The Irish Times view on the gilets jaunes protests: Macron faces his biggest test

To succeed, Macron must show voters that the Jupiterean president can come back to earth

A protester wearing a gilet jaune (yellow vest) holds a sign reading “If the law is against its people then we are outlaws” during an anti-government demonstration called by the Yellow Vest movement in Saint-Brieuc, western France, on Saturday. Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

A protester wearing a gilet jaune (yellow vest) holds a sign reading “If the law is against its people then we are outlaws” during an anti-government demonstration called by the Yellow Vest movement in Saint-Brieuc, western France, on Saturday. Photograph: Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images

 

Every French president in the modern era has started off moderately popular and ended up deeply disliked. Every one of them has taken office with a reform agenda, made some progress, encountered resistance from the street and then changed course. The sustained protests Emmanuel Macron is facing from the gilets jaunes have a different complexion to those that challenged his predecessors, but it’s worth remembering that, in broad terms, this is a familiar sequence in the fifth Republic.

Three factors make the current situation – a series of rolling protests that has wrought havoc in French cities for more than two months – especially difficult. First, the demonstrators are driven not by a single objective or a coherent ideology but by an inchoate set of mutually irreconcilable demands. What began as a protest against high fuel prices has morphed into a broader, leaderless campaign for social justice, lower taxes, higher public spending and more direct democracy. Several demonstrations have descended into violence, and a strain of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia has been increasingly apparent. Macron responded last month by cancelling a fuel price increase but it won’t be as easy to meet the marchers’ other demands.

The second factor is Macron himself. Arguably the single unifying theme of the gilets jaunes agenda is not opposition to a policy proposal or a reform package but rather a visceral dislike of the aloof, imperious young head of state. Derided as a “president of the rich” from day one, Macron has only grown more remote. He embodies the wealthy, self-assured cosmopolitan elite that many who live in the French economic periphery resent, and he has done nothing to show he has a feel for their concerns. As the focus of so much ire, Macron, in a very real sense, can never win.

The third complicating factor is the violence, which makes the movement impossible to ignore but also harder to engage. The perpetrators may represent a small fraction of those on the marches, but with French cities being trashed every weekend by rampaging gangs, Macron cannot be seen to be bowing to violence.

At the same time, refusing to take on board the many legitimate grievances of the gilets jaunes would be a terrible mistake. Many of those who join the protests are French cousins of Donald Trump voters in the US, Brexit supporters in England and Hungarians who elected Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. Their concerns – in particular on issues such as the cost of living, which is a chronic, long-standing sore – must be addressed. Macron’s latest initaitive – a “grand debate” through local meetings around the country and on the internet – is a good start. But success hinges on his ability to effect a sharp change of course, and demonstrate that the Jupiterean president really has come back to earth.

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