Macron Yields to Protests, but Anger Remains

(CN) – The anger isn’t dying down and the protests in France aren’t stopping.

During a prime-time televised speech on Monday night watched by more than 21 million people, a contrite and humbled French President Emmanuel Macron took responsibility for economic failings and offered tax cuts and a minimum wage hike to quell nationwide protests fueled by anger over rising living costs, poor wages and inequality.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a special address to the nation, his first public comments after four weeks of nationwide ‘yellow vest’ protests, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP)

The protests have plunged France into a crisis. Polls show a majority of French have a favorable view of the protesters, known as the“yellow vests” because they don the bright yellow safety vests motorists wear during roadside emergencies.

For the past two weekends, Paris has become the epicenter of violent clashes. The world has watched with astonishment images from the French capital showing stone-throwing protesters, riot police striking protesters with batons and firing tear gas, streets thronging with people clamoring for causes amid banks of tear gas and smoke, cars and businesses set on fire and the Arc de Triomphe ransacked.

But Macron’s concessions on Monday look like they aren’t going to be enough.

In the wake of the speech, protesters vowed they’re not backing down and called for a fifth successive weekend of protests. The upcoming protests – backed by Macron’s political rivals on the far left and the far right – are now being called “Act V.”

In his speech, Macron said a tax on overtime would be scrapped as well as a planned tax on monthly pensions under $2,300. He also promised to raise France’s minimum wage by about $115 a month. These concessions come after the French government scrapped a fuel tax increase. A rise in fuel taxes originally sparked the protests in November. But he rejected demands to reinstate a tax on wealth that he nixed early in his presidency.

French citizens are the most heavily taxed in western Europe. France also has one of Europe’s highest unemployment rates at 9 percent, not much better than when Macron came into office in May 2017.Economic growth, meanwhile, is expected to slow next year.

On an emotional level, Macron said he recognized that the protesters’ deep anger was “in many ways legitimate.” He said he took his “share of responsibility” for not reviving France’s moribund economy fast enough.

But he reprimanded protesters, too, and said attacks on police, stores and public buildings were unjustified.

He added that his fight “to shake up the political system, habits and hypocrisy” was born from his deep love for France.

But much of the French public appeared unconvinced. Protesters called his concessions “bread crumbs,” “smoke and mirrors,” “insincere” and “a charade,” French media reported.

From a larger perspective, Macron’s economic gifts added to a sense that European leaders are abandoning highly unpopular fiscal policies designed to reduce state debt. Analysts say Europe’s shaky economies and political crises pose major risks.

The European Union and its heavily indebted member states were hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis and in response the bloc enforced strict budget limits which resulted in higher taxes and spending cuts. But this belt-tightening also enraged large swaths of the public in Europe and continues to cause social unrest. The austerity measures have been linked to a rise in support for far-right and far-left political parties and to anemic economic growth.

Macron’s concessions on Monday, combined with the cancellation of a fuel tax and other factors, were expected to cost about $12.5 billion,according to Les Echos, a French business newspaper. In addition, Macron’s new plans would push the French budget over the EU’s limits on government spending to no more than 3 percent of gross domestic product, the newspaper reported.

The newspaper said Macron’s image as a budget hawk would suffer. Macron is a former investment banker and he has been denounced in France as a president for the rich after his government made it easier to fire workers and decreased taxes on the wealthy and businesses.

Macron’s softening on the budget comes at a moment when Italy is in a protracted showdown with the European Union over its proposed budget which also calls for higher spending.

At the same time, Macron’s political rivals pounced on his weakness and blasted his offerings as insufficient.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, urged the protesters on, saying the “citizens’ revolution” would continue.

He castigated Macron for failing to offer help for the unemployed, part-time employees, women who earn less than men and civil servants. He attacked the president for not taxing the wealthy.

On the far right, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party, called Macron the champion of the same tax hikes that he now has vowed to scrap.

Looking ahead, the unrest of the past month and Macron’s unpopularity put into question much of Macron’s still unfinished pro-business agenda that he says is needed to make France’s economy grow.

He is seeking to overhaul France’s pension system, cap family benefits below the rate of inflation, make it harder to get unemployment benefits and reduce the number of public workers.

The protest movement will make it harder for Macron politically to push through other proposals. He is pushing for changes to the French Constitution, chief among them cutting the number of parliamentarians and introducing term limits.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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