The French president has bowed to yellow vest protesters with tax cuts and administrative reform. He's hoping for a new start — but his fight for the hearts and minds of the people is far from over, writes Barbara Wesel.
At long last Jupiter descended from the mountain and gave a press conference in the Elysee Palace. For the first time in his presidency, Emmanuel Macron faced up to journalists' questions. He simply sat behind a desk and explained what road France now has to take after months of "yellow vest" protests. By doing so, he gave up his ludicrous idea of being untouchable and admitted that a head of state actually has to talk to the citizens.
Presents for protesters
In what was called the "great debate," Macron started touring France at the beginning of the year in order to talk to thousands of French citizens, their representatives and mayors. In Thursday's conference he conceded that he's learned a lot about his country — for example, that there is a comprehensive feeling of financial and social injustice.
In order to combat this, he's now offering a bundle of measures: significant tax relief for middle-income groups; an increase in the minimum pension, as well as the reinstatement of inflationary adjustment for retirement incomes; improved recognition of the care services that women provide; and subsidies for single mothers.
Those presents are exactly the ones that heads of government usually promise their citizens in the course of an election campaign. Macron is delivering them two years after taking office because he wants to win the French people over and carry on with the proposed transformation of France's government and administration — and it has become evident he can't do this in the face of permanent protests and resistance from his citizens. In this instance, the president is appealing to the nation's moderate majority. He's right in demanding that the violent thugs among the "yellow vest" protesters are a matter for the police to deal with.
Administrative reforms and better education
Macron also admitted to making mistakes, to coming across as too aloof and arrogant, and he promised to do better in the future. This public appearance was his personal walk of shame, performed in the hope that it will enable him to open a new chapter of his presidency.
In France, complaints about detached elites are more vociferous and more justified than in other countries. This criticism focuses on the National School of Administration (ENA), a selective higher-education institute where Macron himself was educated, as well as numerous other French presidents and ministers. ENA, Macron said, must not necessarily be closed but must definitely be reformed. This is a direct concession to the yellow vests and their grievances. In addition, he promised an administrative reform that would reduce the number of civil servants in Paris and relocate many of them to rural areas.
This, however, is only half the solution. The dominant central government in France is outdated and detached from democracy. The country needs to undergo a comprehensive decentralization that actually hands over power from the capital to the regions. A higher number of political decisions should be taken locally. This could lower dissatisfaction levels and do away with citizens' permanent sense of not being heard. It could also take pressure off the president, who would be then able to point his finger at those who bear responsibility in the provinces.
Financing remains vague
This, however, is something that Macron's reform agenda has yet to tackle. His initial pledges include improving schools and education. But in this area, too, fundamental restructuring would be required. The French school system would have to become less hierarchical, more open, more modern.
Yet even the most determined president would be out of his depth if he had to drag his unwilling people into the 21st century while they're kicking and screaming. Macron can only try to implement first steps. The French people, never ones for reform, won't allow more than that. They made that clear in the streets over the last couple of months.
By the way, the answer to the question of how Macron hopes to finance all those benefits pledged since spring — raising the minimum wage and increasing pensions, providing tax relief for the middle classes — remains rather vague. He mentioned closing tax loopholes and downsizing governmental administration, but that will hardly be sufficient. Everything points to greater public debt.
Enough for a turnaround?
Once the details become clear and the French know exactly how many extra euros they'll have in their pockets as a result of Macron's benefits, the mood is likely to improve. His popularity ratings already rose following his "great debate" tour. In addition, Macron is a good communicator; he can come across as friendly and approachable. If he makes better use of those skills, he will eventually succeed in getting at least part of the moderate segment of society to support his reforms.
Having said that, the French are also fickle. Revolution is in their DNA, and they have a strong sense of entitlement. Humoring them is not easy, and President Macron is on probation: He cannot afford any further blunders at present. From now on, he's governing under more difficult conditions. There's no way yet of knowing whether he'll be able to win, at least to a certain extent, this fight for recognition from his fellow citizens.