Reportage. President Emmanuel Macron is throwing the protesters an olive branch, calling them 'right in many respects.' But opposition parties have filed no-confidence motions, and protesters remain energized.

Macron attempts to calm revolt, but dissent remains

Emmanuel Macron has reached out to workers and pensioners, trying to put out the fire started by the yellow vests. The minimum wage will increase by €100 per month, overtime will be tax-free effective immediately, there will be a year-end premium for workers (for companies that can afford it), and retirees with an income of under €2,000 per month will no longer pay the CSG (Generalized Social Security Contribution).

Trying to restore calm, Macron admitted he had made mistakes, claimed to understand “the anger, the indignation,” which come from a “profound crisis” that has lasted for decades, said he believed the protesters were “right in many respects,” and even called the protest “our chance” to change society in order to build a better future. He committed to involve local mayors in order to renew ties with the territories, in order to be able to deal with “the economic and social state of emergency.”

His much-anticipated Monday speech, carried by virtually all French TV networks, came after a month-long explosion of anger. He began with a drastic condemnation of the violence: “the demands do not justify violence,” and there will be “no leniency” for those who committed crimes. Macron accused “irresponsible politicians” who have tried to exploit the chaos to their advantage (a criticism that applies, to a greater or lesser extent, to all of them). He did not agree to the demand to reinstate the ISF tax (the so-called “Solidarity Tax on Wealth”) on financial assets, but he promised discussions starting “this week” to “end the undue advantages of tax evasion.” However, the yellow vests—or at least the most committed of them—do not seem convinced. Macron is instead betting on winning over public opinion and depriving the protests of the yellow vests of popular support.

Also unconvinced by Macron’s speech, La France Insoumise, the PCF and PS filed a motion of no confidence against the government on Tuesday. In the municipalities, many mayors are offering the local citizens cahiers de doléances, lists of grievances where communities can list the changes they expect from the regime—a practice born in the 14th century and which became a symbol of the period right before the French Revolution. On Monday, Macron held consultations with the social forces, the trade unions and employers’ associations, as well as with politicians at every level (the presidents of the Assembly and the Senate, representatives of the regions, fifteen ministers and others). This is already a breakthrough of sorts, compared to his previous centralized approach, widely perceived as a willful disregard for “intermediary bodies.” 

On Monday morning, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire offered a stark warning for the country, speaking of an “economic catastrophe,” with the prediction of a halving of the economic growth expected for the fourth quarter, as the Banque de France has also confirmed. Representatives of the small and medium enterprise sector have spoken of losses of €10 billion during the first four “acts” of the protests, which broke out on the streets on Nov. 17 after having been brewing on social media since early October. On Tuesday, the high school students’ unions declared a “Black Tuesday” of protests, as the number of schools affected by protests had remained steady at around 120-150 on Monday, with 50 high schools completely shut down. Four universities are also in turmoil: Tolbiac and Censier in Paris, Nanterre and Rennes 2.

The controversy over the severity of the repression of this weekend’s demonstrations is not going away. The attorney Henri Leclerc, Honorary President of the Ligue des droits de l’homme, has denounced the “preventive arrests” justified by Article 22-14-2 of the Penal Code, claiming that this “unclear legal text” allows abuses (which the Minister of Justice has denied).

It was the largest number of arrests since 1968: more than 2,000 people were detained, and 1,700 ended up arrested. François Ruffin, a Deputy from La France Insoumise and a participant in the protests, claims he has been put under surveillance on account of a charge of sedition (something the judicial authorities have denied). The yellow vests have been denouncing the measures of preventive repression. The journalists’ union has accused a “catastrophic management” of the public order. The mayors—especially in major cities of the provinces, starting with Bordeaux—are calling the Interior Minister to account for the decision to concentrate the bulk of the police presence in Paris, leaving other areas without proper protection. In Paris, in turn, the authorities managed to avoid the concentration of the clashes in one area, but many neighborhoods ended up witnessing violent scenes. According to the municipal authorities, the total damages were even higher than on Dec. 1, the day of the assault on the Arc de Triomphe.

However, the yellow vests don’t seem to be able to get organized. Their social demands are taking on an increased prominence: equality, fair taxation, raising the minimum wage, cutting taxes for the less well-off, the return of the wealth tax on financial assets, the regular calling of referendums on citizens’ initiatives, and a proportional system of representation.

However, the disturbing shadows in the background of the protests still remain. Monday was the high point of the conspiracy theory against the Marrakesh Compact on Immigration, which was signed by France (represented, however, only by an undersecretary). Marine Le Pen and her ally Nicolas Dupont-Aignan had called on Macron to renounce this agreement, which, according to them, would “organize immigration to the detriment of French workers.” Intelligence agencies are suspecting foreign influences on the social networks. The Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has asked Donald Trump in particular not to interfere in the internal affairs of France.

To cap it all, on Monday the yellow vests also received a strange expression of support from Prince Louis de Bourbon, Duke of Anjou, who claims to be the rightful heir to the French throne (and is the great-grandson of Francisco Franco).

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!