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.
Emmanuel Macron, who swept into office 18 months ago on a wave of popularity, is now faced with the greatest challenge to his presidency – a nationwide populist protest against skyrocketing taxes and the disenfranchisement of the poor.
On Monday night, he went before his people in an attempt to save his administration. Though demanding “a profound reform of the state,” his speech did not lay out the sweeping reforms that would salvage his teetering grip on the nation.
Instead, Macron trotted out a laundry list of small fiscal reforms – promising a token increase to the minimum wage (100 euros, or $113, per month), ending some tax increases for retirees earning less than 2,000 euros per month and asking companies to provide year-end, tax-free bonuses to workers.
But he dug in his heels, refusing to reinstate the tax on the wealthy that had existed for nearly 40 years. This refusal will stick in the craw of so many of the protestors who, calling him the “President of the Rich,” have gone into the streets – a practice that Macron vowed to stand firmly against and put an end to at any cost.
Ironically, the real roots of the gilets jaunes’ (“yellow vests”) frustrations are similar to those of many of the grassroots supporters of Donald Trump – a powerful and growing sense of disenfranchisement and working class struggle. After five years of socialist president François Hollande, who was driven from office with single-digit popularity, they had hoped that change through the ballot box would translate into a better everyday life. Clearly it has not. While Trumpland’s disaffections are demonstrated most graphically in his powerful rallies, in France, the tradition has been to take to the streets.
As the French radio network France Info observed, “The roots are inscribed in the history of popular revolts” in France. There is no doubt of this at all, especially to those who lived through the revolutions of 1968 that nearly drove Charles de Gaulle from power, and those who, like me, witnessed protestors being driven from the very doors of the National Assembly. In each case, it was a strong and deft response by a President – still respected by the bulk of his people – that saved the day.
On Monday night, Macron deftly avoided dissolving Parliament and calling for new elections. Had he instead taken those moves, he would have been in real danger of finding himself, for the rest of his first term as President, with a legislature dominated by one or more opposition parties – what the French call euphemistically “cohabitation.” This means Macron sitting, isolated and relatively powerless, in the Élysée Palace with an out-of-control opposition government swirling around him, leaving in tatters his dual visions of transforming French society and leading Europe into a united future.
Still, Macron’s speech fell short. What Macron needed tonight were some simple, direct and concrete measures – and he only offered a few of those.
The costs of the unrest have already proved enormous, bordering on catastrophic. Coming during the peak holiday shopping season, the past month of riots has cost retailers at least 1.1 billion euros, while driving away hordes of tourists. And some of France’s most prestigious stores and most lavish display windows, even Dior’s showcase on the ultra-chic Avenue Montaigne, were covered with plywood to prevent damage and looting. The nation’s largest department stores – Galeries Lafayette and Printemps – closed entirely on Saturday, along with key tourist spots like the Eiffel tower and the Louvre.
Macron’s problem has multiple origins, and that is part of why there is no easy solution. First, it is a revolt that began in the countryside but that has now been embraced by parts of urban France. Unlike earlier revolts, rural France has managed to bring its most powerful forces to bear quickly in the capital – mobilizing on Facebook pages (that are now alleged to have been manipulated by Russian agents), and using France’s high-speed rail network to bring protestors to Paris from the furthest reaches of France inexpensively and in a matter of hours.
Unfortunately, what began as a simple protest against gas taxes has morphed into a far broader series of complaints against the vast economic gulf between the urban rich and the marginalized, largely rural poor. Narrowing that gulf, though, can hardly be the work of a single stroke of the pen. And many of Macron’s more visionary measures, now the core of the protestors’ complaints, were designed to do just that – but in years, rather than days or weeks.
One of those measures included scrapping a wealth tax, which seemed evidence of a Rothschild banker like Macron pandering to his wealthy friends. But Macron designed this measure to attract bankers from London when Britain leaves the European Union, bringing with them high-paying jobs and a broad tax base, which could, nonetheless, take years to bear fruit. The gilets jaunes, however, only see an immediate benefit for those who own and patronize the lavish Paris shops they have been pillaging.
And the protestors’ disdain only grows more visible by the day – on the walls and streets of Paris. In the metro stop at the Place de la Concorde, scrawled in black magic marker on the white tiled walls, are the words: “Macron, breed of dog,” and on the walls of the nearby Hotel Westin across from the Tuileries Gardens, the simple phrase: “Macron, resign.”
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Last week, Macron tried some half measures. First, a six-month respite for the gas tax increase. That did not go down well. So, a day later he rescinded the tax entirely. There followed a hellish Saturday with more than 1,000 arrests, tear gas and water cannons across Paris.
Now, France must simply wait – the next big test is coming Saturday when the movement has pledged a fifth week of disruptions. The question is whether Macron will bend to the will of the street or whether he will stay the course, hoping to hang on long enough for his reforms to take hold and raise the French standard of living, as he has promised all along.