The 'yellow vests' first protested for more purchasing power and political change, but their fury has forced Emmanuel Macron to make concessions on a host of issues. Could they work together down the road?
After listening to their president speak for 13 minutes, a sober reality started to spread among the many "yellow vest" demonstrators protesting across France. "That's not enough," they confidently announced over the PA system to journalists after the president's televised speech. After four weeks of protests, irate citizens see that their demands are suddenly being heard in Paris and they have obviously found inspiration therein.
In his speech, the president made a point of rhetorically acknowledging the trials and tribulations of his fellow citizens. Macron said he accepted "part of the responsibility" and asked French citizens to forgive him for "hurtful words." He then listed a number of measures designed to de-escalate the domestic showdown but which will no doubt mean trouble for his administration within Europe.
Paris had previously assured Brussels that new debt for 2019 would only be 2.8 percent of GDP but Macron's recent promises will weigh heavily on state coffers, adding an additional €10 billion ($11.4 billion) to the budget. That could mean that the deficit would jump to 3.5 percent of GDP, thus clearly missing the EU's Maastricht convergence criteria outlining fiscal responsibility and the relation of debt to GDP. Ironically, Macron began his term by promising that Paris would finally comply with those specific EU rules.
Hey big spender
The government has now said it plans to raise the monthly minimum wage by €100 starting January 1. France's current guaranteed net monthly minimum wage of €1,185 is already the highest in the OECD, a club for rich countries. Before the announcement, economic experts warned Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe of the dangers that the move could present. The president, using arcane accounting, promised employers that this promise of sizable wage increases for roughly 1.6 million French workers would not erode their bottom line.
A few days prior, the government had already promised to raise the minimum wage by 1.8 percent, which works out to about €20. Another €20 will now come from cuts to social security payments. A plan for a piecemeal increase of government aid to low-income families will now be delivered at once on January 1, 2019, far earlier than planned — those payments make up the remaining €60. It remains to be seen, however, if the increased payment, which will not benefit all minimum-wage workers, will be enough to mollify the angry yellow vests for long. First reactions to Macron's plan do not suggest they will.
"Macron, Get out": Yellow vest protesters on the Champs-Elysees in Paris have aimed their fury straight at the president
The president in their sights?
France's political elite, in any case, seems divided about the president's approach. Whereas individual opposition members have called for an end to the protests, Macron's biggest opponent, extreme-left politician Jean-Luc Melenchon, sees no reason to do any such thing. Melenchon is confident that the new social movement has quickly become a political movement — one that has its sights on the president himself.
Although the protests began primarily as a reaction to the administration's planned gas tax, radical groups within the movement long ago began to decry Macron as the "president of the rich." The fact that Macron has refused to accept the yellow vests' demand that he reintroduce a tax on the rich only serves to confirm their suspicions. More than anything, the move has sparked massive criticism.
Furthermore, since the yellow vests have no unified leadership, and are instead a self-coordinating movement that communicates via the internet, there are no expectations that the protests will simply stop overnight. That is a key difference from past protest movements, which were led and controlled by the country's powerful unions.
'Saving Private Macron'
Yet, in his speech, Macron had to do more than just provide answers to the income distribution problems that weigh ever heavier on France. As France expert Henrik Uterwedde sees it, the yellow jacket movement is also making Macron's leadership style a point of criticism: "That is the downside of the French political system. By concentrating all power at the top, it gives the impression that the president is the only one who knows what is best for the country. Thus, presidents seek to change the country from the top down — without the consent of the people, the unions, associations, political parties or even the municipalities."
Macron is now promising more political say for French citizens beyond just the country's presidential and parliamentary elections, which are staged every five years. In order to make sure the concerns of people all across France are heard, he says he will seek input from the country's 35,000 mayors and ask for their help in drafting a "new contract with the nation." It is a decidedly new tune for a man who drew the ire of local politicians just three weeks ago when he skipped this year's annual mayors' convention.
Nevertheless, it remains unclear just how far Macron is willing to forge ahead with reforms to France's political system and to what extent he is willing to listen to the protesters' numerous concerns on further issues. It is also unclear whether the growing problem of economic distribution can be defused. Fears that the liberal-socialist president's demise could open the floodgates for extremists has been long voiced by French publicists. A passionate appeal written by liberal essayist Nicolas Baverez for Sunday edition of Le Figaro illustrates the gravity of those fears: It was entitled "Saving Private Macron."