Macron’s Big Gamble: Will New Reform Package be Enough to Save Presidency?
“I think what happened at Notre-Dame is a great tragedy, but humans should be more important than stones.”
On April 25 French President Emmanuel Macron announced new measures to address the ongoing “gilets jaunes” (yellow vest) protest movement, including tax cuts and higher pensions.
“I have felt in my bones what French people are going through and I want to provide an answer,’’ Macron said at a press conference. “The art of being French is being rooted and universal, attached to history and origins but embracing the future.
Macron’s package of reforms includes a promised new wave of tax cuts for the middle class, education reforms including limits for primary school sizes, no school or hospital closures without local mayoral approval and proportional elections for around 20 percent of seats in parliament.
Yellow Vest Movement Reinvigorated by Notre Dame Response
The yellow vest movement was first ignited by a fuel-tax hike last year, which disproportionately impacted citizens in rural areas. Along with Macron’s labor reforms and tax cuts on the wealthy, protesters argue he is a “president of the rich,” with the burden of his economic policies falling on lower socioeconomic classes.
Although the protests have gone on for six months, the Notre-Dame fire intensified demonstrations in Paris last weekend. Activists expressed anger that more than a billion dollars was rapidly raised to restore the monument, but their calls to address inequality remain ignored.
“I think what happened at Notre-Dame is a great tragedy, but humans should be more important than stones,” said protester Jose Fraile.
In a conversation with DemocracyNow!, a 62-year-old retired protester explained her point of view: “The moment I saw the Notre-Dame burning, I was overcome with emotion. But when I saw such large donations of money to save Notre-Dame, my long-held thoughts were proven absolutely true, that these billionaires donating this money will get tax breaks as large as if they had donated nothing. Well, this put more pressure on me to be here today and to continue defending the little people, of whom I am part.”
Macron: From Hopeful Reformer to Elitist
President Macon entered office with an agenda to reform labor and “unleash France’s entrepreneurial energies.” The country has historically had a powerful union presence, and Macron sought to invigorate the economy by enacting business-friendly policies. But as a former investment banker and finance minister under the previous president, critics of the 41-year old leader view him as elitist and out-of-touch.
In many ways, France’s situation mirrors the United States’. Over the past few decades, thousands of jobs have been wiped out in rural and former industrial areas as wealth inequality expanded, and living costs have increased while wages have barely grown for large swathes of the population. Macron’s electoral rival, Marine Le Pen, has been called the “Trump of France” for her right-wing, anti-immigrant and anti-globalization stance.
Part of Macron’s motivation in reforming France’s labor market was to appeal to Germany, the powerhouse of the European Union. Since the global financial crisis of 2008, Southern European economies like Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have stagnated and struggled to pay growing debts to Germany.
Macron, who seeks a “European Renaissance,” wanted to strike a deal with Germany’s leader Angela Merkel to restructure the European Union’s debt and help the lagging economies in Southern Europe out of their financial crises. Germany refused, dashing Macron’s hopes for a quick European revival while miring him in a domestic political quagmire.
Public Reaction to Macron Reforms
Reactions to Macron’s new proposals were somewhat mild, with Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT trade union federation, saying, “You can’t say there was nothing, and you can’t say it was great. For me this morning, it’s neither ecstasy nor depression.”
According to a Bloomberg report, voters were largely underwhelmed by Macron’s offer, with 63 percent of respondents saying they were unconvinced in a poll by Harris Interactive and Agence Epoka.
While for now the French president may have averted an immediate political crisis, Macron will need to come up with new strategies to balance the needs of the working class with his goals of igniting economic growth and restoring the cohesion of the EU.
Beyond reflecting the broader global trend of backlash to inequality and globalization, the yellow vest protests illustrate the need for carbon-reduction policies to be more thoughtfully designed. Just as Canada’s Alberta province responded negatively to top-down-style climate policies, France will have to fight climate change in ways that don’t put the majority of the burden on those who are already struggling.