What started last November as a grassroots movement in France against plans to hike gas taxes spiraled into violent protests against the cost of living and President Emmanuel Macron’s policies and style. After public opinion fell behind the Yellow Vests, Macron announced a stimulus plan for households. He also held a three-month “Great National Debate” to channel anger into a discussion over the future of France. While Macron’s gestures have been ridiculed by opposition parties and dismissed as too little too late by some protesters, they did take steam out of the protests. Yet, the Yellow Vests are still around. They paralyze parts of central Paris and other big cities each Saturday as the police try to keep order and stem vandalism, such as damage to French bank branches and luxury boutiques.
1. What sparked the protests?
The initial discontent focused on plans to raise gas taxes to curb emissions and fund incentives for cleaner cars and home-heating systems. It was a final straw for many in France’s small towns and rural areas, who rely on cars and have seen public services dwindle. An online petition grew into a grassroots movement that used social media to organize local road blockades and other actions. They named themselves after the “gilets jaunes,” or reflective yellow safety vests, that French motorists must have in their cars in case of an emergency. After a national “Day of Action” on Nov. 17, demands by the loosely affiliated protesters expanded, ranging from raising the minimum wage, increasing retirees’ pensions and restoring the wealth tax to calls by some for Macron to resign. Much of the anger focused on Macron himself. The youngest French leader since Napoleon is seen by many as out of touch with average people.
2. How has Macron responded?
At first his government sought to dismiss the movement. But as blockades continued and violence intensified, Macron sprung into action. He pledged in early December to raise the effective minimum wage, abolish taxes on overtime, and get rid of a controversial tax on pensions. He called on French companies to help out by offering employees a tax-free year-end bonus, which many companies did. In January he launched the “debate” to hear people’s views on where France is headed. He also ordered more means and powers for police to help them control the crowds and protect property during the Yellow Vests protests.
3. Did that calm things down?
Yes and no. The weekly Saturday protests dwindled into smaller gatherings and mostly disappeared off the front pages of newspapers. But they haven’t gone away. And the violence has continued. Protesters have particularly targeted banks, with more than 760 branches damaged countrywide since the beginning of the Yellow Vests movement. After several relatively quiet weekends, the government was caught off guard in mid-March when protests turned particularly destructive with widespread looting on the Champs Elysees. A bank was set on fire near the iconic avenue. The following weekend the heads of France’s biggest banks wrote a column in Le Monde urging Yellow Vest protesters to spare local branch offices and let their employees do their jobs in peace.
4. What’s the national debate all about?
Macron gets accused of not listening, so he wanted to show that he is. On Jan. 14, he published a “Letter to the French,” where he laid out the themes of the debate: taxes, ecological transition, democracy, and organization of the state. He also set some limits, such as saying he won’t go back on tax cuts he made at the start of his term, which are intended to make France more attractive to investors. City halls across the country put out almost 15,000 “grievance registers,” where anyone could write what’s bothering them or make suggestions, a tradition dating back to before the 1789 revolution. There was also an online version which received 1.7 million contributions. About 10,500 town hall meetings were held across the country to debate a series of issues. The government is taking its time to sort through the results of the debate, and any legislation isn’t expected until late April at the earliest.
5. What else can Macron do?
It’s tough to say. The cost of the moves so far will almost certainly see France breach the European Union’s budget deficit ceiling this year. Macron is arguing that the concessions are necessary to maintain public support for his efforts to make the economy more efficient, including reforming unemployment insurance and simplifying France’s retirement systems. The risk for Macron is that he’s pressured to reverse policies he’s put in place, such as limiting the wealth tax or liberalizing the labor law, basically putting an end to his agenda half way through his term. Or if he rejects most of the debate’s findings, he may further drive home the point he’s out of touch.
6. What’s at stake for Macron?
Macron had bet that by front-loading unpopular, but in his view necessary reforms, the benefits would become clear by the time he faces re-election in 2022. That’s not happening, even if France’s economic performance is better than most of its neighbors and Macron’s popularity has recovered slightly from record lows. European parliamentary elections on May 26 and a series of municipal and regional votes in 2020 could shape up as referendums on his policies. Surveys show that many Yellow Vest activists are likely to vote for either Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally or various far-left groups. Any breakthroughs by those parties in the May European elections will make it complicated for Macron to push on with his agenda -- for France and beyond. But attempts by Yellow Vests to try to create political movements have all fizzled, largely due to in-fighting, and polls show they are among the French least likely to actually vote.
7. What’s the cost to France?
The Yellow Vests protests hit the French economy just as the government was banking on a rebound from a lackluster growth in most of 2018. Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire says they shaved 0.1 percentage point off economic growth in the fourth quarter. Retailers, hotels and restaurants say they will never catch up some of the sales they lost during the critical year-end holidays. Even if the protests dwindle there are concerns of lasting damage to the France’s image -- hotel stays in Paris were down 5.3 percent in December from a year earlier. Still, there may be some upside for the economy. Macron’s measures to boost low incomes with tax cuts could add as much as 0.2 percentage points to growth in 2019, the Bank of France estimates.
8. Have people supported the Yellow Vests?
Well, they did originally. France is accustomed to protests. After all, the nation’s identity was formed by the 1789 revolution. The Yellow Vests protests are the fifth of a series of major public uprisings in the past half-century that have helped shape the nation. But it’s not clear what “supporting” them really means. Regardless of the protests, most French people would probably say they want more government services and fewer taxes. Support dropped after Macron made his gestures and the violence continued. After peaking at 75 percent in November, support for the Yellow Vests was down to 53 percent by March, with 83 percent condemning the violence, according to pollsters Elabe.
• How violence flared again at a Yellow Vest protest mid-March.
• Macron tells the French to channel anger away from streets.
• Macron’s problems are a setback for centrist politicians across Europe.
• How France’s poorest view the Yellow Vests.
• A QuickTake explainer on Macron’s battle against France’s labor law.
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