions that he is a cold elitist; disinterested in the problems facing the masses. Throughout his first year in office, he produced numerous statements that were either dismissive of calls for cost of living adjustments or illustrating his beliefs that the French require strong, immovable leadership-regardless as to the public opinion on the matter at hand. Macron is not averse either to speaking his praise for the French politician who expanded the presidency’s powers the most, Charles de Gaulle, an individual he has identified as his personal hero.[xi]Many have speculated on what may have led to youngest president assuming a superior understanding of French wishes. The truth may lie within his path to power in 2017.
As it became certain that Macron would upset Marine Le Pen’s Far Right Rassemblement Nationalby a wide margin, it is possible that this resounding victory may have impacted Macron; doubly so by using a totally new political party, his En Marche. It is quite possible that his resounding election victory may have placed within him the impression of widespread public support and a broad mandate towards radical action. Unfortunately, as some political commentators have speculated, the reality on the ground may have been more indicative of rejection of Marine Le Pen’s Far-Right initiatives than tacit approval for his campaign promises.[xii]
Indeed, the inability of Macron and his close allies to anticipate the reactions to their financial policies may stem themselves from the artificial nature of his coalition’s birth. With former prime minister Francios Fillon reeling from an embezzlement scandal and aided by French voters’ antipathy towards Le Pen 2016, Macron’s En Marchedid not require the development of grassroots or municipal political support. Without the need for earnest wooing of French voters, Macron’s party never developed relationships with middle men, local politicians and other political middle men, resulting in an inability to note growing opposition to reform policies during his first year in office.[xiii]
However, although he may have been caught unawares and suffered humiliating setbacks during the protests, Macron is now in full motion to counteract them by both political and security means. Concessions halting the ‘green’ fuel tax, increasing the minimum wage, removing taxed overtime, and other items termed “social measures” were announced in December at the height of protests.[xiv]Macron also appears to be attempting a reversal of commonly held beliefs as to his detachment from economic difficulties facing the public via the initiation of public relations and polling campaign in January labelled the Grand Debate.[xv]Encouraging everyone from local political leaders to members of the general public to participate, his town hall meetings campaign appears to have, for the moment, resulted in partial success as public opinion reversed course in January; rising from approximately 5% by the end of January and up to almost 20% by mid-February.
Numerous reasons may explain growing faith in Macron. The “social measures” package of concessions may have appeased some voters. Perhaps his Grand Debate, which will present its findings in mid-April, has reassured those who believe their concerns will be acted upon. It is very likely that businesses and citizens are growing restless of constant disruptions and chaos.[xvi]It may be that the increasing violence of protests may undercut the Yellow Vest movements. Despite the expansion of new security measures in February allowing authorities to limit participation within protests by those they deem dangerous (commonly repeat violent offenders) this has not halted the reversal of his gains in public opinion.[xvii]
It is vitally important for Macron to continue this positive trend if he does not wish his influence in the European Union parliament to survive. It is uncertain, however, if he will raise his gamble’s stakes by considering inclusion of the Grand Debate’s results within the referendum he plans to hold May 26; the same day that French voters elect parliamentary members.[xviii]At the moment, Macron remains steadfast that he will merely include questions concerning political term limits and other slight reforms.[xix]Unfortunately for Macron, political opponents such as Laurent Wauquiez have sensed opportunity and made clear their opinions that Macron has set in motion events that he cannot now reverse and that it would constitute political suicide to fail to include the foremost grievances drawn from the Debate in a May referendum.[xx]If Emmanuel Macron is unable to pacify French voters via this tactic, then there is a real possibility that Right parties, such as Le Pen’s National Front, may secure a large portion of French seats, threatening Macron’s efforts to stabilize the EU and mitigate the fallout of Brexit.[xxi]
Unfortunately, the Great Debate, like many political maneuvers, was at its core a gamble. If he allows mounting pressure to force his hand, he must tread a thin line in the proposals he allows within a referendum. Although announcements of his intention to include grievances would temporarily raise his credibility, there is a great possibility that the solutions posed by open dialogue would open the door to massive criticism of his fiscal and economic policies.[xxii]
Macron may expose himself, irreparably, to enough criticism to call his and En Marche’s future into question- meeting a political fate similar to Macron’s hero, Charles de Gaulle.
Aggregate Average Political Opinion Polls: 2017 May- February 25, 2019
Sources: Monthly polls from Kantar Sofres, BVA, Odoxa, Ifop, Opinion Way, Elabe, Ifop-Fiducal, YouGov.[xxiii]
[i]“Who Are France’s Yellow Vest Protesters, And What Do They Want?” NPR.org. Accessed February 19, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2018/12/03/672862353/who-are-frances-yellow-vest-protesters-and-what-do-they-want.
[ii]Goldhammer, Arthur. “The Yellow Vest Protests and the Tragedy of Emmanuel Macron.” Foreign Affairs, December 12, 2018.https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/france/2018-12-12/yellow-vest-protests-and-tragedy-emmanuel-macron.
[v]“Jewish Philosopher Assaulted ‘dirty Jew’ by Yellow Vest Protesters – Diaspora – Jerusalem Post.” Accessed February 19, 2019. https://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Antisemitism/Yellow-vest-protesters-attack-Jewish-philosopher-call-him-dirty-Jew-580885.
[vii]Vinocur, Nicholas. “Macron’s Popularity Jumps as Yellow Jacket Measures Kick in.” POLITICO, January 9, 2019. https://www.politico.eu/article/emmanuel-macron-yellow-jackets-france-popularity-jumps-as-yellow-jacket-measures-kick-in/.
[viii]Chassany, Anne-Sylvaine. “Macron Slashes France’s Wealth Tax in pro-Business Budget.” Financial Times, October 24, 2017.https://www.ft.com/content/3d907582-b893-11e7-9bfb-4a9c83ffa852.
[xi]Tiersky, Ronald. “Macron’s World.” Foreign Affairs, December 12, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/2017-12-12/macrons-world.
[xv]Corbet, Sylvie. “France’s Macron Launches ‘grand Debate’ Following Protests.” AP NEWS, January 15, 2019. https://apnews.com/aec5a17c78d7410db6006f613c66c278.
[xvii]McGuinness, Romina. “Macron Chief Says Yellow Vest Thugs Want to ‘Break, Burn and Kill’ – Protests in 16th Week.” Express.co.uk, March 1, 2019. https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1094450/Macron-news-yellow-vest-riots-france-protests-latest.
[xix]Chazan, David. “Macron ‘to Hold May Referendum’ in Bid to Quell ‘Yellow Vest’ Anger.” The Telegraph, February 3, 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/02/03/macron-hold-may-referendum-bid-quell-yellow-vest-anger/.
[xxi]Scarsi, Alice. “Emmanuel Macron’s Plans to QUASH Yellow Vest Protests Could BACKFIRE.” Express.co.uk, February 4, 2019. https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1082216/emmanuel-macron-news-france-yellow-vest-protests-referendum-european-parliament-election.
[xxii]“FOCUS: Will France’s Macron Really Risk a Referendum?,” February 8, 2019. https://www.thelocal.fr/20190208/double-or-quits-will-macron-risk-a-referendum.
[xxiii]“Opinion Polling on the Emmanuel Macron Presidency.” In Wikipedia, March 3, 2019.https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Opinion_polling_on_the_Emmanuel_Macron_presidency&oldid=885991870.