PARIS — France was surveying the damage Monday after another weekend of violent “yellow vest” protests rocked the country.
In the capital, the protests left charred car frames, shattered shop windows and vandalized monuments — as well as a presidency in crisis.
What began as unrest mostly in the provinces over a tax on diesel fuel has now, three weeks later, become a full-blown uprising against President Emmanuel Macron. The protesters, who wear high-visibility roadside safety vests, straddle the political aisle and have little in common other than the anger they feel toward the president and what they perceive as his out-of-touch, monarchical leadership.
“Macron resign,” read the graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe, where protesters also smashed the face of a statue of Marianne, a symbol of the French republic.
“Macron resign,” shouted high school students demonstrating Monday in Nice.
Left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon called on the president to step down, as well.
Macron probably isn’t going anywhere. There is no mechanism in the French constitution to forcefully remove a president from office. A successful vote of no confidence in the Parliament could force him to restructure his government. But even if someone prompted such a vote — and no one has — Macron’s party controls a majority of seats in the lower house, and it would be difficult to get to the 289 votes necessary.
There are also no midterm elections in France, so the next time Macron will need to seek voter approval will be if he runs again in 2022.
Relative to such European leaders as British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who lead shaky coalition governments, Macron is in a stable position.
Still, the trajectory of his presidency is now in doubt.
“This could be fatal for Macron’s agenda,” said François Heisbourg, a political analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Paris.
Macron, Heisbourg said, was elected on two main platforms: creating an ever-closer union within Europe and enacting domestic reforms. When his grand ambitions for further European economic integration stalled, he could say that Merkel got in the way. Macron will have no one to blame if his government abruptly rescinds the fuel tax that is set to go into effect next month as a crucial part of France’s commitments to combat climate change.
“Whether he could survive politically and electorally if he essentially has his agenda broken, I don’t know,” Heisbourg said.
French media commentators have compared the violent spectacles of the yellow vests on Paris’s Champs-Elysees to the student uprisings of 1968, after which President Charles de Gaulle was forced to concede to certain demands. The following year, de Gaulle resigned the presidency.
Macron has been a leader without any serious opposition for most of his term.
He was elected in May 2017 in a landslide, with more than 66 percent of the vote. And he managed to reshape France’s entire political landscape in his own image, demolishing the traditional political parties on the moderate left and right and combining many of their supporters into his centrist coalition. That new faction, République En Marche (Republic on the Move), won an absolute majority in the Parliament the next month, with new deputies Macron handpicked.
Macron has certainly used his power. He has been successful in pushing through labor reforms that his right-wing predecessors were unable to accomplish, forced to backtrack as they all were by crippling strikes and protests. Macron also slashed the wealth tax, which earned him the eternal adoration of France’s elite and the ire of progressives.
Smaller protests followed each of those moves, and periodic strikes shut down the country’s train system, but nothing and no one was able to stand in Macron’s way.
Nothing, that is, until now.
The steep decline of his approval ratings in recent months has taken even some of his political allies by surprise. His approval numbers are currently as low as 26 percent, according to one November poll. His administration has sought to portray the yellow vests as political extremists from the far right and the far left, but polls suggest 72 percent of French voters support the movement, although that support is felt more strongly on the extremes and among France’s disaffected center-left.
In the protests this past weekend, more than 260 people across the country were injured, including at least 133 people in the capital, according to the Paris prefecture. Three deaths have been associated with the protests.
The French government has weighed the possibility of imposing a state of emergency — a temporary period of heightened security — until a compromise of some kind can be reached. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe met with political opposition leaders Monday, in advance of a parliamentary session Wednesday that will probably determine the specifics of the government’s response. Philippe is also meeting this week with representatives of the yellow vests.
Macron, meanwhile, canceled a planned trip to Serbia this week.
He was criticized for being in Buenos Aires during Saturday’s violence, attending a conference of the Group of 20 — and advocating for the type of globalized economy that has hurt workers in the post-industrialized French provinces.
It didn’t help that one of his parliamentary deputies, Elise Fajgeles, could not identify the minimum national salary when pressed during a televised debate with two yellow vest representatives. “You don’t know,” said one of the men. “And you still claim to be a representative of the French people.”
“There’s a tradition of regicide in France, of killing the king when the king is wrong,” said Dominique Moïsi, a foreign policy expert at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne and a former Macron campaign adviser. He noted that Macron’s ability to make reforms may already be over, but also that the mobilized outrage currently on display in France can be seen as a French version of the sentiment that led to the election of President Trump or the departure of Britain from the European Union.
“We thought Macron was an oasis of hope, but in a sense this is the normalization of France vis-a-vis the Western world,” he said. “It’s our French Brexit.”