Macron v the gilets jaunes
When the French president, Emmanuel Macron, surveyed the damage at the Arc de Triomphe after the worst violence in central Paris for over a decade, street-cleaners had tried to diligently scrub away graffiti saying: “Macron resign.”
They needn’t have bothered because a small crowd gathered to shout it at Macron anyway.
The day of car-burning and violence in Paris and the anti-government demonstrations across France are the biggest challenge to the young centrist since he took office 18 months ago.
Macron, 40, has repeatedly said he would never give in to street protests or be intimidated into rolling back what he calls his pro-business project to “transform” France and drag it out of decades of mass-unemployment and slow economic growth.
But he is under serious pressure to address the concerns of the gilets
jaunes – or yellow vests – named after their high-vis fluorescent jackets. Their protests began as a citizens’ stance against green fuel-tax rises but have now morphed into an antiMacron movement.
It is becoming harder for the French
president to present himself on the world stage as a progressive champion if barricades are burning back home in Paris and protesters slam his government as an arrogant elite.
The government failed to anticipate this sporadic, citizens’ anti-tax revolt. And yet sudden uprisings against tax can prove to be a dangerous tipping point – making it very hard to put people’s anger back in the bottle. This is particularly true in a country like France with a high tax-take and a system of high public spending.
When thousands of masked protestors fought running battles with police in Paris last month, torching cars and starting fires on some of Paris’s most expensive streets, the government called them extreme-right and farleft “professional rioters” who had infiltrated the peaceful protests
But it is clear that Macron’s only hope of preventing more violence is to calm the protest movement by answering its concerns – and these are now varied: from dire living standards and unfair taxes to mistrust in the political system and parliament itself.
Crucially, the gilets jaunes have the support of a majority of the French public. Polls show that half of the French people think they will not personally benefit from Macron’s reforms. Many feel his tax policy favours the very rich. On Tuesday, reports in the French media suggested Macron’s government would suspend the fuel tax plans in response to the unrest.
This crisis is acute for Macron because the warning signs were there in last year’s French presidential election that saw him beat the far-right Marine Le Pen. A high level of abstention, a disgust with the political class, a sense of unfairness and inequality at a political elite perceived to be cut off from everyday working people were all present in the election, when Le Pen won 10m votes.
To win the presidency, Macron created his own new grassroots movement based on a promise to “listen” to people and take the nation’s pulse. He styled himself as the nation’s therapist. The new secretary general of Macron’s party, La République En Marche, warned that “people don’t need psychologists, they need solutions.” The French government is under more pressure than ever to contain the anger on the street. ANGELIQUE CHRISAFIS IS THE GUARDIAN’S PARIS CORRESPONDENT
A French flag floats above the fire and smoke during a protest of yellow vests ( gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/GETTY