Tag Archives: France

The “Gilets Jaunes”: The individuals caught between multilateralism and every day life

by Evelyn Shi, participant in the FAC at the BEF 2016

Though decreasing in number, the “Gilets Jaunes”-protests have led to increased violence in the last weeks, forcing Macron into an interim suspension of his reform agenda. In a 13-minute broadcast, he tried to address the anger in the population[i] – but his concessions might have been “too little, and too late” [ii]. Especially because how France is handling the situation is essential not only regarding national security but also Macron’s standing on the international arena. But the miscommunication between the government and its people is not only a problem in France, but the fight against extremism must also, therefore, be handled with extreme caution in order to not internationalize this technique of protest – if it is not already too late, looking at the French-inspired protests in Belgium and the Netherlands[iii].

A yellow vest – the symbol of the current protests in France

After weeks of partly violent demonstrations in France, their government has agreed to an interim suspension of the planned fuel tax rises, the announcement of which led to the recent mobilization throughout the whole country. This protest movement is named after the yellow vests, obligatory to carry in all vehicles according to French law: Arguably a symbolic choice representing the average citizen, who seems to be targeted most by the currently suspended rise in fuel prices. This was the straw, which broke the camel’s back, causing the people to demonstrate their general discontent with the high living costs in France. President Macron has, for the first time, publicly addressed the population and announced measures to calm the anger. Among these measures is a rise in the minimum wage. But the problem goes further, as the French people have felt misrepresented and unheard for some time now:

Their antagonism arises from a miscommunication that has been taking place in France, alienating the government from its people. As popular and respected as President Emmanuel Macron may be in Europe and the world, an icon for restoring the values- and the rules-based multilateral world, the incomprehension and discontent of his national policies is steadily growing. Driven by his foreign policies, Macron is trying to reform the country itself to make it more attractive and competitive more competitive, in Europe and the world. The most controversial reforms passed in his current presidential term were done with this intention: The reformed labor laws, for example, were passed by decrees – therefore undermining a parliamentary and thus democratic debate. This, however, is not an uncommon occurrence in France. The idea is that a good economy would benefit everyone in the long-term. But in the meantime, this can negatively affect those individuals, who have little securities regarding their working conditions and employment. According to a poll from Elabe[iv], 87 % of French citizens find that the passed reforms under Macron have not improved their purchase power and therefore did not contribute to a better economy. This dissatisfaction with Macron’s reforms has gone so far, that 69 % of the citizens demanded a “pause” of reform activities[v].

A fuel tax – the cause for the protests

The situation did not improve when Macron’s ministers started to resign earlier in autumn, one of them the minister for ecological transition, Nicolas Hulot. Beloved by the people, he explained his resignation with an insolvable dissent with the President, who does not seem to prioritize the ecological transition as much as Hulot had expected. The rising fuel prices, though planned already under the former President Sarkozy, therefore come at a bad time. As good as the intent to tackle environmental issues and to further implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is on an international level, the measures were not sufficiently explained to the French citizens. As a result, they only see that the government’s policies do not strengthen the individual’s purchasing power and therefore the national economy, a topic that seems to be so essential on Macron’s presidential agenda. The people think that the government is failing them and their country, and this is what populist leaders around the world have been waiting to see happen to their opponents: Following the fourth protest, for example, US President Trump stated on Twitter: “The Paris Agreement isn’t working out so well for Paris. Protests and riots all over France. People do not want to pay large sums of money, much to third world countries (that are questionably run), in order to maybe protect the environment. Chanting “We Want Trump!” Love France.”

After the third protest, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had to cancel his trip to the climate conference in Poland in order to tackle the national insurgency, while Macron was at the G20 Summit in Argentina when the until now most violent protest took place. This absence most likely did not improve the French peoples’ view of their President. One must remark at this point, however, that organized protests are not unusual in France. The big difference this time is, that the protests were initiated without elected representatives, but rather out of a movement on social media. This has led to various actors trying to claim a leadership position in the movement, extremist opposition leaders being among them. The French government accused far-left leader Jean-Luc Melénchon and his far-right counterpart Marine Le Pen of having called for their voters to violently infiltrate the protests. The opposition leaders have denied these accusations[vi].

