Announcing measures that he said would help to end the “social and economic state of emergency” in the country, French President Emmanuel Macron has ended his silence on the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests that have swept France in recent weeks and seen some of the worst rioting in the capital in decades.
Speaking on television on Monday night, Macron said he wanted to see a France in which “people could live in a dignified way from their work” and admitted that the government had proceeded “too slowly on this point”.
He said the government would raise the minimum wage by 100 euros a month “without this costing employers anything” and that it would cancel unpopular tax increases on pensions as well as abolishing tax and insurance payments on overtime.
However, it would not go back on the cancellation of the wealth tax paid by some of France’s richest households, Macron said. This has been a demand of some of the gilets jaunes protesters.
As commentators in the French media absorbed the announcements on Tuesday, the consensus was that they were unlikely to calm the crisis of recent weeks that has seen sometimes violent demonstrations.
What started as protests against a proposed rise in taxes paid on fuel have since taken in a range of other grievances, including the character of the French political and economic system and Macron personally, who has been criticised for coming across as the “president of the rich” at the expense of much of the French population.
Some 89,000 police were deployed across France last weekend, with some 8,000 being sent into Paris alone, to try to prevent further episodes of the rioting that has left shops and businesses smashed and fires burning in some of the capital’s most upscale districts.
The deployment, which also saw the use of armoured vehicles on the streets of Paris and other French cities, marked a change of tactics from previous weeks when the authorities seem to have been taken aback by the scale of the violence used by rioters on the fringes of the peaceful movement protesting against rising living costs in France.
Shops were raided and businesses smashed on the Champs-Elysées shopping street in the centre of Paris and other upscale districts on 1 December in some of the worst rioting the country has seen in decades.
Apparently determined not to see comparable scenes last weekend, riot police were out in force before dawn in Paris last Saturday, closing off access to some of the capital’s upscale areas and searching demonstrators who had come to attend the protest marches.
However, while the tactics staved off a repeat of much of the previous week’s violence, they also dispersed rioters who had attached themselves to the gilets jaunes movement more widely around the French capital.
Gangs of casseurs, described as violent elements apparently determined to loot or destroy, attacked shops, burned out cars and motorcycles and left a trail of violence in several areas of Paris.
Speaking on the France Inter radio station, Emmanuel Grégoire, a Paris city official, said that the area “affected by the incidents was much larger. As there were fewer barricades, the protests were more dispersed, so many places suffered more violence than previously. There was much more damage than there was a week ago.”
According to official figures, 136,000 people took part in gilets jaunes demonstrations across France last Saturday, a similar figure to a week earlier. 1,723 people were arrested, 900 of them in Paris, more than four times the figure for the previous week and possibly reflecting the change in police tactics. 264 people were injured in the protests, including 39 members of the police.
Although the focus of the international media was on the protests in Paris because of the scenes of violence in some of the French capital’s best-known districts, there were violent clashes elsewhere in France, too, including in the southwestern city of Bordeaux where 26 people were injured in confrontations with the police.
There was also violence at demonstrations in Marseilles, Lyon, Nantes, Dijon and Toulouse, among other cities. Groups of peaceful gilets jaunes demonstrators continued to set up roadblocks and stage protests in smaller towns and villages across the country.
Graffiti calling for the resignation of Macron has become a common sight in the streets of Paris, and individuals spoken to by Al-Ahram Weekly were unanimous in their condemnation of him.“Macron is finished, and it is only a matter of time before those around him jump ship,” one shop-owner not in an area directly affected by the protests told the Weekly.
Despite the violence that has been associated with the gilets jaunes protests, opinion polls taken over recent days show large majorities still supporting them.
A survey by the polling agency Odoxa for the newspaper Le Figaro found that 84 per cent of those questioned considered the protests to be “justified” even after the outbreaks of violence.
The protests have given rise to much soul-searching in France, and not only because of the scenes of violence. Contributors to a special edition of the French newspaper Le Monde at the weekend described a country broken at every level, with the paper’s editor Jérôme Fenoglio pointing to “one of the most chaotic periods in the history of the [French] Fifth Republic.”
Fenoglio used his editorial to criticise the response of the government to the crisis, saying that it had chosen to use a security solution to the demonstrations rather than find a political one.
“The Elysée [the president’s office] and the government have chosen to dramatise the risks of an explosion in the current revolt, apparently in an attempt to reduce its virulence and its political consequences,” he wrote.
According to Fenoglio, the violence that had been seen in the streets of the major French cities in recent weeks had raised “legitimate fears” among the larger population, not least because of the behaviour of the police.
Audiences in France and elsewhere had been horrified, he wrote, to see smuggled-out video footage of riot police forcing 153 secondary school students to kneel in the mud, their hands behind their backs, in the Paris suburb of Mantes-la-Jolie last weekend.
The inside pages of the newspaper went on to detail protests by lawyers and citizen groups across France at what they called the disproportionate use of force employed by the security forces, in particular their use of flash-ball weapons to quell protesters.
“Neither the president nor the prime minister has given the impression of knowing how to do anything else but raise the tension,” Fenoglio wrote. “They have simply negated the effects of their own concessions and reinforced doubts about their capacity to lead the country through a major crisis.”
Commentators in the French media have also not hesitated to point to what they consider to be a deeper-rooted crisis in France, of which the gilets jaunes movement is a symptom.
According to Brice Teinturier, director of the French public-opinion polling agency IPSOS, interviewed in Le Monde, the crisis indicated a “colossal feeling of injustice” among wide strata of the population at having been “held in contempt” and “ignored” by successive governments.
The gilets jaunes and those who support them “refuse a world structured by systematic inequalities [and a] society that is more and more divided between those who are ‘protected’ and those who are ‘exposed’ to unemployment, precarity and globalisation,” Teinturier said.
“They refuse to accept a world that is coldly rational and disenchanted, where everything is simply a matter of efficiency, profit and productivity, as if a country or life itself could be reduced to figures on a spreadsheet,” which was why government efforts to calm the protests by adjusting tax rates would be unlikely to affect the movement.
For economist Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century which became an unexpected bestseller on publication five years ago, large sections of the French population have not benefitted from the French government’s policies and feel “abandoned and humiliated by Macron’s speeches... which have led us to the present situation.”
The point was taken up by Pierre Rosanvallon, professor of modern and contemporary history at the Collège de France in Paris, in an interview in Le Monde.
The gilets jaunes were a new phenomenon in France in that they had spoken out directly without seeking representation through political parties or trade unions, Rosanvallon said.
“France is socially fractured in multiple ways,” he added. “There are perhaps five million people in France who feel the same way as the gilets jaunes, and the echo of their ideas is even larger. The whole of the French population now understands that there are social and fiscal questions that must be resolved.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Macron responds to the crisis