In France’s Yellow Vest protests, President Emmanuel Macron faces a problem without a defined purpose or prescription

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 14, 2018

File image of yellow-vested demonstrators marching on the famed Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris. AP

Will there be a fifth straight weekend of street protests in Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Dijon, Toulouse, and other French cities? No one knows but France cannot afford further shows of public anger by the gilets jaunes or yellow vests, a leaderless, faceless group united only by the colour of their vests and a propensity to — like Facebook’s motto — move quickly and break things.

Already, there is consternation over a tourist’s widely quoted description of Paris as if it were the capital of war-torn Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria or Iraq. Security considerations, Portuguese tourist Elizabet Monteero told The Associated Press on 9 December, mean “we don’t go to dangerous zones like the Champs-Elysees”.

Bruised and battered

That fearful reference to one of the world’s most fashionable and iconic streets underlines the perils facing France. The most visited country in the world, France prides itself on being a lifestyle superpower, where a crusty baguette and wedge of good cheese are civilisational markers.

But, after a month of the amorphous Yellow Vest protests, tourists are wary, the French retail sector has reported a revenue loss of roughly $1.1 billion, the country’s central bank has halved its fourth-quarter growth forecast and some of Europe’s largest fund managers are warning that domestic and international investors will be less keen on relocating to France in the context of Brexit. Finance minister Bruno Le Maire has lamented the “economic catastrophe” wrought by the street violence.

In political terms too, France seems weakened on the world stage. The Yellow Vests have diminished President Emmanuel Macron, who won election last year as a centrist saviour and bulwark against extremist forces.

US president Donald Trump has spitefully and untruthfully tweeted that French protestors were chanting “we want Trump” and dissed Macron’s climate-friendly fuel tax, which triggered the demonstrations.

Europe’s illiberal politicians have seized on the protests to claim Macron’s political moderation and belief in multilateralism is out of time.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron, (centre) attends a meeting with the representatives of the banking sector at the Elysee Palace, in Paris. AP

Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini mendaciously called the Yellow Vests “the forgotten thousands who have been slaughtered by the French government”. Geert Wilders of the Netherlands’ anti-Islam PVV party discerned burkas to be more acceptable in the Dutch parliament than a man wearing a yellow vest.

And, Trump’s former White House strategist Steve Bannon told a Brussels conference organised by the Belgian right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang, “To run a country I would rather have 100 Yellow Vests than 100 Goldman Sachs officials.”

Buying peace

Macron, the youngest French leader since Napoleon, has some of the legendary general’s ambition, assertiveness, and pretensions to grandeur. But to forestall a fifth weekend of protests, he offered hand-outs to low-earners and pensioners, suggested a tax-exempt Christmas bonus from companies willing to play Santa, and somewhat cravenly promised to be less aloof and supercilious.

It was correctly read as a desperate capitulation, though some Yellow Vests protesters further parsed it as a disappointing con. But the reality of Macron’s promise is not lost on economic analysts. For the moment, the French president has backed away from his radical agenda of economic reform and returned to the usual French style of deficit-financing.

The budget giveaways will cost an extra 10 billion euros, pushing France’s deficit to 3.4 percent, well beyond the Eurozone’s 3 percent limit. That will mean a tussle with European officials and undoubtedly, a loss-of-face for Macron as the good European and great reformer. His energy minister Francois de Rugy admits the priorities have changed, arguing that debt is a problem “but the first priority is not to discuss this with Brussels, but with the French people”.

Plainclothes police officers search yellow-vested protesters during an anti-government protest, in Paris, France. AP

Any discussion with the people, more specifically the Yellow Vests, runs into a further problem. Who, if anyone, would be the chief interlocutor? The Yellow Vests are neither a party nor an organised movement but a structureless, sudden materialisation of groups mobilised through social media. Their demands are just as out-of-focus — some want a higher minimum wage and lower taxes; others more direct democracy; still others military rule. Students have blockaded schools protesting against more selective university admission regulations. Even anti-immigration campaigners have joined the free-for-all.

This makes 2018 very different from the French riots of 2005. Reporting from the banlieues, the suburban Paris ghettos crammed with north Africans and Asians in 2005, it was easy to see why they were on fire for three weeks in October and November. The ghettos were segregated and racially alienated; poverty and unemployment rates matched the high levels of hopelessness and frustration.

In 2005, France knew the cause, who to blame, and theoretically how to fix the problem. In 2018, it doesn’t really, which makes the Yellow Vests a problem without a defined cause — or a fix.