The government sought dialogue with the yellow vests, but proved to be difficult due to reported death threats to spokespeople who were willing to talk in the name of the protestors: The BBC, for an example, reported of such threats to Jacline Mouraud, a 51-year-old accordion player from Brittany, who had reached six million views with her online video on the carbon tax[vii].

Protests – partially turning violent

The government anticipated the fourth round of protests with the closure of tourist attractions and the deployment of 89.000 polices officers throughout the country[viii]. Despite decreasing in number and their now more frequently violent protests, the remaining yellow vests see their demands acknowledged by the broader public and the government. Yet this behavior is too perilous to be conditioned in the long run, as the general public disapproves to the methods deployed by the protesters. Additionally, it is risky for Macron to give them all they want. If they get their way through violence and without discussions and compromises, what is going to stop them from further demands against the government’s policies? Macron’s address to the nation might have calmed those, who have already backed down with the suspended fuel taxes. However, Macron did not sufficiently address the middle class with the announced measures, even though they are the ones who have the most to lose. Furthermore, it is doubtful, whether the extremist part of the movement will be satisfied with his concessions. In fact, even far-left politician Melénchon has called for further protests the following weekend.

It is essential for Macron and his government to find their way back to the people, to re-establish the French peoples’ trust in their Head of State. As important as he currently is as a key player to restore the multilateral world order, his credibility lowers with his rising unpopularity in France. Surveys have found that Macron’s popularity has decreased to a new low of 23 %[ix]. Constructive dialogue must be sought, but it is not violence that should lead to concessions – especially not in times, where Europe is torn between the people and their governments. France’s national mobilization is being watched throughout Europe and the world – and could set precarious precedents if dealt with wrongly.

 

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

 

References

[i] Rose, M, Irish J. (2018). ’To quell unrest, France’s Macron speeds up tax cuts but vows no U-turn’ Reuters. [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-protests-economy-lemaire/to-quell-unrest-frances-macron-speeds-up-tax-cuts-but-vows-no-u-turn-idUSKBN1O90LP [11 December 2018]

[ii] Willsher, K. (2018). ‘Police flood into Paris to contain gilets jaunes’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/08/paris-police-flood-streets-gilets-jaunes [8 December 2018]

[iii] Rossignol, C, Emmott, R. (2018). ‘Brussels police arrest hundreds in ‘yellow vest’ riot’ Reuters. [online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belgium-protests/brussels-police-arrest-hundreds-in-yellow-vest-riot-idUSKBN1O70OP

[iv] Elabe. (2018). ‘Les réformes jugées inefficaces et injustes par une majorité de Français’ [online] Available at: https://elabe.fr/reformes-executif/ [7 December 2018]

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Willsher [2], K. (2018). ‘French ‘gilets jaunes’ protests turn violent on the streets of Paris’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/24/french-gilets-jaunes-protests-turn-violent-on-the-streets-of-paris [6 December 2018]

[vii] BBC. (2018). ‘France fuel protests: Who are the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests)?’ [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46424267 [6 December 2018]

[viii] Willsher, K. (2018). ‘Police flood into Paris to contain gilets jaunes’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/08/paris-police-flood-streets-gilets-jaunes [8 December 2018]

[ix] Willsher, K[1]. (2018). ‘Macron scraps fuel tax rise in face of gilets jaunes protests’ The Guardian. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/05/france-wealth-tax-changes-gilets-jaunes-protests-president-macron [6 December 2018]

Macron’s influence on the European Union

By Antonina Gain, Council of the European Union Participant 2018

In the French presidential campaign of 2017, Macron’s candidacy came across as a real surprise. Formerly part of Hollande’s government, but otherwise largely unknown by the greater public, his arguments and growing popularity led him to a face-off with the second National Front candidate to ever grace the second round: Marine le Pen. The two politicians had little to nothing in common. Their policies and proposed reforms were indeed on opposites sides of the political spectrum. On the 7th of May, 2017, Macron had successfully allied other parties to his cause and became the new President of the Republic.

