Wednesday 19 December 2018

'Yellow vests' protests sparked off by rising fuel prices should serve as a red alert for Macron

President Emmanuel Macron is having a difficult November. Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters
President Emmanuel Macron is having a difficult November. Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

Known as les gilets jaunes (the yellow vests), they are the latest domestic headache for France's beleaguered president. Named after the high visibility vests motorists in France are required by law to carry in their vehicles in case of breakdown, the gilets jaunes is a protest movement that mobilised nationwide demonstrations last weekend and threatens to do the same today.

The movement was sparked by Emmanuel Macron's hiking of fuel taxes due to come into force next year, but most agree this is about much more than an increase in levies. Within the space of a week, the gilets jaunes have managed to tap into wider discontent with Macron's presidency and policies, gaining opposition support and momentum as a result.

These are not the usual protests or strikes co-ordinated by political parties or unions in France.

With no official organisation, no identified leader and no political affiliation, the gilets jaunes phenomenon has been almost completely co-ordinated on social media where it declares "[This] comes about only from the French people".

A key figure has been a grandmother in Brittany named Jacline Mouraud whose video diatribe attacking Macron's proposed fuel taxes and other policies went viral on Facebook. Some commentators have even gone as far as comparing the apparently spontaneous and unstructured movement - which has drawn in protesters from across the political spectrum - to what preceded the 1789 revolution. Key opposition parties have latched on to the gilets jaunes, with the centre right Republicains, the far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and the far-right's Marine Le Pen - Macron's main challenger for the presidency last year - backing their cause. This has led to speculation over how much the movement will be - or already has been - hijacked by political agendas, and some question the role of far-right populists within it.

But one thing is certain: their actions have chimed with the public. This despite chaos across France last weekend with roads blocked by protesters at some 2,000 locations. Two people were killed - one when a driver panicked and accidentally accelerated their car into the crowd - in the protests and hundreds reported injured.

Nevertheless, a number of polls have shown that almost three-quarters of French voters approve of the demonstrations, one survey found that more than half of those who voted for Macron support them.

The planned tax increases - the price of diesel is due to go up another 6.5 cents per litre and petrol by 2.9 cents - are to come into force in January. They follow a 23pc rise in the cost of diesel and 15pc in petrol in the past year. Internationally, Macron has made much of his commitment to battling climate change and these hikes are part of his domestic policies on that front. His ministers have also argued that the higher price of crude globally also necessitates a rise but protesters complain that fuel taxes have been increasing steadily over the past four years.

One survey this week found that 82pc believe Macron should drop the plans. It also showed that particular demographics - the self-employed and business leaders, plus pensioners and low-income households - were most supportive of the gilets jaunes. The episode also highlights the rift between France's urban elite and those in its poor rural peripheries. Workers who rely on their cars to get to their jobs in the countryside are particularly aggrieved by the planned tax increases. Among such voters, Macron had already been battling a growing perception that he is "the president of the rich" because of the way he has introduced tax breaks for business while pushing through unpopular changes to France's labour laws.

Damningly for Macron, his former environment minister Nicolas Hulot, one of the most popular members of his cabinet before he resigned in August, chose this week to speak out for the first time since he quit, saying the gilets jaunes protests were inevitable.

"I fought hard, particularly during the weeks leading up to my departure, for the government to drastically change its method in the way to ensure the energy transition is socially fair (...). I was never heard," he said.

Macron's government, while sticking to its guns on the tax increases, has scrambled over the past week to ease the public mood. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Wednesday detailed a €500m plan to assist lowest income motorists. And Macron is expected to announce new measures next week to make the energy transition plans more "acceptable" to the wider population, arguing that it is part of a long-term "ecological transition".

Whether that will be enough to mollify a public increasingly frustrated with Macron after having such high expectations for him remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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