Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and director of its Red Lines Project, is a contributor to CNN, where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” and translator of “An Impossible Dream: Reagan Gorbachev and a World Without the Bomb,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and Paris correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
From our apartment window across the Seine, we could see the smoke rising from the Champs-Élysées, where flames of the burning barricades mingled with the fumes of the tear gas grenades. The demonstrators, wearing the trademark yellow vests that gave their movement its name – the “gilets jaunes” – were prying paving stones from the avenue to hurl at the riot police, clad in black from head to toe, with gas masks and tall plastic shields.
Paris was burning. France was in revolt.
It was a sharp contrast to the vast popular wave that swept President Emmanuel Macron into office with a stunning 66% of the vote over his right-wing challenger Marine Le Pen 18 months ago and gave his newly formed party an overwhelming plurality of 300 seats.
Macron surged to power promising to bring peaceful revolution to France and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Yet his ambitious programs of social and economic reform have stumbled in their reach, some say over-reach, since then. At home, this stemmed from policies aimed at deregulation – freeing businesses to act more rationally, but spreading fear across the French working class that their lifetime sinecures might suddenly be in jeopardy.
Even before his proposed reforms, his popularity began to plunge to half its sky-high numbers when he first took office. But since he has undertaken such an agenda, Macron’s popularity has hit a new low – 26%, which is below his predecessors François Hollande (48% ) and Nicolas Sarkozy (29%) at this point in their presidencies. Neither won re-election to a second term.
Now, Macron seems to have touched a third rail of French politics when he announced an increase in the national gasoline tax. Gas prices in France had already reached a stunning height of $1.74 per liter in October. With the French minimum wage barely $1,322 per month, (€1,160 after taxes) it’s no wonder the French found themselves at a breaking point, even with inflation hovering at a manageable 2.2% annually.
This weekend’s violent outbreaks in the heart of Paris and more peaceful protests across France were all part of a long tradition of demonstrations (the French call them “manifestations”) – with the forces of order dating back to the French Revolution more than two centuries ago. Ironically, in each case, while the demonstrators won some victories, often significant ones, some presidents emerged stronger than ever. In 1968, after a massive student-led protest, Charles De Gaulle won an unprecedented victory in the next parliamentary elections. François Mitterrand, president in the 1980s, went on to win a triumphant second seven-year term after the demonstrations I covered, ruling France for 14 years.
Right now, though, Macron has to find a way to satisfy the forces still demanding change and those who fear it, a political requirement that his successful predecessors somehow managed to satisfy. As one of his top advisers told the French Sunday paper Journal de Dimanche, “We’re not changing direction, we simply have to put more people in the boat.”
Still, having observed eight French presidents, some successful, others not, I am persuaded that it will take more than simply tinkering with the cargo. And any significant course correction in a French system half a millennium in the making is quite a task.
This time, the revolution seems to have united rural and urban France, because all French are compelled by certain items: taxes, gas prices and, more broadly, inflation. Macron must somehow find a way to satisfy this broad body that his vaunted reforms will work to improve the lives of many rather than the privileges of a few.
Though the demonstrations began more than a week ago, Saturday’s actions in Paris were the most explosive and violent. That must, of course, be taken in context. While they provide powerful visuals, few get badly hurt. Not a single person was shot on either side, though I could see the riot police generously using their nightsticks on protesters, and water cannons leveled those who had the poor sense to get too close. Ministry of Interior figures showed 24 people injured across France on Saturday, mainly “casseurs” – breakers or hooligans, who the government blamed for most of the violent action.
Macron aides sought to point the finger at the extreme right, though Marine Le Pen turned the attacks right back, asking why Interior Minister Christophe Castaner “let these people onto the Champs-Élysées.”
Still, as political theater, it certainly poses a real challenge for Macron’s self-styled revolutionary, though unabashedly pro-business, government and his clear interest in becoming the leader of a new post-Brexit Europe.
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At 7:17 p.m., after a full day of the most vigorous pitched battles and just as the gendarmerie was managing to regain control of the Champs-Élysées, Macron tweeted: “Thank you to our law enforcement for their courage and professionalism. Shame on those who attacked them. Shame on those who have abused other citizens and journalists. Shame on those who have tried to intimidate elected officials. No room for this violence in the Republic.”
Macron can certainly use all the support he can muster, at home and abroad, as he struggles to weather these indisputably serious social and economic storms. Two weeks ago, at the Arc de Triomphe at the head of the Champs-Élysées, Macron urged the leaders of scores of nations to eschew nationalism and embrace globalism. His views were widely praised, though not by Donald Trump, whose response was of little help: “The problem is that Emmanuel suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France, 26%, and an unemployment rate of almost 10%. He was just trying to get onto another subject.”
In his hour of perhaps greatest need, the last thing Macron needs is a casseur flinging even rhetorical paving stones from across the Atlantic.