‘He is like a lit­tle king’

Dis­dain for Macron unites cities and vil­lages

The Guardian - - WORLD - Angelique Chrisafis

On the grass verge of a vil­lage round­about north of Toulouse, Cé­line stood at a bar­ri­cade built from pal­lets of wood and old tyres, a bon­fire burn­ing be­hind her. French flags were fly­ing along­side signs call­ing for Em­manuel Macron’s res­ig­na­tion.

“I’m pre­pared to spend Christ­mas protest­ing at this round­about with my chil­dren – we won’t back down and we’ve got noth­ing to lose,” said the 41-year-old, who voted for Macron in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. “He gave good speeches and I re­ally be­lieved his prom­ises that he would change France. But not any more.”

Cé­line, a class­room as­sis­tant for chil­dren with spe­cial needs, earns €800 (£710) a month. She can­not af­ford rent so lives with her four chil­dren in a rel­a­tive’s house in the sub­urbs of Toulouse, in the south­west of France.

“Macron’s first move in of­fice was to slash the wealth tax for the mega-rich while cut­ting money from poor peo­ple’s hous­ing ben­e­fits,” she said. “That is a se­ri­ous in­jus­tice. The coun­try is ris­ing up and he’s stay­ing silent, he’s hid­ing in an ivory tower, that’s what dis­turbs me, he’s not tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

At the round­about bar­ri­cade in Le­spinasse, 20 peo­ple from sur­round­ing vil­lages – builders, nurses, work­ers in the lo­cal avi­a­tion in­dus­try – protested near a cru­cial fuel de­pot, wear­ing the yel­low high­vis­i­bil­ity vests that de­fine France’s gilets jaunes move­ment. Pass­ing trucks and cars beeped in sup­port. Drivers leaned out of their win­dows and shouted “Don’t give up!”

This grass­roots cit­i­zens’ protest, which be­gan as a spon­ta­neous re­volt against fuel tax rises last month, has mor­phed into an anti-gov­ern­ment and anti-Macron move­ment, and is

now the young cen­trist pres­i­dent’s big­gest cri­sis.

The demon­stra­tors say Macron is an ar­ro­gant would-be monarch. He presents him­self abroad, they say, as a pro­gres­sive hero who can hold back the tide of na­tion­al­ism, but at home he sym­bol­ises a dis­tant po­lit­i­cal elite, stok­ing dis­trust and push­ing peo­ple to­wards pop­ulism.

“I al­ways feared that there was an el­e­ment of dic­ta­tor in the way Macron did things,” said Robert, 64, a leftwing Toulouse car­pen­ter and cab­i­net­maker. “He’s well­p­re­sented and he speaks nicely – but he mis­read these protests be­cause he thought he was the saviour of France. He wasn’t lis­ten­ing, he for­got the hu­man fac­tor.”

Last Satur­day saw the worst street un­rest in cen­tral Paris in decades, as fringe el­e­ments of the other­wise peace­ful pro­test­ers fought run­ning bat­tles with riot po­lice and set cars alight. Tourist attractions and mu­se­ums in Paris will be closed to­day, and the gov­ern­ment has

warned that thou­sands of ri­ot­ers might come to the cap­i­tal to “smash” or even “kill”. Yet gilets jaunes across France are de­ter­mined to march in towns and cities this week­end any­way.

Cru­cially, the gov­ern­ment fears vi­o­lence out­side Paris. Lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fices were torched in the small cen­tral town of Le Puyen-Ve­lay last week­end. In Toulouse, there were bat­tles with riot po­lice

with sev­eral in­jured. Motorway toll­booths have been burned down and van­dalised in south­ern France, and when sec­ondary-school stu­dents staged demon­stra­tions this week against univer­sity and school re­forms, po­lice fired tear­gas at sev­eral demon­stra­tions. The en­trance hall of a school in Blagnac, out­side Toulouse, was burned to the ground.

One trans­port worker in his 20s who took part in a street march in the small coun­try town of Mon­tauban in the south-west said he was shocked by the tear­gas. “Things will kick off for sure again this week­end, there could be vi­o­lence any­where in France,” he said.

