Macron’s challenges extend beyond France
- The domestic backlash against the French president’s policies has emboldened his rivals on both sides of the political divide
- A failure to calm the crisis could undermine efforts to keep the European Union firmly on a centrist path
Emmanuel Macron is experiencing a problem familiar to French leaders who try to get much-needed reforms enacted – industrial action and street protests. His difficulties are compounded by falling approval ratings and now a fourth weekend of demonstrations, which have given opponents on the far right and left an opportunity to join angry citizens wearing yellow vests to push extremist agendas.
Being tough on troublemakers while meeting the demands of voters requires delicate balancing. But there is another good reason for decisively calming tensions in a promised announcement tomorrow aimed at pacifying protesters; with European Union parliamentary elections just six months away, there is every need to stem the rise of populists and nationalists who aspire to tear the grouping apart.
With Britain leaving the EU, the bloc has depended on Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to be its champions. Both won election last year, represent centrist politics and well know the benefits of a strong union. But the rise of movements against migrants and multilateralism, which has already put inward-looking governments in office in Hungary, Italy and Poland, is threatening the EU’s foundations. Merkel, who is struggling to keep her coalition government together, has already said her present term, her fourth, is her last. Support for Macron has slumped amid accusations he is no different from predecessors and only cares about the business elite.
Macron was elected with a strong mandate for wide-ranging economic reforms aimed at boosting growth and lowering unemployment. But after 18 months, the euphoria has been dampened by the perception that policies do nothing for the poor, only marginally improve the lot of middle-income earners, and mostly benefit the wealthy. A decision to raise the tax on diesel, the most common fuel in French vehicles, to help attain climate change goals and meet targets to curb the budget deficit, was bound to stir dissent. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets across the nation, the protests widening to cover all manner of grievances and increasingly turning violent, leading to riots, at least four deaths, scores of injuries and wanton vandalism.
Macron has condemned the violence, which in Paris has been viewed as the worst since 1968, and hundreds have been arrested. But the government on Wednesday also backtracked, dropping the fuel tax increase from next year’s budget just a day after saying it would be suspended for six months and pledging to halt planned gas and electricity price rises for winter. But the anti-Macron movement has gained enough steam that its adherents, many of them political extremists, have vowed to stage more protests. The president’s political fate and his ability to lead efforts to strengthen and reform the EU depend on a carefully considered response.