Sunday 16 June 2019

Yellow Vests' fury might now fade but they've shown limits of Macron's reform agenda

More people in France watched Macron’s TV speech than the World Cup final. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AP
More people in France watched Macron’s TV speech than the World Cup final. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AP

Mary Fitzgerald

After weeks of sometimes violent protests, often hinging on slogans denouncing Emmanuel Macron as "president of the rich", it may not have been the best choice to have him address the nation this week from behind a gilded desk in one of the Elysée palace's most opulent rooms.

After weeks of sometimes violent protests, often hinging on slogans denouncing Emmanuel Macron as "president of the rich", it may not have been the best choice to have him address the nation this week from behind a gilded desk in one of the Elysée palace's most opulent rooms.

As Macron admitted to the French people he had been slow to acknowledge the struggles of their daily lives, some of his much-criticised hauteur seemed to have vanished and he appeared somewhat chastened. Announcing new measures to boost the pockets of those - the so-called Yellow Vests - who took to the streets to decry their hardships, the French president is hoping that will be enough to quell the mutinous mood of recent weeks.

An estimated 23 million viewers tuned in for his speech, a larger number than those who watched France win the World Cup final in July, and a historic record for a televised address by a French president. The Elysée saw that unprecedented audience as a positive sign that the general public wanted to hear what Macron had to say.

The question now is whether the leaderless Yellow Vests movement - which brings together people of various political leanings from the far right to the hard left with a multitude of grievances and demands - will wind down its protests or push for more concessions or even Macron's resignation.

This week, Macron pledged to hike up the minimum wage by 8pc, slash taxes on overtime pay and Christmas bonuses, and cancel higher social charges on pensions. There are signs that the Yellow Vests are now experiencing an internal fracture between those who are placated by the developments and those who scent blood in Macron's recent backing down (he had already reneged on the introduction of a fuel levy which was the original spark for the protests).

There is also the risk that the movement loses the wider public support that has given it momentum over the past four weeks despite the protests ending in violent clashes in Paris and other cities. Three online surveys conducted after Macron's televised speech show that a majority still showed sympathy for the Yellow Vests, but the support appears to be receding.

The deaths of four people in Strasbourg this week when a gunman opened fire near a Christmas market has also caused a shift in focus. A meme claiming the attack was orchestrated by the authorities spread across the more conspiracy-minded Yellow Vests' social media. Others sought to distance themselves from such claims, concerned that the national mood may be less tolerant of the protests following the attack.

A significant number of Yellow Vests are still planning to protest this weekend, many of them clamouring for Macron's resignation. Others, however, are calling for the demonstrations to end and for negotiations with the government. "Go Christmas shopping," urged Jacline Mouraud, a 51-year-old hypnotherapist from Brittany whose viral Facebook video lambasting Macron's fuel tax helped inspire the Yellow Vests protests at the beginning, this week. She told French radio that the demonstrations were now hurting small retailers and the economy in general, and urged the Yellow Vests to "transform" themselves.

Another figure in the movement, Benjamin Cauchy, called on people to meet their elected representatives this weekend instead of taking to the streets. "It's time for dialogue," he said on national television on Thursday.

But since its inception, the Yellow Vests has been inchoate with sometimes paradoxical agendas and conspiracy theorists among its prominent figures, particularly on social media from which the movement initially emerged.

One key figure called for the suspension of the government and for a former military chief to take over the country. Another has a particular beef with the UN. Some members who showed willingness to engage in dialogue with the government said they received threats from hardliners. If the Yellow Vests movement divides and such hardliners come to define it, public sympathy is likely to evaporate and the Yellow Vests could very well run out of steam.

In the meantime, Macron - whose government easily survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Thursday over its handling of the protests - is trying to find ways of offsetting the extra spending he decided on to appease the Yellow Vests. The price of his climbdown is around €10bn, or some 0.4pc of GDP a year, which will not go down well in Brussels. According to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, spending cuts and tax increases on companies will be introduced to help finance the new measures.

Whether the Yellow Vests fade away or continue to be a thorn in the side of Macron, the entire episode has demonstrated the limits of his reform agenda.

Irish Independent

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