French President Emmanuel Macron appears to be struggling at the helm of his country. The whole trouble started on November 17, 2018 when people across France took to the streets to protest en masse against rising fuel prices (an increase of almost 20 per cent). President Macron even planned further increases of the fuel tax to protect the environment and to combat climate change. However, the President's concern for the environment did not stop him to bring in favourable tax cuts for the rich as reflected in his wealth tax (known as ISF) reform. In effect, he eliminated much of France's wealth tax while raising taxes on retirees. His curriculum vitae includes a stint with investment banker Rothchild. He was also the minister of the economy under president Francois Holland and supervised the implementation of labour law reform which was opposed by workers resulting in widespread protest across the whole country.
Yet, his election victory in 2017 was hailed as the new era for France. He also promised a "European renaissance''. But now he finds himself quite paralysed at home and his vision for Europe in tatters. He promised to change the political culture of France by building an inclusive society, creating jobs and improving the quality of life for all French citizens. His inauguration as the French president to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, now looks like something happened in the very distant past. In fact, the gloss has come off President Macron, he looks rather vulnerable.
The protest is dubbed as Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) after the yellow vests worn by the protesters. The protesters consider themselves as the "people'' ignored by the French elite with whom, they allege, President Macron sides. He is now seen as the president des riches', a derisory term used by the protesters for their president. They have a huge list of grievances which include not only rising fuel prices but also declining real wages, rising taxes, rising income inequality and tax concessions for the rich in a variety of forms. Most protesters are employed, many with two incomes, but their incomes most often do not meet their essential needs despite working very hard. For these people earning an income is no longer a way out from poverty. Life's choices have become very limited and they feel they have lost control over their lives - let alone making their own choices.
Macron's top-down (what the French call verticalite) approach of governing is marked by lack of widespread consultation at the grassroots level. As the distance between those who govern and those who are governed increases, it is a natural instinct of the governed to listen to each other and look at the reality of the surroundings they live in and the emotion that surroundings engender and which guide their lives in thousand different ways. There is an urge to connect with others whether at a barricade or through the social media like facebook to vent their anger and frustration and above all, their sense of hopelessness. No wonder, the frustration and a sense of hopelessness resulting from the increasingly widening gulf between the rulers and the ruled in France found their expression in their choice of targets in the violence - the Elysee Palace (Presidential palace), government buildings, banks and shops selling luxury goods. But the most telling moment came when the protesters disfigured the face of a statue of Marianne, the republic's symbol at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. This action is very symbolic of displaying people's feeling of frustration, anger and hopelessness of losing everything that enabled them to believe in their future and also the greatness of their country. Now they have lost faith in everything that the republic supposedly stands for.
The Elysee Palace warned ominously against the hard core of people who had descended on (implicitly referring to the people who joined in the movement from rural France where the movement started) Paris to kill. The warning even went further to stress that the state would not shy away from deploying armoured vehicles on to the streets of Paris.
Macron's European plan has also added another dimension to further fuelling the protest - his pledge to make France at the centre of a more coherent and more integrated Europe. This was indeed a very brave posturing for a European politician at a time when anti-EU sentiments are on the rise so much so that the European Union (EU) now appears to be living on borrowed time. Not surprisingly, extreme nationalist forces across Europe are ravelling at the predicaments the French president is facing now from the yellow vests movement. The far-right in Europe from the United Kingdom (UK) to Italy to Hungary and Poland are salivating at the prospect of their takeover of the European Parliament in the May, 2019 election. Now the fallout from the yellow vests movement is spreading far beyond the French borders.
Meanwhile, the yellow vests movement within France is increasingly taking a much sinister turn as the French ultra-right outfits like the Action Francaise are advocating military dictatorship. France politically remains a deeply divided country. Only a year ago close to 11 million French voters voted for the ultra-right nationalist party. Meanwhile, the movement has also been infiltrated by violent far-right, far-left, anarchists and looters fighting police and looting shops.
Macron's vision of a reenergised Europe does not have any takers among the yellow vests movement participants. They have put forward 42 demands (not just the fuel tax) to the government, but nowhere in those demands the word "Europe'' or "European'' appears.
A great soul-searching is now going on as to how the present political crisis got to this point in such a short time. Political observers say that the crisis has been long time brewing and the fuel price hike is the tipping point which led to the surge of yellow vests. Some even go as far as to describe the yellow vests movement as the "forgotten France rising up". In fact, the yellow vests movement rose up from rural areas and small towns where people struggle daily to make ends meet. These are the places far away from the glitter of Paris and other metropolitan centres of France. People in rural France, especially in less populated areas, have to rely more on cars to move around. However, the movement is not against the Government's green agenda but is focusing on wrong targets like ordinary motorists instead of focusing on the big polluters like very large and powerful companies. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in early December last year announced the withdrawal of the fuel tax but by then protesters have moved on to demanding other policy changes. As the movement grew, their demands evolved and eventually have morphed into a struggle to achieve a decent living income.
The poor and working poor and unemployed in France are bearing the brunt of a slow but continuous erosion of the social welfare net over the last four decades. President Macron and his two predecessors have failed to make any progress on dealing with high unemployment and modest growth known as the French Syndrome. They also failed to bridge the divide between metropolitan regions and their rural hinterlands. As Macron acceded to some yellow vests demands, that will add another 10 billion to his budget hole making the budget deficit exceed the target range of 3.0 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). The President justified the deviation on the ground of national crisis which German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed.
The yellow vests movement has taken off Macron's veneer of a reformist president and the progressive saviour of the republic. But the Macron government remains in place aided by the institutions of the fifth republic. His party still commands parliamentary majority. When the dusts settle down, France has a lot to learn from the unprecedented yellow vests movement. This movement has provided a major opportunity for the French elite to reflect on to chart the future direction of the republic. But finally France, like all other liberal democracies, must design a path which will enable it to deliver the sense of possibility not only exclusively to the rich but also beyond to include the poor and dispossessed and any one in between, that is, all people in France.
Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.
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