By Arab News
By Ranvir S. Nayar*
In November last year, when the first protest by the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) took place, it caught everyone, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, by surprise. What was surprising was not that people in France were unhappy or that they had descended on to the streets, as these are normal practices in this country. Instead the surprise lay in the depth and breadth of the turnout generated by this self-driven movement, which was powered entirely by unrelated individuals living in distant parts of France through the use of social media. The first weekend of demonstrations saw nearly half a million people gather in more than a dozen cities all over the country and blockade several main highways.
On the subsequent weekends, the gatherings continued. And, even though the numbers declined with each passing protest, the issue captured the attention of the French media and society and very soon the global media also began covering the weekly Saturday protests, which became increasingly violent. There were numerous clashes with police, cars burned out, shop windows smashed and government offices blockaded.
In hindsight, the French government, notably Macron, who is usually a very sharp politician, totally misread the situation and the gravity of the problem. He and his aides treated it as a law and order problem and believed that, with a harsh crackdown by security forces, along with media fatigue and the dropping numbers of protesters, the movement would die a quiet death.
Hence, he at first simply ignored the yellow vests and, when he reacted, it was with a disdain that seems to have become the new norm since he took over the presidency in 2017. The government seemed to remain dismissive of the movement and refused to back down on any of its demands for nearly a month.
However, the protests continued and, despite the falling numbers, there seemed to be a coalescence of the core group. Macron finally had to bow down and cancel not just a hike in tax on fuel, but also several other measures that had riled the common Frenchman, who increasingly believed that Macron’s policies were entirely pro-rich. The president has since tried hard to change that view, but the label seems to have stuck.
And therein lies the biggest challenge before Macron, if he is to save his remaining term and indeed hope for re-election. The rise of the yellow vests is in many ways a mirror image of Macron’s own ascent in French politics. The economy and industry minister under President Francois Hollande, Macron suddenly resigned in 2016 and decided to contest the presidential election barely nine months later.
He had detected that the traditional French political parties and their leaders had lost touch with the electorate and most voters did not trust the leaders anymore. So, Macron presented himself as the outsider who could actually connect the people with their government and leaders. This stance, helped by a very smart use of social media as well as an efficient, though hurriedly assembled core team, helped Macron become a serious contender for the top job within a few months.
His outsider image was furthered when several professionals quit their jobs and joined him. Meanwhile, the main political parties, both socialist and republican, were in existential crisis due to infighting and charges of misconduct and corruption.
Tired of the leading two parties, the French voters were seduced by Macron’s direct and simple message. He would be the people’s president and do the things needed to rejuvenate French business and society. Not only did the voters hand him a strong victory in the second round, but his newly formed party also went on to win a massive majority in the Parliament.
With this mandate, Macron was able to stand up to severe opposition by the unions and push through many key reforms that had been pending for decades, which previous presidents had failed to deliver as they bowed down to the unions and their strikes. Macron believed, rightly to some extent, that popular opinion was for carrying out the reforms and stood his ground.
But not all his decisions went down well with the French, notably the pensioners, the working classes and those living in the villages and small towns of the country, who have been hit particularly hard by some of his measures. This, combined with Macron’s famous gaffes and an arrogant attitude, notably toward the poor and unemployed, has put him exactly where his predecessors were, and facing precisely what he had set out to change: A total disconnect between the people and the government.
However, the president failed to recognize the anger that his attitude had led to and the yellow vests movement is simply a reflection of that. It may not be too late for Macron, even though the protests have continued and his ratings in opinion polls remain among the lowest in decades. The discontent is bound to show up in the results of May’s European Parliament elections. For once, Macron’s party is looking vulnerable and his opponents, notably the extreme left and extreme right, are keen to capitalize on his misery and take away key votes.
With two years more to go, Macron does have the time to resuscitate his presidency. But winning the trust of voters a second time around will definitely be a challenge.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.