Macron waves white flag to "yellow vests" in a blow to the climate change movement

MacronScreenshotPARIS, France – French President Emmanuel Macron is caving to the demands of protesters who have shut down much of the country, offering wage hikes and tax cuts starting next year in what is also a retreat from his greater plan to reform the French economy.

Addressing the nation on television, Macron called the protesters’ grievances "deep, and in many ways legitimate" and asked businesses to help quell their anger.

"I would ask all employers who can, pay an end-of-year bonus to their employees," he said.

Macron’s move reflects the tense atmosphere after four consecutive weekends of violent protests throughout France that called to memory the unrest of 1968, when youths clashed with authorities.

He had already agreed not to levy a planned tax on gasoline – designed to curb carbon emissions – that sparked anger among French citizens who said it symbolized the president’s aloof approach the economy. A former banker, Macron has pursued pro-business policies that critics have said neglected ordinary people.

Analysts weren't sure his concessions would be enough.

"Macron has made some convincing gestures," said Bruno Cautrès, a political science researcher at Sciences Po University. "He spoke in a simple, modest, and less arrogant tone than we've seen. But I'm not sure it was convincing enough to change the hearts and minds of the French people."

The president’s popularity has plummeted last month to a dismal 26 percent, a remarkable decline for an outsider politician who defeated mainstream parties with the hopeful promise of outside-the-box thinking at the highest levels of power.

The Gilet Jaunes – or Yellow Jackets after the gear drivers are required to keep in their cars by law – first hit the streets in mid-November in anger over Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce carbon emissions.

But the demonstrations have become a general expression of discontent over living conditions in France, and Macron’s pro-business policies, which have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations but have yet to restrain rising living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people. Specifically, many of the protestors want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts.

The movement has no official leadership and is organized via social media. On the streets, it's comprised of young and old, urbanites and folks from the countryside. More notably, it is seemingly non-partisan.

Meanwhile, support for the movement is high: Polls suggest around three-quarters of the population supports the movement, though many people disagreed with the violence.

“I’m not against the cause, but I am completely against the way it has been carried out,” said Arnaud Dumas, 28, who works for a communications consultancy on Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris.

The Interior Ministry said 136,000 people participated in Saturday’s protests, similar to the previous week’s numbers. Police made four times the number of arrests – more than 1,700 compared to 400 the week before. Around 900 were in Paris.

Others believed the protestors known as the Gilet Jaunes were taking the necessary steps to be heard. Macron would have never slowed his reform programs if they hadn’t stood up to him, they said.

“The government did not listen to the people when there were peaceful protests,” said Christian Sourd, who owns a record shop in northeast Paris. “So clearly these tactics have worked.”

In his speech, Macron pledged to increase the minimum wage by around €110 ($125) a month, scrap taxes on overtime and stop a planned tax increase for low-income pensioners.
The concessions were significant.

But they might have been unavoidable given how the protesters had shut down the country.

The riots have undercut commerce, leading tourists to avoid downtown Paris and clogging highways and commuter train lines. French Finance Minister said the disruptions have lowered gross domestic product by 0.1 percent points. Business groups have said the country could lose a total of more than $11 million.

The losers of the 2017 election, the far left and the far right, have been trying to capitalize on the anger at the government. Far left leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and far right National Front chief Marine Le Pen, have been calling for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten the power of Macron’s political party, En Marche (Forward March).

Monday night’s address was the first time the French President had spoken in weeks.

Macron said he would spare “no indulgence” for protesters who had hurt people or damaged property. He also pledged to continue his policies of liberalizing the economy to make France more competitive.

"We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns," he said.

But he nonetheless appeared chastened.

“I know that I hurt some of you with my previous comments,” said Macron. “If I fought to shake up the political system, it’s because I believe in this country more than anything else.”
Photo: Screenshot from French President Emmanuel Macron's address to the nation regarding the "yellow vests" protests, on Monday December 10, 2018. He tweeted: "You will have your share in the national debate."
Credit: Courtesy of French President Emmanuel Macron's official Twitter page (12/10/18)

Story/photo publish date: 12/10/18
A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.
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