Emmanuel Macron spoke to the French people for thirteen minutes on Monday evening. It was an uncharacteristically sombre address from the president, one in which he admitted he had to take his ‘share of responsibility’ for the anger that provoked the yellow vest movement.
As well as conceding he ‘might have hurt people with my words’, Macron also announced a series of measures that he hopes will defuse the discontent of his people and bring an end to the violent chaos across the country that has cost retailers alone upwards of €1b since it began on November 17.
An additional €100 a month will be added to the minimum wage and pensioners receiving less than €2,000-a-month will be exempt from social security taxes scheduled to take effect next year. Macron also promised to abolish taxes on overtime pay and ask profit-making companies to offer its employers a tax-free bonus at the end of the year. He refused to accede to demands from the yellow vest movement to reimpose the wealth tax because he said to do so would deter investment and increase unemployment.
‘We want a France where one can live in dignity through one’s work and on this we have gone too slowly,’ Macron said in the televised address that was watched by 23 million people. ‘I ask the government and parliament to do what is necessary.’
The measures, according to Olivier Dussopt, the junior finance minister, will cost between €8 billion and €10 billion in next year’s national budget. ‘The head of state has finally made his turn to the left,’ Jean-Marc Vittori, an editorialist at Les Échos told France24. In doing so, however, Macron will increase France’s budget deficit to beyond the three percent limit of GDP imposed by the European Union; one of Macron’s early presidential pledges was to reduce the deficit to 2.3 per cent in 2018 but even before the protests began it was announced it would be 2.6 per cent because of slower than expected growth this year.
The reaction to Macron’s measures has been mixed. An opinion poll found that 49 per cent of people approved of what he had to say, and while 66 per cent still support the movement, 54 per cent believe there should be no further protest for the time being.
One of those who has called for a ‘truce’ is Jacline Mouraud, the Brittany woman whose video last month raging against the fuel tax rises went viral and contributed to the sudden rise of the yellow vest movement. Praising the president for ‘opening the door’, Mouraud said the economy was suffering because of the protests and shopkeepers were being forced out of business.
A different message came from Thierry Paul Valette, one of the yellow vest leaders in Paris, who said: ‘A dialogue has been started but the protests will continue.’
Despite claims that Macron has sought to appease the left, it is from that side of the political spectrum that the fiercest reaction to his announcement has come. A left-wing coalition of MPs, including communists, announced on Tuesday that they are going to table a motion of no-confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis.
Benoît Hamon, the Socialist candidate at last year’s presidential election, who is now the leader of Mouvement Génération, accused Macron of continuing to ‘protect’ the rich such as banks, shareholders and big business.
Minutes after the president’s address, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left France Insoumise gave a belligerent press conference in which he savaged Macron’s address. He also called for ‘Act 5’ of the protest this Saturday, what he subsequently described in a tweet as ‘the citizen’s revolution’
Mélenchon has sensed that, while the yellow vest moment cuts across political boundaries, the majority of people coming to Paris each weekend are from the left. The graffiti daubed on walls, the leaflets distributed to demonstrators and the slogans sported on vests and t-shirts are overwhelmingly socialist in tone. Mélenchon believes there is an opportunity to exploit this anger for his own political advantage, particularly after a difficult few months for him personally.
Mélenchon also noted disapprovingly in his press conference Macron’s fleeting reference to the need to ‘tackle the question of immigration’ because people were worried about national identity. This was also picked up on by Dominique Sopo, president of SOS Racisme, who said ‘it doesn’t bode well’. In a press release headed ‘Immigrants are scapegoats?’, Sopo said: ‘So as to be clear: every attempt to blame immigrants for social frustrations will be relentlessly opposed by SOS Racisme.’
Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Rally was also critical of what Macron had to say, but in a tweet blamed ‘mass immigration’ for the social and cultural mess in which France is enmeshed. As yet she hasn’t called for another Saturday of protest, an indication perhaps that she recognises she has no influence among the protestors. Time will tell if the same applies to Macron.