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Yellow Vests: "We have to cut off the head of the King"

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

Faced with violent protests and calls for his resignation, President Emmanuel Macron of France said Monday that he had heard the anger of the many whose economic suffering has burst into the open in recent weeks and that he would take immediate steps to relieve their hardship.

Mr. Macron’s 'mea culpa' on national television signaled a remarkable step back from his ambitions to reshape France’s economy and become the European Union’s foremost leader. For now, his chief goal is shoring up his own political support in France.

He announced tax cuts and income increases for the struggling middle class and working poor, vowing to raise the pay of workers earning the minimum wage. He promised to listen to the voices of the country, to its small-town mayors and its working people.

“There is anger, anger and indignation that many French share,” he said in 13-minute prerecorded speech from the Elysée, the presidential palace.

Mr. Macron’s words and planned actions framed an attempt by a politician regarded as aloof and imperious to connect with ordinary citizens in Europe’s third-largest economy.

The speech followed a month of turmoil in which a movement known as the Yellow Vests rampaged through Paris and other French cities. The movement, which began as a revolt against a fuel tax increase, has morphed into an angry rebuke of Mr. Macron and his government’s failure to focus on what his critics call France’s forgotten middle class.

Attempting to show that he understood, Mr. Macron acknowledged the anger of “the couple who earn salaries that do not finish the month, and who get up every day early and come home late.” He sympathized with “the single mother, a widow, a divorcée,” whose life is no longer worth living, he said, and “has no more hope.”

Mr. Macron recognized the anger too, he said, of retired people of small means who have “contributed all their lives and often helped both parents and children, and no longer make ends meet.”

And in a rare admission of having fallen short, he said he took responsibility for having not responded more quickly, saying that he realized that people had the impression that he had “other priorities” and was not concerned about their problems.

Mr. Macron said that the details of his relief steps would be announced by Prime Minister Édouard Phillipe in Parliament on Tuesday, but that there would be a supplement of 100 euros, or about $115, to workers earning the monthly minimum wage starting in January; that taxes on overtime pay would be eliminated and that retirees whose earnings are less than 2,000 Euros a month, about $2,270, would no longer be asked to pay a recent increase in social security taxes.

Whether Mr. Macron’s actions will ease the deep-seated resentment toward him in France was unclear at best. So were the particulars of his proposals, which could translate into less in people’s pockets than he made it sound.

Criticisms came quickly from many of Mr. Macron’s political opponents, who said his proposals fell far short of people’s needs. More sobering for Mr. Macron could be the disappointment of many in the Yellow Vests movement who said his proposals did not speak to their needs.

While some protesters welcomed the president’s announcements as a first gesture, and a few praised him for his contrition, many more criticized what they called “half measures.”

On the dozens of Facebook groups dedicated to the movement that have buzzed over the past month, a majority of Yellow Vests protesters said they felt it was too little, too late. A number expressed dismay that he had not even mentioned the Yellow Vests movement by name.

“There are a lot of forgotten,” one user, Bruno Ceneda, said in the movement’s main group. “And the others only have the crumbs left.”

“He is kidding us,” said another, Jean-Jacques Brial.

Political analysts suggested that appeasing the anger toward Mr. Macron would require significantly more than what he promised.

“When one listens to the Yellow Vests, one hears many different demands, but there is more and more agreement that Emmanuel Macron should resign,” said Thomas Snégaroff, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris.

“The people allude to the French Revolution, We have to cut off the head of the King.”

At the same time, many do not believe his departure would improve their situation, suggesting they are not sure themselves what would truly improve their lives.

Mr. Macron, elected in 2017 to a five-year term, came into office promising to make France more economically competitive. One of his early moves was to cut taxes on the wealthy to stimulate investment. Such changes alienated many working people who called him a “president of the rich.”

But Mr. Macron has shown little inclination to resign. His new political party holds an overwhelming majority in France’s legislature, and Mr. Macron enjoys considerable support among business leaders and many urban residents. But nationally, his popularity has collapsed and his domestic reform program has come under attack. To appease protesters, he has already canceled the hated fuel tax increase.

Beyond France, Mr. Macron’s problems also mean problems for the European Union, already roiled by populist political forces and Britain’s increasingly chaotic and uncertain plans to leave.

For more than a year, Mr. Macron has positioned himself as the natural heir to Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany as the bloc’s dominant political figure. He has put himself forward, at times, as an establishment champion for a Continent besieged by far-right populism and has called for reforming the euro currency union and building a European army..

But now Mr. Macron is focused on his own political survival, and Ms. Merkel’s political twilight has suddenly arrived, as her fellow conservatives in Germany last week elected her successor as party leader. Ms. Merkel remains chancellor, for now, but her diminished stature only accentuates a potential leadership vacuum in Europe.

“With Macron, you had a very ambitious European agenda from a young president urging European renewal and reform,” said Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to the United States. “But here we see a more subdued president facing a difficult situation, and whose prospects to shape the next European Commission are not as good as before.”

Earlier in the day, Mr. Macron’s political vulnerability was on full display. He consulted with representatives of the major unions — a move he had largely spurned before — and met with business leaders, associations representing local politicians and parliamentary leaders, whose support he will need if he wants to push through new legislation.

The notice to reporters announcing the Monday meetings made no pretense about their significance. “At this serious moment for the nation, the president is bringing together all forces, political, local, economic and social, to hear their voices, their proposals and with the objective of mobilizing them for action,” it said.

The criticism of Mr. Macron is that too often he has consulted only with a tight circle of advisers, or relied on himself. Early in his presidency, when his popularity levels were high, he tended to portray his role as a “Jupiterian” president, and his bold style pleased those who had long regarded France as in desperate need of change. It was also a departure from the style of his predecessor, François Hollande, who called himself a “normal” president — a description many French thought diminished the office.

But Mr. Macron’s assured and sometimes even condescending tone has also backfired. He has often been dismissive of complaints and suggested the complainers were not trying hard enough. That has fed the feeling that he represents the elites and not the vast majority of the French. At the same time, lawmakers in Mr. Macron’s political party have also been criticized for lacking roots in the working class.

“He has been insensitive to the kinds of popular concerns that make people feel they are drowning” said Pascal Perrineau, a professor of political science at Sciences Po. “He has not been a president who brings people together.”

On Friday though, Mr. Macron began to try.

Karl Olive, the mayor of Poissy, a town on the outskirts of the Paris metropolitan area, said Mr. Macron lacked a feel for ordinary people such as those who lived in his town. So he brought a group of mayors from his department, Yvelines, to explain to Mr. Macron how he needed to change.

The mayors insisted that Mr. Macron meet with them alone — and Mr. Olive said the president made a point of taking notes himself. The meeting was scheduled to last two hours, Mr. Olive said, but lasted nearly twice that long.

“The president needs to understand that decisions have to come from the bottom up, the French people do not like it when it is top down,” he said.

Mr. Olive said many people in his town are not in the streets but agree with the concerns of the Yellow Vests. Yet, he said, they are open to hearing that Mr. Macron has had a change of heart. “They are looking for more social justice and a new program. He has to change the goals, but also changing the method is important,” he said.

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