PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron announced a host of conciliatory measures on Thursday designed to quell more than five months of violent protests over social inequality.
Macron promised “significant” tax cuts for the French middle class, a crackdown on tax evasion schemes, and a reinvestment in local administration and public works across the country.
“There’s a feeling of injustice over taxation,” Macron said in the first wide-ranging news conference of a president who has favored lofty pronouncements delivered in cinematic speeches or via social media.
But Macron, seated at a desk and far more informal than usual, did not offer to reintroduce France’s wealth tax — one of the key demands of “yellow vest” protesters who have amassed at traffic circles in rural France and marched down the affluent boulevards of the capital every weekend since mid-November.
“When I look at the situation in our country, the real inequalities are not fiscal,” he said. “We have a system that corrects fiscal inequalities much more than in other countries. The true inequalities are those of origins, of destiny.”
He vowed a reinvestment in education, with an eye to fostering leaders that better represent the socioeconomic diversity of French society.
This did not appease Priscillia Ludosky, a yellow vest organizer whose online petition last year was a key factor in the movement’s mobilization.
“He does not have the willingness to announce real measures that are actually strong,” Ludosky said. “He’s stayed with his original program, in fact.”
Macron’s main mission on Thursday was to present the conclusions of the “grand débat” or “great debate,” a two-month listening tour that took him to high schools and community centers across the country, taking stock of grievances from local officials and constituents who felt left behind in an increasingly globalized economy.
The grand débat was an enormous undertaking, and the roughly 10,000 sessions — some of which lasted more than six hours — generated a staggering amount of data: roughly 1.5 million individual contributions and more than 16,000 booklets of complaints.
Macron’s bet was that it might help to quell the yellow vest protests, as well as redeem his faltering presidency.
The protests have continued. Last Saturday marked the 23rd weekend demonstrators wearing high-visibility yellow jackets marched through Paris. The protests have often been violent, as demonstrators clashed with police, burned cars and smashed shop windows.
Meanwhile, while the grand débat was underway, Macron’s approval rating edged up ever so slightly and now stands at around 29 percent, according to the latest Ifop poll, up from 23 percent in December.
Much of the yellow vest outrage has been directed at the French president. Protesters have criticized Macron — a former investment banker with the academic pedigree of the quintessential French elite — for his perceived aloofness and arrogance, particularly with regard to his responses to the struggles of working people.
During his election campaign, he told a worker that the “best way to afford a suit is to work.” Last September, he told a young, unemployed gardener that he could easily find a job if he just “crossed the street.”
Comments like these — coupled with actions like his decision to abolish France’s wealth tax at the same time as he made it easier for small businesses to hire and fire employees — earned him the moniker of “president of the rich,” a title he has struggled to escape.
Macron was pressed on these gaffes on Thursday. He responded: “There are phrases I regret; there are phrases taken totally out of context.”
Macron also doubled down on his wealth tax decision, insisting that it was a means of generating investment in the national economy. “It’s not a gift for the most fortunate,” he said.
The yellow vest movement began in mid-November as a mobilization against a carbon tax. Protesters saw Macron’s plan to increase the tax — though in line with France’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — as a misguided decree from an out-of-touch president who failed to grasp how essential and expensive cars are in France’s rural periphery.
Macron on Thursday reiterated his belief in the urgency of fighting climate change. He announced the creation of an “ecological defense council” of 250 people, selected by lottery, who would be charged with evaluating and advancing the national strategy.
Ludosky emphasized that she and many in the yellow vest movement do not oppose collective action on climate change — they oppose the burden being placed on the working class. For her, Macron’s latest announcement was hollow. “Climate change associations have been saying for years what we need to do,” she said.
Thursday’s news conference also served as a campaign pitch by Macron ahead of contentious European parliamentary elections next month. Many of his remarks — on secularism, immigration and free movement between European countries — seemed to play into themes that transcended France’s domestic malaise.
A telling example was his jibe at Hungary’s Viktor Orban, perhaps his chief antagonist on the European stage. Macron said he was willing to accept a visa-free Schengen zone “with fewer states,” removing those — such as Hungary — that have rejected the European Commission’s migrant quota allocation system, devised in 2015 during the height of Europe’s historic migrant influx.