France’s win­ter of dis­con­tent

There has been an out­pour­ing of protest against Pres­i­dent Macron’s crusty lib­er­al­ism, and his per­ceived anti-labour poli­cies

The Hindu Business Line - - THINK - VIDYA RAM AFP

Of the im­ages to have emerged from the Paris protests in re­cent days, one of the most haunt­ing is one of a statue of Mar­i­anne — the fe­male fig­ure who is meant to per­son­ify France and its val­ues of rea­son and lib­erty — with half her face smashed in, gaz­ing an­grily ahead. The statue, in­side the Arc de Tri­umphe, in cen­tral Paris, was one of the ca­su­al­ties of the ri­ots that gripped the cap­i­tal over the week­end, as the anti-gov­ern­ment “gilets jaunes” (yel­low vests) pro­test­ers took to the streets there and across the coun­try.

While protests across much of the coun­try re­mained peace­ful (around 75,000 took part ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial es­ti­mates), ten­sions mounted in Paris in clashes that saw po­lice use tear gas and wa­ter can­nons, while pro­test­ers threw ob­jects and some set build­ings and ve­hi­cles on fire in the cen­tre of the cap­i­tal.

The im­ages have added to the com­plex­ity of as­sess­ing the com­po­si­tion and the fu­ture of the move­ment that only kicked off last month, on Novem­ber 17, when a na­tional day of ac­tion was or­gan­ised in the coun­try against the ris­ing cost of fuel, since when the move­ment has mor­phed into a far wider show­ing of dis­con­tent with the di­rec­tion of the French gov­ern­ment of Em­manuel Macron.

The de­scent of Macron’s pop­u­lar­ity since the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion last year has been rapid. While his elec­tion was rap­tur­ously wel­comed by some — who saw his win as a sign that lib­er­al­ism could con­tinue to tri­umph in the face of ris­ing pop­ulist and na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment glob­ally — there was al­ready a hes­i­tancy within large sec­tions of the pub­lic, man­i­fest­ing it­self in protests that took place shortly af­ter his elec­tion.

While many op­posed the di­vi­sive pol­i­tics that his op­po­nent Ma­rine Le Pen stood for, they were fear­ful that the con­ti­nu­ity and di­rec­tion of a Macron ad­min­is­tra­tion (a re­lax­ation of reg­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing around labour and a fur­ther whit­tling away of the state) would sim­ply ex­ac­er­bate the forces that had driven many to the arms of the far right.

‘Golden boy’

Macron nev­er­the­less sought to por­tray him­self as the golden boy of France — the one who stood up vo­cally to the pop­ulist pol­i­tics and sen­ti­ment of lead­ers such as US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump — while at the same time be­ing the one who brought about the change that France sorely needed: do­ing away with crony­ism in pol­i­tics, over­haul­ing labour laws and mak­ing in­vest­ment into the coun­try more palat­able to for­eign in­vestors.

While these re­forms faced protest do­mes­ti­cally — as had re­forms that pre­de­ces­sors had sought to bring in — it was some of his early moves, such as the abo­li­tion of the wealth tax that par­tic­u­larly an­gered peo­ple, who felt that while or­di­nary peo­ple faced ris­ing costs, fall­ing liv­ing stan­dards, rolled back pub­lic ser­vices, those with the most re­sources were gain­ing fast out of the pres­i­dency.

A hand­ful of scan­dals and con­tro­ver­sies — in­clud­ing over his will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate wrong­do­ing by one of his close aides dur­ing May Day The protests in France have grown into a move­ment

protests in Paris — fur­ther dented his rep­u­ta­tion, while his pub­lic con­ver­sa­tions with mem­bers of the pub­lic that had been seen as a sign of open­ness dur­ing his elec­toral cam­paign, ap­peared to be in­creas­ingly hec­tor­ing and a sign of his un­will­ing­ness to lis­ten to the elec­torate.

In the lat­est in­stance in Septem­ber, Macron faced a pub­lic back­lash for telling a young un­em­ployed man, live on cam­era — who had told him of his strug­gles to find work — that he would be able to eas­ily find work if he just “crossed the street.”

Such in­stances and, for ex­am­ple, the res­ig­na­tion of the En­vi­ron­ment Minister over the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s prox­im­ity to pro-hunt­ing cam­paign­ers, in­creased the per­cep­tion that Macron’s gov­ern­ment, far from mov­ing away from crony­ism, was merely act­ing with and on be­half of the French es­tab­lish­ment.

The main trig­ger

The im­me­di­ate trig­ger for the protests were plans to fur­ther in­crease taxes on diesel, at a time of al­ready-high fuel prices. While Macron

sought to por­tray the in­crease as a nec­es­sary part of France meet­ing its cli­mate change obli­ga­tions, the pol­icy bombed in a coun­try where un­til a few years ago (and be­fore the Volk­swa­gen cri­sis) diesel had been heav­ily pro­moted by the gov­ern­ment as the fuel of choice (in 2016 around 52 per cent of cars in France had diesel en­gines ac­cord­ing to EU data).

For many, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral France, or those with small busi­nesses, the in­crease threat­ened to make the cost of liv­ing less sus­tain­able. The protests, road blocks, and block­ages of fuel de­pots have arisen out of a cit­i­zen-led move­ment, much of it built up on­line, by­pass­ing tra­di­tional party struc­tures. The name it­self comes from the flu­o­res­cent-yel­low vests that ve­hi­cles in many parts of the EU are re­quired to carry in their boot.

How­ever, the protests have grown into a move­ment of quite a dif­fer­ent or­der, bring­ing in young and old, as well as peo­ple from dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds. A poll con­ducted last week­end by Harris In­ter­ac­tive found that sup­port­ers of the move­ment came from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum: while around 92 per cent of the left-wing La France In­soumise (Un­sub­mis­sive France) party of Jean Luc Me­len­chon sym­pa­thised with the move­ment, so did 90 per cent of the far­right Na­tional Rally (for­merly Front Na­tional).

Sup­port also ran high among sup­port­ers of the so­cial­ist party (85 per cent) and even the cen­trist Repub­li­cans (54 per cent). Even 26 per cent of Macron’s En Marche! sup­port­ers ex­pressed sym­pa­thy with the move­ment.

While so far the move­ment has eluded nat­u­ral party struc­tures — or at­tempts by in­di­vid­ual politi­cians to take own­er­ship and shape its di­rec­tion — the deep-and-crosside­o­log­i­cal sup­port for it should make wor­ry­ing read­ing for Macron, who now faces the big­gest chal­lenge of his pres­i­dency.

Fire-fight­ing

This week he swiftly re­turned from the G20 sum­mit in Ar­gentina to tackle the cri­sis back home and meet with representatives of the move­ment. In its first ma­jor U-turn the gov­ern­ment an­nounced a tem­po­rary halt to the fuel tax in­crease — due to come into ef­fect in Jan­uary — for at least six months, while there is even talk of the rein­tro­duc­tion of the wealth tax.

The about-turn could pose wider chal­lenges to Macron, who has sought to por­tray him­self as dif­fer­ent to his pre­de­ces­sors in his un­will­ing­ness to back­down in the face of protest — some­thing which will be key to his abil­ity to push through labour and wel­fare re­forms that had been a ma­jor part of his elec­toral cam­paign.

The lat­est de­vel­op­ments will hearten crit­ics and strengthen op­po­si­tion to his wider re­form pro­gramme. And the gilets jaunes have given no in­di­ca­tion that they plan to stop any time soon. Fur­ther protests are due to take place on Satur­day, De­cem­ber 8.

Dis­con­tent spills over

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