Emmanuel Macron's Neon Siege
Updated: Mar 25, 2019
France is in the midst of an inscrutable existential crisis. For nine weekends running, gilets jaunes (yellow jacket) protestors, named for their neon traffic vests, have occupied streets and roundabouts in cities and towns across France. The first demonstration took place on November 17th and saw some 250,000 people turn out to voice their anger at a proposed fuel tax hike, which many felt disproportionately hurt low-income and rural workers. Since then, the gilet jaunes have broadened and blurred their demands; but their anger remains. Their seemingly inexorable rage is primarily directed at their president, Emmanuel Macron. To the gilets jaunes, he personifies an unfair political system ruled by aloof, wealthy elitists who are disconnected from the hardships of everyday life.
However, French discontent with Macron seems to stem from his style rather than the substance of his reforms. After he defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in 2017 and formed a majority coalition government around En Marche!, his incipient political party, much of France and the liberal-democratic world was relieved. Macron championed a strong, united European Union; he disavowed ineffective, traditional left-right factions; and he promised to combat climate change. And his government has been, for the most part, good to his word: he pulled France’s budget under the EU limit for the first time in a decade, relaxed cumbersome labor market regulations to boost economic growth and, crucially, refused to fold under the pressure of France’s famed protest culture.
Yet after two years in office, a compounding succession of blunders has decimated his approval rating to a low of 23%. Despite–or because of–Macron’s credentials, economic expertise, and technocratic talent, he is nearly incapable of coming off as likable. He dubbed his rapid ascent to power “Jupiterian,” scolded a teenager for calling him “Manu” (a nickname) instead of President Macron, and insufficiently punished a bodyguard who assaulted a pair of protesters. These avoidable gaffs engendered a narrative that the French President is elitist, pretentious, and apathetic to working class concerns.
Cue the gilets jaunes. The fuel tax hike sparked their weekly demonstrations, and the slow-burning anger with Macron and the system has kept them going—but they are a complicated bunch. On the second weekend of protests in Paris, some demonstrators violently clashed with police and tore up Boulevard Hausmann and the Place Vendôme. Some persistently threaten journalists and politicians —yet others sing and dance during their traffic roundabout sit-ins. The range of their actions is telling: the gilets jaunes claim to be apolitical and the voice of the people, but aside from change and appeasement their movement lacks both leadership and a clear, coherent set of demands. They are a populist paradox who, though disunited, speak their anger very clearly to Macron and what they believe he represents.
For better or worse, he heard them. After the fourth week of protests, Macron addressed the nation on television, promised a handful of reforms to boost the incomes of low-wage workers, and canceled his fuel tax. For the first time in his presidency he ceded power to the streets, and it cost his government €10 billion. Part of Macron’s strength came from his legitimate criticisms of recent presidents who yielded to protesters—now, he looks weak and hypocritical.
Since his address the number of protesters has fallen, but Macron decided to continue his dialogue with the gilets jaunes and expand it to the France at large. He commissioned a nationwide “Grand Debate,” which will ask all French citizens to critique his government and offer suggestions. The forums will take place regionally with substantial structural freedom: as long as the basic guidelines are adhered to, several people can assemble in their living rooms, or several hundred in a gymnasium. Local governments will supervise the public’s responses and, from there, feedback is supposed to be collected for the federal government to review. The four official topics of discussion are tax and public spending, organization of state and public services, ecological transition, and democracy and citizenship. Hugh Schofield of the BBC characterized France’s divided reaction to the Grand Debate well: it is either “an imaginative bid to revitalize democracy in the social media age” or “a cynical maneuver to outfox the yellow-vest protestors.” The gilet jaunes believe it to be the latter, but in doing so they forfeit any platform it might provide them.
The Grand Debate is an experiment, and its most important benefit might be articulating what exactly the French are angry about. Yes, Macron needs to remove his head from his Jupiterian derrière and govern with less arrogance, but his insensitivities cannot be the only thing rallying folks around the gilet jaunes. There has been a populist fever in the West for several years, and if Macron’s debate can elicit an articulation of dissatisfaction from the angry masses without electoral consequences, it would be a gift. He is giving the people an opportunity to speak with their minds, not their votes. Hopefully, they will.