Grassroots protest against gasoline tax turns into biggest challenge yet for France’s Emmanuel Macron

by Gregory Viscusi

Bloomberg

Emmanuel Macron swept aside France’s traditional parties to win the presidency. He tamed unions as he reformed the labor market and income tax, all without much mass protest.

Now though, his presidency is being shaken by a grassroots movement with no real leadership. Organized through social media, the so-called yellow jackets have shut down key transport links at times over the past week and Saturday police used tear gas and water cannons to contain thousands of protesters — who lit fires and ripped up cobblestones — on the Champs-Elysees.

Polls show they have the support of three-quarters of the French.

While Macron has already succeeded in pushing through unpopular reforms his predecessors shied away from, the recent protests show the greater opposition he’s likely to face next year when he aims to overhaul the country’s retirement system.

An increase in gasoline taxes triggered the demonstrations, named after the high-visibility safety vests drivers need to keep in their cars. But the complaints against Macron go much further.

On Tuesday the government will announce an energy plan setting targets for reducing dependence on nuclear energy and fossil fuels. While the government won’t roll back the gasoline taxes, it plans incentives for buying cleaner cars and heating systems, has forgone a trucking tax, and will organize local debates to gauge public opinion, Energy Minister Francois de Rugy said Thursday.

Those measures won’t be enough for the protesters who came to Paris on Saturday.

“This movement has gone too far to be satisfied by re-touching a tax here or there,” said Jean-Yves, a 49-year-old from Picardy, in northern France. “Macron never listens anyway. All he wants to do is give to his rich friends and take from us.” Jean-Yves, who wouldn’t give his last name because he works for the local government, said he’ll be back for further protests.

Other protesters interviewed between bursts of tear gas and the occasional police charge on Paris’ famed Champs-Elysees avenue agreed the protests were about much more than the gasoline tax: they are fed up with declining services, flat wages and pensions, and feel the price of everything else is going up. “Macron has to come meet people whose salaries don’t stretch to the end of the month,” said Xavier Jiret, a 48-year-old warehouse worker.

Crowds that were prevented by police from nearing the president’s Elysee Palace on Saturday frequently broke into chants of “Macron resign!”

The protests have shown the divide between Macron’s supporters who tend to live in thriving urban areas and don’t rely on their cars, and small towns where driving is a necessity.

They’ve also cast a crude light on Macron’s novelty: coming from outside the mainstream parties was an advantage in his May 2017 election win, but it also means his movement has no historical ties to local communities.

Macron will not face any national elections until 2022. But his approval rating has slid below 30 percent in most polls, and his LREM political movement is polling behind Marine Le Pen’s National Rally for next May’s European elections. Macron has repeatedly insisted he is not interested in polls and that his attempts to modernize the French economy will eventually pay off.

“His whole presidency is based on steaming ahead with his reforms, but he’s facing growing anger on the issue of cost of living,” said Frederic Dabi, deputy director-general of pollster Ifop. ‘He’s in a difficult spot.’

Under Macron, unemployment has fallen a bit but remains at 9.1 percent, double that in next door Germany and Britain. Meanwhile, growth has slowed across Europe this year, including in France.

The protests have been organized by local chapters via social media and began with a day of action last Saturday when 300,000 protesters threw up about 2,000 road blocks across the country. The protests continued throughout the week with highways and fuel depots being blocked, and police struggled to keep up with the wild cat actions.

There were about 8,000 protesters in the city mid-afternoon, the Interior Ministry said, with a national turnout of about 81,000.

An Odoxa poll released Thursday showed 77 percent of the French support the protests, and an Ipsos poll Wednesday put support at 70 percent.

French governments are well practiced in dealing with union leaders who can put thousands of protesters on the street and unions anyway are divided and losing members these days. But Macron’s ministers have been caught off guard by the ad hoc nature of the “yellow vests.”

While opposition parties have shown their support for the protests, the protesters themselves say they want nothing to do with them. “I hate politicians,”‘ said Jiret, the warehouse worker. “They are all the same.”

Protesters mocked the government’s offer to provide more incentives to buy cleaner cars. “We can’t buy food at the end of the month but we’re going to buy an electric car?” said Valerie Pini, a 45-year-old secretary who lives in the Paris suburbs.