The Irish Times view on protests in France: Macron must lead and listen
President’s reform programme is comprehensive and intrusive for many layers of French society
A yellow vests (gilets jaunes) protester with the words written of the back of her vest that read, ‘ Macron traitor, the people are hungry’ blocks the road leading to the Frontignan oil depot in the south of France, as they demonstrate against the rise in fuel prices and the cost of living Photo: Pascal Guyot / AFP
The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) revolt against President Macron’s policies in France is the biggest challenge he has faced during his 18 months in office. Last weekend’s physical destruction of affluent Paris brought it to a head. Most of the demonstrators and the vast majority of the French population who support the protests against fuel price increases, falling standards of living and neglect of disadvantaged regions condemn the violence.
Ministers and police concentrate on the vanguard of professional rioters who have attached themselves to this movement. Disentangling the two is difficult in France, but necessary if Macron’s ambitious presidency is to fulfil its promise.
The movement arose spontaneously through social media this autumn culminating in three nationwide demonstrations with a fourth due next weekend. Participants are from neglected social strata and areas of France, concentrating initially on diesel price increases which they blame on Macron and view as symbols of his disregard for ordinary people. It has been easier to characterise them sociologically than politically, as a result of which the movement has gathered popular support and become a concrete focus for widespread discontent. Ministers pounce on evidence linking violent rioters to the extreme left and right, but cannot disguise the movement’s popularity.
President Macron’s reform programme is comprehensive and intrusive for many layers of French society, from labour markets, taxation, education, railways, health and the environment to European and foreign policy. He passionately defends its scope and ambition as necessary for renewal and equally strongly justifies front-loading the measures so that their beneficial outcomes will materialise later in the political cycle. To survive he must emerge from this challenge with his strategy intact, rather than bowing like his predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy to the characteristically French cycle of protest against change.
Such survival depends on leadership, determination and a demonstrable readiness to listen and engage with the protesters and who they represent. That is challenging indeed for Macron because his own social profile and that of his political movement is in so many ways the polar opposite of the gilets jaunes. He appeals especially to a richer metropolitan and cosmopolitan France, to its highly productive and educated advanced industrial sectors and to middle classes impatient with over-regulation. They warm to his promise of liberating reform. Their world is far removed from the revolting France portrayed in these violent weekend events.
Macron can exploit the differences between protesters and rioters by judicious engagement with the discontent expressed. He can make concessions on taxation to rebalance social inequalities. And he can still draw on the remarkable eloquence he has displayed throughout his political career. He cannot afford to change the fundamental thrust of his reform strategy, including his commitment to give France a leading role in tackling climate change by taxing carbon fuels.