Yellow Vest protests continue in the New Year: A challenge for Macron

The Yellow Vest movement (“Gilets Jaunes“) once again staged protests in France on the first Saturday of the new year, with some of them degenerating into violent riots. At around 50,000, the number of those participating in protests nationwide has declined significantly relative to the peak figures of up to 300,000 when the protests kicked off in mid-November. Simultaneously, though, support for the protests among the French population remains comparatively high, hardly changing over the course of the protest wave. According to a survey by the market research company opinionway, a little over 60% of the French back the protest movement.

By contrast, French State President Macron can only dream about such resounding endorsements. His approval ratings are dismally low: according to the latest polls, 77% of the French population claim to have no trust in their head of state, with only 21% voicing confidence. However gloomy these opinion-poll readings look at first glance, however, Macron is in very good company here. His three predecessors as president also saw their approval ratings plunge noticeably during their first years of office, although Macron’s current level of unpopularity can only be compared with that of his direct predecessor, Hollande. Nonetheless, a look at the latest “Whom would you vote for?“ survey from mid-December shows no improvement in Macron’s approval ratings but merely a less drastic slump. The sitting president lost slightly more than eight percentage points relative to the previous survey in April 2018, slipping to 27.5%, with Marine Le Pen (president of the right-wing populist Rassemblement National (RN; formerly Front National), also 27.5% (+4.5%), now neck-and-neck.

The Gilets Jaunes’ demands were decidedly concrete at first (e.g. the suspension of the eco-tax on diesel fuel, with which President Macron already complied in December), but have become broader and more diffuse in the interim. The principal thrust of these protests is to bring relief to the middle class, for example by means of further tax reductions. This reflects what opinion polls see as being the most urgent current concern of the French: the loss of purchasing power. Alongside this, the movement is demanding the introduction of referendums on the Swiss model, something which is not provided for in the French constitution (with the exception of referendums initiated by the government itself pursuant to Article 11). In the meantime, the government has been showing a certain willingness to compromise, calling for a citizens’ dialogue from 15th January onwards involving debates on four complex topics (energy turnabout, taxation, democracy and the political system) on various platforms.

It remains questionable, though, whether the underlying problem – the eroding prosperity of swathes of the French middle class – can be tackled by this means. France continues to grant itself the luxury of a decidedly expensive social-security network, and the violation of the budget-deficit ceiling projected for the present year positively cries out for fiscal austerity measures. It will therefore be incumbent on Macron to continue playing the role of reformer, even though he will need to become a better communicator too, making the – in most cases, bitter – pills of reform palatable to the French people.

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