President Emmanuel Macron did what he had to do on Monday after a month of massive grass-roots protests, going on national television to acknowledge that he had been out of touch with the many people outside France’s major cities struggling to make ends meet and granting them some immediate tax cuts and income increases.
For a young president who swept to power with a resounding majority a scant 19 months ago at the head of a movement that promised to put the republic “on the move,” it was a painful moment, especially since it remained unclear whether his concessions would defuse the revolt of the “Yellow Vests” (whom he never mentioned). But it was not a surrender: The 13-minute address contained no apology and no sign that Mr. Macron had any intention of abandoning his economic program.
A lot rides on Mr. Macron’s ability to survive and respond to this uprising, not only for France but for all Western democracies in which the deindustrialized hinterlands have fostered an angry sense of marginalization and neglect. The Yellow Vests on the Champs-Élysées are cousins of the British who voted for Brexit, the Americans who voted for Donald Trump, and the Poles, Hungarians and Italians who elected populist, anti-democratic governments.
Mr. Macron came to power as the antithesis of the populists, a young, self-assured, highly educated, well-off whiz kid who believed in the European Union and started a pro-business program to encourage the rich and powerful to restore dynamism and momentum to the French economy. He also came convinced that the French wanted a president with a “Jupiterian” aura of detachment, grandeur and mystery, a tag he should have known would become mockery the moment he confronted social unrest.
He should also have been aware that the “left behind” of France had voted less for him than against the established parties that, they believed, had left them stranded on the economic periphery, and that leading off his reforms with the elimination of a tax on the rich was politically foolish.
All of that seems clear in retrospect, and Mr. Macron insists he has absorbed the message of the Yellow Vests and will pay heed to the ordinary citizens whose tax-eaten income barely stretches to the end of the month. Less clear is whether the demonstrators, whose Saturday invasions of Paris and other major cities have had no single organizer or common agenda, will be satisfied. And if the Saturday protests continue, the demonstrations are likely to be increasingly hijacked by violence-prone thugs.
The violence around the protests has led to enormous losses for commerce and tourism in the prime pre-Christmas season, and the government’s concessions, including the cancellation of a fuel price increase, will cost the government billions.
But it would be a far greater catastrophe for France if Mr. Macron were unable to stay the course on his structural reforms, which are critical if the country is to prod an economy that has already slowed to a 1.8 percent annual growth rate and continues to cool. The problem is that the benefits of Mr. Macron’s policies might not be evident for some time, and the Yellow Vests want action now. The proposed changes to France’s strict labor codes, for example, could take years to show positive results, but in the short term they appear to workers as an assault on hard-won rights in favor of big business.
It is also important for Europe that Mr. Macron demonstrate that popular discontent need not descend into populism and isolationism. With Germany’s formidable Chancellor Angela Merkel now in her political twilight and Britain in crisis over Brexit, Mr. Macron should be emerging as the European Union’s dominant leader and champion. That now depends on his ability to weather the uprising.
And that depends on which way the Yellow Vests go. So far the movement has not fallen prey to ideologues of the far left or the far right, and despite violence on the fringes of the Saturday demonstrations, a large majority has remained reasonably moderate in its various demands, save the odd call for Mr. Macron to go away.
Mr. Macron has done well to come down from the heavens to show contrition. But he must not stop there: He must prove that he really has understood the “anger and indignation” he referred to in his speech on Monday and that from now on he and his government are listening closely and sympathetically.
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