The round­abouts and motorway toll­booths that gilets jaunes con­tinue to block­ade are of­ten near small towns and vil­lages that do not nor­mally make the news. Main cities are of­ten far away, mean­ing res­i­dents can­not work or take chil­dren to school with­out a car – hence their fury at fuel tax rises.

Demon­stra­tors of all back­grounds and po­lit­i­cal views seem united on one point – a per­sonal dis­gust with Macron, whose “ar­ro­gance” they cite from tele­vised ex­am­ples, in­clud­ing the time he told an un­em­ployed per­son to just “cross the road” to find a job, or when he wagged a finger to tell pen­sion­ers they shouldn’t com­plain. Then there is the out­rage over re­fur­bish­ments to the Élysée Palace and the con­struc­tion of a hol­i­day pool in the pres­i­den­tial sum­mer re­treat. One poll this week showed Macron’s ap­proval rat­ings down to 18%.

Is­abelle, 41, a sin­gle mother, had never taken part in a protest move­ment be­fore. She works at a sand­wich stand at Toulouse air­port for the min­i­mum wage – less than €1,200 a month – and her daily shifts be­gin at 3am. She was among many who had de­lib­er­ately spoiled her bal­lot pa­per in last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion fi­nal round, un­will­ing to choose be­tween Macron or the far-right Ma­rine Le Pen.

“This is now about so much more than fuel tax,” she said. “We seem to live in a world gone mad where the rich pay next to noth­ing and the poor are con­stantly taxed. We’ve had enough of the elite.”

The gilets jaunes move­ment is un­like any other seen in post­war France be­cause it sprang up on­line with­out a leader, trade union or

party be­hind it. Along the bar­ri­cades there is a broad mix of peo­ple, some apo­lit­i­cal, some on the left who feared na­tion­al­ism, some who had voted for the na­tion­al­ist Le Pen, some en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists. Many were against the EU, feel­ing it en­shrined ram­pant cap­i­tal­ism.

One 24-year-old phi­los­o­phy stu­dent said: “This feels like a his­toric mo­ment in France. I’d liken it to the Arab spring – a kind of rev­o­lu­tion that started on­line.”

Al­though the demon­stra­tors have com­plained that poor peo­ple bear the brunt of France’s high tax­a­tion, they are still at­tached to pub­lic ser­vices. A ban­ner on a build­ing in Le­spinasse read: “We want a rail­way sta­tion.”

Across France, ru­ral ar­eas have com­plained about de­pleted pub­lic ser­vices. “Hospi­tals are un­der­staffed and un­der­fi­nanced,” said a 39-yearold nurse from Toulouse. “But what has united ev­ery­one is Macron’s ar­ro­gance. He has made the ten­sion worse, like a lit­tle king pitch­ing him­self against a whole na­tion. Macron has held us to ran­som say­ing he was the only one who could hold back na­tion­al­ism and Le Pen, but he has no cred­i­bil­ity at all in France.”

Fa­bien Mau­ret, a self-em­ployed builder, was cook­ing sausages on a bar­be­cue for the pro­test­ers.

“I think we’ve got to the point of no re­turn,” he said. “Be­fore, there were the rich, the mid­dle and the poor. Now it’s the very rich and the poor, noth­ing in be­tween.” He used to vote So­cial­ist but now he votes Le Pen.

Ray­mond Stocco, 64, who used to work in air­craft main­te­nance, sug­gested the mega-rich should be forced to pay back the tax breaks they had en­joyed over the past four years. “Macron’s big mis­take was treat­ing peo­ple in France as if we were stupid,” he said.

In this cor­ner of ru­ral and sub­ur­ban south-west France, pro­test­ers planned to block­ade hy­per­mar­kets as a way to force peo­ple back to small lo­cal shops.

Many said the move­ment would last, in part be­cause of the com­mu­nity feel­ing it had en­gen­dered. Alexan­dre, a re­tired trucker who lives in a car­a­van, was spend­ing his 63rd birth­day at the bar­ri­cade. “I’m less lonely when I come here to talk pol­i­tics to ev­ery­one,” he said.

‘We live in a world gone mad where the rich pay next to noth­ing and the poor are taxed. We’ve had enough of the elite’ Is­abelle, 41 Sin­gle mother, Toulouse

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/GETTY

▼ France is braced for an­other week­end of protests through­out the coun­try, sim­i­lar to this one in Paris

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