Throughout his campaign, Macron had always claimed the European Union was a veil of protection for the French that was not to be forgotten or brushed away. His respect for the long-established European institution is also alive with the hope to change it for the better: he has a number of reforms in the core of the EU on his mind. Being one of the only candidates to consistently defend the idea of a unified Europe, he -though not directly- led his opponents to vehemently put the idea of “Frexit” forward. Following this turn of events, some of the French that voted for Macron that did not particularly care for the EU found themselves in a position of somewhat defending it.

The arrival of a new, surprisingly young French president, and most importantly head of a party that takes great pride in offering a new way as opposed to traditional parties, will undoubtedly change the face of the European Union. Indeed, it is the first time such a person finds themself in the position of head of the French State. His role, mainly because of his political belonging, may change from what previous French presidents could have expected. France, along with Germany, has for a long time, been a leader in Europe. The two countries are even called a “couple”. With the re-election of Angela Merkel in March 2018, Macron can rely on a certain amount of support from his neighbouring governments. Indeed, upon her re-election as Chancellor, Merkel made her first diplomatic visit to France, as per usual. The two heads of state have discussed the most pressing matters (migration, eurozone, Syria, and Russia) and have agreed to bring forward a common line of work for the european elections of June 2018.

In a speech at the Sorbonne University in September 2017, Macron has presented himself as not only wanting to support the EU, but also willing to make substantial changes to its core. Some of these changes cause divergences between the French and German leaders. For instance, Macron is very attached to the idea of creating a designated intereor european budget, a stronger parliament and the post of a Minister of the Eurozone. However, Germany is not quite ready to follow. Indeed, being led by a relatively weak and ancient coalition, and animated by a spirit of “not wanting to pay for others”, Germany expresses restraint in these negotiations.

However, contestations are not confined to the couple. They actually flow over it : heads of states of Europe are more and more skeptical towards the power the couple can wield. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, has warned Macron and Merkel that his state would by no means blindly follow eurozone reforms simply because they are conducted by the two. On the other side of the Channel, the British also warn of the possible futures led by France and Germany. The partisans of Brexit advise the countries of Europe to be wary of the “machine” that is the couple.

Aware but not afraid of this competition, Macron steadily paves his way into the European Parliament.

For now, his aim is to make the most out of the newly found weaknesses in the EPP (European People’s Party). The mere mention of these weaknesses would have been impossible even 6 months ago, as it is the biggest coalition in Europe. However, its leaders are slowly moving from a social-democrat point of view, to a downright far-right party. Some groups in it are prone to detach from such ideologies and are as such perfect political allies for the european elections to come.

Macron has addressed most of his speeches at the meetings of EU officials to those that are part of this group : he has warned them about the rise of a form of “european civil war”.

Macron has started his European campaign in April 2018, in preparation for June. His party, for now, seems to be unable to have any kind of popularity on the European level, as its aspirations are mostly French. However, La République en Marche (LREM, Macron’s party) has support from center-right and green parties in Europe.

As we see, Macron is on his way to becoming a true European leader. “France is back”, as he says, alluding to the end of a Europe that is unsure of itself, being replaced by one that is led by strong states. But is France back, championed by Macron, in a way that the EU is ready to accept ? Is the role of France in the Franco-German couple this relevant, when Macron bombed Syria in coordination with May’s Britain and Trump’s America (when Trump himself warns EU leaders that it is high time they stopped relying on American aid) ? And, most importantly, what are the possibilities of the success of his policies in a region where populism is ever growing ?

What will become of this crucial point in European history is yet to be seen. For the sake of the EU and that of Macron’s ideology, we can only hope that the EU will emerge from these new challenges  stronger and more capable of coping with the world it is at the heart of.

 

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.