Macron v the gilets jaunes

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - By An­gelique Chrisafis PARIS

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

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