On Monday, French president Emmanuel Macron did something movie and television dramas love to depict but real-life leaders rarely do: He went on TV and groveled to save his job. After four straight weekends of several-hundred-thousand-person protests across France, street violence in Paris, at least three deaths, and more than 2,000 arrests — plus, a presidential approval rating stuck below 30 percent — Macron had some explaining to do.
Over the last year, Macron has been pushing through big, unpopular changes in how France’s economy functions; he cut taxes for the wealthy and for business, increased taxes on pensions, and made it easier for companies to hire and fire workers. His popularity declined throughout — but that’s normal for French presidents.
At the same time, Macron was steadily building up his international stature, and making an argument to the French about the country’s global leadership based on two pillars: First, he was going to be the successor to Germany’s Angela Merkel as leader of the European Union, and the figure who could either charm or confront Donald Trump, as needed. Second, he was going to engineer a green transition that would make France the leader of not just Europe, but the world, in confronting climate change. He brought beloved environmental figures into his government and looked statesmanlike while hosting a massive World War I commemoration and 2,500-person “Paris Peace Forum” — a new initiative intended to make France the heart of efforts to solve global problems collectively, and the ultimate rebuke to the nationalism and unilateralism preached by Trump and his friends in Eastern Europe.
Some analysts worried quietly that Macron was too unpopular, even for a French president, and that more radical outsiders were surging in popularity, including the hard-right National Front, which made the presidential runoff for the first time in 2017. But Macron was undeterred; the next step in his green transition was a major increase in diesel taxes, intended to force the French into electric cars or public transportation at a rapid pace. Fuel taxes were set to go up by a few cents a liter in January.
For rural and low-income French communities — where public transportation is minimal and opportunity has dried up, to be concentrated in Paris and other major centers — this was one step too far. Angry posts on social media led to demonstrations across the country, starting on November 17. The yellow vests that became the protesters’ symbol are part of a standard package of car-safety equipment, and shutting down roads across the country became their calling card.
The next weekend, attention shifted to Paris, where the demonstrations became violent and police used tear gas and water cannons on protesters. Four different individuals presented themselves as spokespeople for the movement, and soon everyone tried to get in on the action, from far-right and far-left political parties to alleged Russian provocateurs to anti-immigrant voices. The protests brought out a torrent of commentary from French intellectuals, who didn’t hesitate to describe the moment in the most dire terms: Bernard-Henri Lévy said that the marchers’ choices threatened to “place themselves in the tradition of paranoid nihilism and pollute their ranks with the political vandals that France still produces in abundance.”
On December 4, Macron’s government announced that it was suspending the fuel tax, and on December 5, that it would abandon it altogether. But that seemed to do little to calm the anger and violence; nearly 1,000 people were arrested during protests the following weekend, and scenes of destruction from Paris continued to spook tourists everywhere.
That set the scene for Macron’s address to the nation Monday night. While criticizing the actions of the protesters, he also acknowledged a nationwide anger, saying he bore partial responsibility. “I may have given you the impression that I didn’t care, that I had other priorities. I know I may have upset some of you with my words,” he said. He then previewed a set of additional responses he said his prime minister would take to the legislature: raising the minimum wage by 100 euros ($114) a month, reversing a tax hike on pensions, and ending taxes on overtime pay.
Those sound like fairly big shifts for a president committed to both an environmental transition and a major shift in how French does business. One BBC commentator gushed that this was a “total reorientation of French economic and social policy.”
But the French were less impressed. Across the political spectrum, responses ranged from neutral to harshly negative. “A change of tone but not a deep change,” said a prominent Green politician. “The president showed that he is totally disconnected from the sufferings of the people,” said the founder of a new right-wing party.
With some protesters calling for continuing demonstrations, it appears that at best France may now be in for another period of internal discord, in which it is more difficult for the country to solve any of its economic and social challenges, much less be the leader on the world stage that Macron had aimed to be. A more drastic possibility: Earlier, one of the self-appointed spokesmen of the protesters called on the president to step down … in favor of a “real leader,” like a retired military man. Despite his address, Macron is not at all out of the woods.