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Can Macron divide and conquer the gilets jaunes?

5 February 2019

8:29 AM

5 February 2019

8:29 AM

Emmanuel Macron, the young, dashing president of the Fifth French Republic, is the epitome of what it means to be a card-carrying member of the Paris political elite. The 41 year-old president was ushered through Sciences Po, France’s premier centre of political education and a near requirement for youngsters who aspire to become politicians and policymakers. Upon graduating, he took an inspector job at the finance ministry before jumping into the investment world. Macron’s decision to hitch his stardom to Socialist Party boss Francois Hollande paid off when he was tapped to be the Deputy Secretary-General and then the Minister of Finance. Macron’s world is one of three-piece suits, cocktail dinners, gold-plated tables, spacious offices, and friendships with business moguls, political influencers, and titans of finance.

Macron, in other words, is the human form of everything the Yellow Vest movement sweeping through Paris and other French cities wish to tear down: elitism, political cronyism, arrogance and a permanent political class that mixes personal ambition with the national interest. Whether this interpretation is unfair or grossly inaccurate is irrelevant. Accurate or not, it’s the interpretation of the Yellow Vests nevertheless, and Macron has been scurrying around trying to find an antidote to what he likely sees as an illness infecting the angry masses.

After months of street protests in the heart of Paris, some of which turned violent against police officers, journalists, and perceived representatives of the French elite, Macron remains confused about how to address a leaderless movement. Like a person going through the five stages of grief, Macron at first denied that the problems were as large or serious as the angry plebs on the street made them out to be. He likely became angry when he was unable to come to grips with a semi-grassroots revolt against the very structure Macron has nurtured and been nurtured by. Right now, the French president is engaged in the bargaining stage, hoping that a few cash handouts to the restless working class will dampen the flames of an insurrection sustained by the employed, the underemployed, and the downright tired.

To Macron’s credit, he isn’t totally rigid to the demands of the Yellow Vests — many of which, like the replacement of the Fifth Republic with a more direct, participatory democracy run by the people, are completely unrealistic. The fuel tax hike that unleashed the demonstrations was spiked last year; the minimal wage was increased by £86 a month; and bosses who could afford it were asked to give their workers bonuses for their good work. It took a while for Macron to empathise with the fellow Frenchman and Frenchwoman who felt let down by the system, delivering a nationally televised address last December and apologising for being the sniffly elitist he promised to extricate from the Elysse. I may have given you the impression that this was not my concern, that I had other priorities,” Macron opined from his plush presidential office. “I take my share of responsibility.  I know I have hurt some of you with my words.”

Words, however, are precisely what Macron hopes will get him out of this mess. His letter to the French people committing the nation to a grand debate, where ordinary citizens can lodge complaints to their local mayors and offer solutions to the state’s problems, is a fascinating attempt by Macron to introduce a kind of town-hall representative democracy to French politics. Those who have issues with the pension system, the immigration system, the number of French parliamentarians getting salaries and benefits from the state, public services, crime, or the lack of opportunity are now theoretically given the power to change their own lives with a little civic initiative. Since the inception of the “great national debate,” Macron has been on the road holding court with local mayors, battling it out with officials who oppose his refusal to bring back a tax on France’s super wealthy. The nationwide town hall meetings are designed for regular folks to vent their outrage, but also an opportunity for Macron to reintroduce himself to the people who hired him to be the stewardship of the nation’s affairs. Some of those in attendance appreciate Macron’s doggedness and intelligence; others are unimpressed and see a clever conspiracy by their president to use oratory in order to blunt the momentum of their anger and pacify the nation without addressing any of the movement’s root causes.

Right now, it’s difficult to predict where this is all going. Some Yellow Vests will be satisfied with nothing more than outright capitulation. Others are worried first and foremost about their paychecks and economic benefits. Many are concerned about tax rates, especially the Macron administration’s closed-mindedness with respect to demanding more funds from the richest members of French society. Emmanuel Macron, who quickly rose to power by selling himself as a technocrat free from the constraints of France’s traditional political parties, will survive or flame out depending on his ability to divide and conquer the protesters just as he conquered his many opponents in the 2017 presidential election.  

If he succeeds, a French version of Italy’s 5 Star Movement will remain relegated to the backbenches of the parliament. But if he fails, the man who centrist politicians throughout Western Europe hoped would build a wall between the continent and a tidal wave of nationalism may be remembered in French history as the one who couldn’t find a way to drain the anti-establishment pools on his own shore.

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