Emmanuel Macron, the bulwark against populist nationalism in Europe, is facing the biggest test of his presidency so far. After 18 months of positive reforms, including rolling back the incentive-killing high taxes that France and Europe are notorious for, protests have spontaneously broken out across the country. Images from the streets of Paris show roads littered with burned-out cars and shattered glass with police clad in riot gear. The issue that set off the protests was Macron’s tax increases on gas and diesel fuel for environmental reasons, but it also came on the backs of rural French workers who depend on fuel for transportation needs. Many in France are suffering from a combination of low wages, high taxes, and high unemployment which is above nine percent.
The protests, termed the gilets jaunes protests, or the yellow vests protests after the symbolic bright yellow vests the protesters wear (yellow vests are required in all vehicles by French law in case of traffic emergencies), have been ongoing since November 17. Since then the protests have been a regular weekend occurrence and are a huge blow to Macron who once ostentatiously promised a “Jupiterian” presidency. His inability thus far to quell the protests, The Economist said, shows just how mortal he is. The hopes of a French and European renewal that arrived with Macron’s ascendancy now have dimmed.
The protests were not organized by any one person or group and became organized by the use of social media. In mid-December, about 75 percent of the French public said they supported the gilets jaunes protesters, and that support seemed to have held steady even as the protests became more violent. Most of the violence has stemmed from ultra-left and the far right elements that have infiltrated the demonstrations, but moderate elements have also taken part in the destruction of property. One of the most iconic structures in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe, which is also the site of France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, was heavily damaged by gilets jaunes activists. Often police have resorted to the use of tear gas and water cannons to control the protests. Recently the media has started to turn against the protesters after journalists were attacked and injured while covering the demonstrations.
Arthur Goldhammer, Co-Chair of the Contemporary Europe Study Group and Chair of the Visiting Scholars Seminar at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, noted in Foreign Affairs that the protests have caught many by surprise. He writes, “Everything about the movement surprised political observers: its virulence, its magnitude, its provincial origins, its apparent lack of structure and leadership, and its adamant refusal to be co-opted by existing political parties and unions. One thing above all seemed to unite the protesters: their hatred for Macron and their desire to see him removed from office.”
In response to the protests President Macron abandoned the tax on gas and diesel fuel on December 5, but that failed to end the protests. On December 10, in a national address, President Macron stated that the protests were “unacceptable” and would not “be indulged in anyway.” “No anger,” he said, “justifies attacking a policeman or pillaging a public place or shop. When violence breaks out, freedom is lost.” Despite those statements, he said that the anger the protesters feel is “just” and the people had “legit concerns.” Macron then proposed reforms that would cost as much as €8.7 billion ($10.1 billion). The reforms included an increase of the minimum wage to an extra €100 ($114) a month that would not cost employers, and a promise that overtime pay would not be taxed. Still, his proposals were not enough, and the gilets jaunes protests have continued.
Now Macron is embarking on a “great national debate” that he says will take place over the next several months as he tours the country. In a 2,330-word letter published in French newspapers this week, Macron said his goal is to “turn anger into solutions” by listening to what French citizens have to say about issues such as taxation, democracy, the environment, and immigration. In his letter he states, “Your proposals will help build a new contract for the nation, organizing the actions of the government and parliament, but also France’s positions at the European and international levels.” However, he states that he will remain loyal to his campaign manifesto and seems to be ruling out rolling back his tax cuts for the wealthy that have earned him the nickname “President of the Rich.” “We won’t agree on everything, which is normal in a democracy. But at least we’ll show we’re a people which is not afraid of talking, exchanging, debating.”
Macron will face his first electoral test since becoming president when voters get a chance to express their opposition at the polls in May for the European parliamentary elections. His political opponents like Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left, and Marine Le Pen on the right, are working feverishly to gain the support of the gilets jaunes protesters to make gains for their respective followings. But as Arthur Goldhammer contends, no matter the outcome, the damage has been done, and it is bad news for stopping the surge of populist nationalism across the continent and the world.