By Tarek Cherkaoui
The strong mobilization of the “Yellow Vests” has taken France’s circles of power by surprise. What started as marginal demonstrations against the imposition of a new eco-tax has slowly transformed into a large political movement.
Macron’s policies and strategies have undoubtedly exacerbated the situation and led to the present political crisis. Ironically, soon after he was elected, President Emmanuel Macron stated, in a long interview with the Guardian (20 October 2017), that he was “not made to lead in calm weather”, but instead, he was “made for storms”. However, when the first real political test came to him as president, Macron looked rather overwhelmed.
For many observers, Macron’s presidency has been nothing but a catalogue of errors. The president’s insistence to offer tax cuts to the top wealthy individuals in France and scrap the wealth tax (ISF), arguing that such measures encouraged investment, have proven to be a strategic mistake.
On the one hand, this approach has caused a 10.5-billion-euro hole in the 2018 budget, which equals a 39-percent drop in total taxes received in 2017. On the other hand, to compensate for this big loss, the taxes imposed on ordinary people -- e.g. the tax on energy products (TICPE), the value-added tax (VAT) or the income tax -- have increased in 2018 in comparison to the same period in 2017.
In the meantime, fiscal pressures on lower-income groups were combined with very little -- if any -- increase in salaries. While high-earners have witnessed their fortune grow by 134 percent in the past 15 years, salaries of lower-income individuals have merely increased by 6 percent over the same period (this means an annual growth of not even 0.4 percent).
Consequently, Macron has been steadily losing the battle for public opinion. According to an Ifop-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio, published on Dec. 4, Macron's approval rating fell to 23 percent in the poll -- down by six percentage points from the previous month. The same poll found that 71 percent backed the “Yellow Vests”. This does not come as a surprise, though, because many segments of French society have reached the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that Macron cares more about the ultra-wealthy than the middle and working classes.
Macron’s second blunder has been to ignore the protests in their gestation. The president seems to have underestimated the “Yellow Vests” because of their atypical structure. They bare strong similarities to Occupy Wall Street or the movements that emerged in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. They tend to adhere to a common narrative but do not have a clear-cut representation or spokesperson.
Due to his lack of judgment, the French president was extremely slow to react. Consequently, his silence further fueled the protesters’ resentment. They already had the feeling of having been left behind and that they belonged to the so-called “peripheral France”, as coined by author Christophe Guilluy.
The feeling of being geographically, politically, and economically secluded is, according to Guilluy, shared by 60 percent of the French population and found among 80 percent of the most popular occupations: workers, employees, small farmers, small artisans, and small business owners, who generally live outside of the globalized megacities in France.
However, in the early phase, the demands of the “Yellow Vests” were given the cold shoulder by the French President. Macron chose to overlook their grievances, remained unyielding in his policy orientations, and did not even talk to the French people directly about the problem for more than a month.
This was perceived as a clear snub to the people and it ended up radicalizing the movement’s demands. Thus, the “Yellow Vests” moved from demanding the removal of the fuel tax to requesting the dismissal of Macron himself. So, when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the suspension for six months of any rise in fuel taxes, this was considered by the protesters as too little, too late.
An additional costly mistake has been for his government to use a heavy-handed approach towards the protests, which were initially entirely peaceful. The French authorities hoped to portray the movement as some sort of “urban guerilla,” so as to create a wedge between the protestors and the general population. Images of thugs destroying property, who the “Yellow Vests” are accusing of being professional agitators in connivance with the police, failed to create the desired psychological effect on the people.
The use of the Gendarmerie armored vehicles and other aggressive methods by the anti-riot police were designed to scare the protestors and create a climate of psychosis among the population. The end game was for the security narrative to take precedence over the social justice narrative. However, these tactics proved to be counterproductive.
A video of French students, in which they are obliged to kneel in silence with their hands behind their heads under the watch of heavily-equipped riot police, caused outrage after being posted on social media. This has caused many French politicians to criticize these methods. For example, former presidential candidate Benoit Hamon described the scene as “chilling,” while Eric Coquerel, a member of Parliament, characterized these methods as “unacceptable and humiliating”.
It was, on the other hand, rather uncomfortable for French decision-makers, who usually waste no opportunity to lecture other nations on human rights, to find themselves at the receiving end of international criticism on the subject.
All in all, Macron bears a heavy responsibility in the current imbroglio. His economic and fiscal policies have proven inadequate, while his political manoeuvres and communication strategies have been largely deficient. Now rebranding himself as a man of dialogue, he has finally decided to speak to the French people on television, paving the way for some limited political overtures and potential economic inducements. Consequently, he will be obliged to negotiate and make much bigger concessions amidst a less favorable political environment and a wider crisis of parliamentarism and democratic representation.
[Tarek Cherkaoui is Manager at TRT World Research Centre and the author of “The News Media at War: The Clash of Western and Arab Networks in the Middle East.” Dr. Cherkaoui is an expert in the field of strategic communications.]
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.