Vidya Ram

France’s winter of discontent

Vidya Ram | Updated on December 07, 2018 Published on December 07, 2018

A file photo of the French President Emmanuel Macron.   -  REUTERS

There has been an outpouring of protest against President Macron’s crusty liberalism, and his perceived anti-labour policies.

Of the images to have emerged from the Paris protests in recent days, one of the most haunting is one of a statue of Marianne — the female figure who is meant to personify France and its values of reason and liberty — with half her face smashed in, gazing angrily ahead. The statue, inside the Arc de Triumphe, in central Paris, was one of the casualties of the riots that gripped the capital over the weekend, as the anti-government “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protesters took to the streets there and across the country.

While protests across much of the country remained peaceful (around 75,000 took part according to official estimates), tensions mounted in Paris in clashes that saw police use tear gas and water cannons, while protesters threw objects and some set buildings and vehicles on fire in the centre of the capital.

The images have added to the complexity of assessing the composition and the future of the movement that only kicked off last month, on November 17, when a national day of action was organised in the country against the rising cost of fuel, since when the movement has morphed into a far wider showing of discontent with the direction of the French government of Emmanuel Macron.

The descent of Macron’s popularity since the presidential election last year has been rapid. While his election was rapturously welcomed by some — who saw his win as a sign that liberalism could continue to triumph in the face of rising populist and nationalist sentiment globally — there was already a hesitancy within large sections of the public, manifesting itself in protests that took place shortly after his election.

While many opposed the divisive politics that his opponent Marine Le Pen stood for, they were fearful that the continuity and direction of a Macron administration (a relaxation of regulations, including around labour and a further whittling away of the state) would simply exacerbate the forces that had driven many to the arms of the far right.

‘Golden boy’

Macron nevertheless sought to portray himself as the golden boy of France — the one who stood up vocally to the populist politics and sentiment of leaders such as US President Donald Trump — while at the same time being the one who brought about the change that France sorely needed: doing away with cronyism in politics, overhauling labour laws and making investment into the country more palatable to foreign investors.

While these reforms faced protest domestically — as had reforms that predecessors had sought to bring in — it was some of his early moves, such as the abolition of the wealth tax that particularly angered people, who felt that while ordinary people faced rising costs, falling living standards, rolled back public services, those with the most resources were gaining fast out of the presidency.

A handful of scandals and controversies — including over his willingness to tolerate wrongdoing by one of his close aides during May Day protests in Paris — further dented his reputation, while his public conversations with members of the public that had been seen as a sign of openness during his electoral campaign, appeared to be increasingly hectoring and a sign of his unwillingness to listen to the electorate.

In the latest instance in September, Macron faced a public backlash for telling a young unemployed man, live on camera — who had told him of his struggles to find work — that he would be able to easily find work if he just “crossed the street.”

Such instances and, for example, the resignation of the Environment Minister over the administration’s proximity to pro-hunting campaigners, increased the perception that Macron’s government, far from moving away from cronyism, was merely acting with and on behalf of the French establishment.

The main trigger

The immediate trigger for the protests were plans to further increase taxes on diesel, at a time of already-high fuel prices. While Macron sought to portray the increase as a necessary part of France meeting its climate change obligations, the policy bombed in a country where until a few years ago (and before the Volkswagen crisis) diesel had been heavily promoted by the government as the fuel of choice (in 2016 around 52 per cent of cars in France had diesel engines according to EU data).

For many, particularly in rural France, or those with small businesses, the increase threatened to make the cost of living less sustainable. The protests, road blocks, and blockages of fuel depots have arisen out of a citizen-led movement, much of it built up online, bypassing traditional party structures. The name itself comes from the fluorescent-yellow vests that vehicles in many parts of the EU are required to carry in their boot.

However, the protests have grown into a movement of quite a different order, bringing in young and old, as well as people from different ethnic backgrounds. A poll conducted last weekend by Harris Interactive found that supporters of the movement came from across the political spectrum: while around 92 per cent of the left-wing La France Insoumise (Unsubmissive France) party of Jean Luc Melenchon sympathised with the movement, so did 90 per cent of the far-right National Rally (formerly Front National).

Support also ran high among supporters of the socialist party (85 per cent) and even the centrist Republicans (54 per cent). Even 26 per cent of Macron’s En Marche! supporters expressed sympathy with the movement.

While so far the movement has eluded natural party structures — or attempts by individual politicians to take ownership and shape its direction — the deep-and-cross-ideological support for it should make worrying reading for Macron, who now faces the biggest challenge of his presidency.

Fire-fighting

This week he swiftly returned from the G20 summit in Argentina to tackle the crisis back home and meet with representatives of the movement. In its first major U-turn the government announced a temporary halt to the fuel tax increase — due to come into effect in January — for at least six months, while there is even talk of the reintroduction of the wealth tax.

The about-turn could pose wider challenges to Macron, who has sought to portray himself as different to his predecessors in his unwillingness to backdown in the face of protest — something which will be key to his ability to push through labour and welfare reforms that had been a major part of his electoral campaign.

The latest developments will hearten critics and strengthen opposition to his wider reform programme. And the gilets jaunes have given no indication that they plan to stop any time soon. Further protests are due to take place on Saturday, December 8.

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Published on December 07, 2018
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