Placating the disruptive protests that have rattled France was always going to be a hard sell for embattled President Emmanuel Macron. His long-awaited concessions on Monday left most protesters dissatisfied and the broader public on the fence.
In a solemn “address to the nation” on Monday, Macron sought to reassert control over a country wracked by four weeks of increasingly violent protests over fuel costs and an array of other grievances. His pitch included immediate relief measures aimed at struggling workers and pensioners, along with a rare act of contrition from a president often criticised as being out of touch.
Whether Macron’s compromises will turn public opinion against the protest movement remains to be seen. But at roadblocks across France, Yellow Vest activists responded with defiance on Monday night, variously describing the president’s concessions as "a charade", a "bluff" or "a drop in the ocean" – and vowing to press on with their protests.
Many expressed dismay that a president so prone to delivering lengthy speeches on the virtues of globalisation and European integration should – after two weeks of deafening silence – spare a mere 13 minutes to address the worst domestic crisis of his presidency.
Concessions, but no U-turn
Named after the neon safety jackets that are mandatory in all French vehicles, the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) movement began as a protest against fuel tax increases and soon mushroomed into a wider revolt against stagnant wages and the high cost of living. Scattered and leaderless, it is strongest in neglected peripheral regions but has brought rallies – and rioting – to some of the poshest districts of Paris.
Macron promised immediate steps to address the “economic and social state of emergency” highlighted by the protests. They included a state-funded €100 supplement to the minimum wage starting at the New Year along with the abolition of taxes on overtime pay – a measure previously introduced by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and then scrapped by his successor, François Hollande. Macron also pledged tocancel a tax hike on small pensions, acknowledging it was “unjust”.
But the former investment banker showed no sign of relenting on the business- and investor-friendly economic policies that have earned him the label of “president of the rich”.
In a plea that was widely mocked as wishful thinking, he asked profit-making businesses to grant workers year-end bonuses, adding that they would be tax-free.
As was widely expected, the centrist president said he would not reinstate the highly symbolic wealth tax that was previously levied on France’s richest households. Upon entering office last year, Macron scrapped the lucrative tax on everything except property assets – a move his critics routinely describe as the “original sin” that shattered France’s social contract.
At a roundabout in the southern town of Le Boulou, where some 150 Yellow Vests had gathered around a loudspeaker to listen to the president, the general impression was that Macron was offering too little, too late.
"He is trying to do a pirouette to land back on his feet but we can see that he isn't sincere, that it's all smoke and mirrors," said Jean-Marc, a car mechanic, in remarks to AFP. "It's just window dressing, for the media, some trivial measures, it almost seems like a provocation," added Thierry, a 55-year-old bicycle mechanic, who resumed blocking traffic within minutes of the address.
At the other end of the country, in the northeastern town of Commercy, contempt for the president was palpable as protesters scoffed when Macron conceded he “might have hurt people with [his] words” – a reference to his numerous gaffes, culminating in his recent gibe at a jobless man that he need only “cross the street” to find a job.
"Monsieur feels bad," mocked Elisabeth, a 66-year-old retiree. "It was about time," said Damien, in his thirties, while another woman shouted “Liar!” Jonathan, a 35-year-old local official, added: "He is being held hostage so he drops some crumbs."
Support for protests slipping
Not all protesters were unmoved by Macron’s overtures. In better news for the embattled president, Jacline Mouraud, one of the movement’s early figureheads, called for a pause in protests in an interview with French broadcaster LCI on Tuesday.
“The door is now open, we must seize the opportunity,” said Mouraud, who was credited with igniting the protest movement with an October 18 social media post in which she accused the French president of “hounding drivers” with the fuel tax hike.
“We have to transform the movement into something else," she said. "We cannot decently continue this way, with Christmas just days away, or else shopkeepers will go bust.”
Winning over some of the more moderate Yellow Vests may yet prove to be enough for Macron, who has enjoyed broad success in dividing and conqueringtrade unions when pushing through labour reforms. The 40-year-old president, whose popularity has plummeted in recent months, is keenly aware of the importance of public opinion in tackling protest movements. His performance on Monday – with 23 million viewers, a more popular draw than France’s winning World Cup final in July – went down better with the general public, according to early opinion polls.
Just under half (49 percent) of people surveyed by the OpinionWay institute said they found Macron “convincing”, with between 60 percent and 78 percent approving his measures when taken one by one.
While 66 percent said they continued to support the Yellow Vest movement, more than half (54 percent) said they wanted the protests to end. According to another survey, by pollster Odoxa, the same percentage continues to support the roadblocks and other demonstrations – although this number has dropped from the 66 percent who expressed a similar opinion three weeks ago.