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‘I saw them’: Macron seeks to appease ‘yellow vest’ protesters with wage increase and tax relief

French President Emmanuel Macron offered concessions on Dec. 10 in a bid to quell chaotic protests that have gripped Paris in recent weeks. (Video: Reuters)

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron announced late Monday that he will increase France’s minimum wage by 100 euros — about $114 — a month and slash overtime and some pension taxes in an effort to curb a wave of violent protests that have rocked the country for nearly a month and undermined the authority of his government.

The announcement, delivered in a brief televised address, came as Macron faced the most significant crisis of his young presidency: the so-called yellow vest movement, a popular uprising that began as a reaction to a carbon tax that the president had put in place but that quickly became a revolt against Macron himself, who is widely perceived as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people.

Why are the ‘yellow vests’ still protesting in France? His name is Macron.

Although he roundly condemned the recent violence, Macron acknowledged people have a right to be angry. “I don’t forget that there is an anger, an indignation, which many of the French can share,” he said, adding that he wants to declare a “state of economic and social emergency” to address their needs.

“We want a France where one can live proudly off one’s work,” he said.

The protesters took their name from the high-visibility yellow safety vests many wear in a literal and figurative attempt to be visible. On Monday night, Macron made them the focus, seeking in an uncharacteristically short, direct speech to emphasize that he had taken the problems of the vulnerable into account — the single mothers who cannot afford child care, the retirees who work their entire lives only to struggle in old age.

“I saw them,” he said.

For weeks, Macron remained largely aloof as protesters blocked roads throughout France and, in particular, wreaked havoc in Paris — burning cars, clashing with riot police and ransacking monuments like the Arc de Triomphe. Under mounting pressure, the government withdrew the carbon tax last week, but the protests continued regardless.

This was a crisis triggered, in no small part, by language. A number of protesters in Paris and provincial France told The Washington Post that it was Macron’s personality — but especially his words — that drove them to the streets. They especially resented what they considered his disdain for the working class, citing several remarks he had made since his election in 2017.

In June, Macron, a former investment banker, referred to welfare spending as “crazy money.” In September, he told a young, unemployed gardener that it should be easy to find another job. “You just need to go and get them,” he said. “Honestly, hotels, cafes, restaurants — if I walk across the street, I will find you something.”

Analysis: France’s protests mark a broader crisis for Western democracy

At the same time, Macron slashed France’s famously high wealth tax and introduced instead a flat tax on capital gains, largely to encourage investment. On Monday, Macron resisted protesters’ demand that he reinstate the wealth tax.

“This tax has been eliminated for those who invest in our economy and therefore help to create jobs,” he said.

He did, however, address his gaffes, although he stopped short of an unequivocal apology.

“I also know that I happened to hurt some of you with my words,” he said. “As for my legitimacy, I do not draw it from any title, party or coterie; I draw it from you and from no one else.”

Although some demonstrators have vowed to protest for a fifth week, analysts said the tone that the president struck Monday could ease tensions.

“Macron chose a solemn, solid but humble tone of voice, and that was the best way to show — rather than just tell — that he had learned his lesson,” said Cécile Alduy, an expert in political rhetoric. Still, she added, the wage and pension increases could prove more persuasive to many.

“Actions, not words, are what could save Macron at this point,” she said.

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