He didn’t listen to advice after the election any more than he did before it. Now, French unrest has spread from fuel tax anger into something much biggerby Pauline Bock / December 4, 2018 / Leave a comment
After French protesters in gilets jaunes, or “yellow vests,” blocked roads around the country for the third week in a row and riots turned violent on Paris’ Champs-Elysées at the weekend, Emmanuel Macron took a rare decision. He would not say a word.
Back from the G20 in Argentina, the French president walked the streets of Paris that had been vandalised the previous day, visiting the Arc de Triomphe where the anti-tax protesters had tagged “the yellow vests will prevail.” He cancelled a meal with Michelin-starred chefsto have lunch with Paris police forces. He thanked the police for their “courage,” but said nothing to the French people. He focused on “internal meetings” instead of rushing to explain himself.
It took three weeks of national unrest, blockades at highways and roundabouts across France, a prefecture and many police cars to be put on fire, three deaths, and hundreds of thousands of French people wearing the neon safety vest in protest against his fiscal policies for Emmanuel Macron to keep quiet.
The president had previously addressed the gilets jaunes, saying he had “heard their anger”—a PR-perfect phrase then repeated on every TV and radio channel by MPs from his party La République En Marche (LREM), slightly diffusing its original authenticity. Macron offered to index the fuel tax—which had sparked the first protests—on the prices of the international oil market. By doing so, he thought he could contain the movement. As a result, days later, “Macron resignation” was tagged on Paris’ Champs-Elysées.
In a recent poll, 72 per cent of French people said Emmanuel Macron is arrogant. 71 per cent say he is disconnected. The gilets jaunes movement, as violent as its fringes get, is supported by 73 per cent of the population. Students, farmers, and people from the banlieues are joining in. Unions are calling for strikes. The French unrest has spread from fuel tax anger into something much bigger.
Emmanuel Macron’s arrogance helped him rise to the Elysée, and the same arrogance will be his demise. From 2016, when he resigned from his minister position to declare his presidential candidacy before his boss François Hollande, Macron was seen as cocky and daring. He didn’t listen to those who advised to wait for the next election—and won. He didn’t care for traditional parties, or rules, or political programmes—and won.
Macron has ruled France like a business, organising the Elysée into extremely close circles centered around him. He has been described as holding court, throwing weekly dinner parties that only a handful of carefully-selected ministers and friends can attend. He has named friends and close alliesat the Elysée and in government—but the only “boss,” as they call him, is Macron.
He didn’t listen to advice after his election any more than he did before it. Last June, when his ratings were starting to slow down but his presidency was still afloat, three renowned economists who had inspired Macron’s original economic programme wrote to him in private to express their concerns. Philippe Aghion, Philippe Martin and Jean Pisani-Ferry were worried about the president, who they thought looked “indifferent to social issues,” and about his policies, in which the “fight against social inequality” promised during his campaign was nowhere to be found.
Macron’s government also ignored more recent warnings from its own MPs. On the fuel tax and fiscal changes, one MP revealed that “for the past three or four months, we have been alerting [the government] about the necessity to identify the people who will be most impacted.” An amendment they proposed was rejected by the government, which is now seeking their help to manage the crisis.
Macron’s government is to announce a halt to the fuel tax, a measure which could have been welcome if taken two weeks ago but is now likely to have little impact. Yellow vests have already called it “peanuts.” It’s too little, too late: the debate has spread to precarity, stagnant wages, unemployment. “Social issues,” as you might know them.
Here’s some free advice for struggling, arrogant presidents everywhere: you don’t know better than everyone else. And for goodness’s sake, learn to listen.