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11 December 2018

Emmanuel Macron’s speech failed to redefine his presidency

The French president falsely presented planned measures as social breakthroughs and maintained an unjust tax system. 

By Pauline Bock

Since 17 November and the start of the gilets jaunes movement in France, Emmanuel Macron has been trying to catch up. He assumed the protests would die out – they didn’t. When he realised they wouldn’t, he said he had “listened” to the protesters’ anger, but announced no major changes. When this proved insufficient, he promised to suspend, and then to scrap, the fuel tax that had started the movement – long after the gilets jaunes’ focus had moved from the tax to greater social and economic demands. He gave in too late each time, adapting his strategy only when it became painfully obvious that the previous one had failed. Last night was no different.

During a national TV address to the French people, Macron – who had not said a word since 1 December when “Act III” of the protests turned into riots in Paris – tried to save face: he seemingly gave in. The French president said he would respond to the “economic and social urgency” of the current situation “with strong measures”, including “cutting taxes more rapidly”, but would perform no U-turns.

As always with Macron – who told his socialist mentor François Hollande he was just launching a youth movement, not a party to outflank him; who campaigned on a neither left nor right platform then ditched the “left” part altogether; who claimed to be a feminist but broke his promise not to appoint a male prime minister; who tweets “#makeourplanetgreatagain” but whose star environment minister quit because of a lack of progress on green policy – the devil is in the details.

He promised an additional €100 for workers on the minimum wage “without it costing a cent to employers” – because it’s not a new increase, merely the re-evaluation of a specific allowance that was already planned. (Le Parisien has calculated that the levelled system will negatively impact around 30,000 of the most precarious households.) He said that a tax on pensioners “earning less than €2,000” would be cancelled – without making clear that “€2,000” included all earnings, not solely their pension, and would therefore impact fewer people than his rhetoric implied. He announced an annual tax-free bonus for workers – “whose employers can afford it”, so at a boss’s discretion. Mere hours before Macron’s speech, the Senate also adopted a freeze on welfare payments for 2019. Macron is a rather like a sneaky character in a Disney film: if you don’t negotiate precise terms in the contract, chances are you’re losing out in the agreement as a whole.

But the real problem lies in plain sight: Macron still refuses to re-introduce the tax on the very rich, which he abolished early in his presidency, a measure that has earned him the stubborn nickname of “president of the rich”. “Going backwards would weaken us,” Macron said about reintroducing the tax, which the gilets jaunes have demanded in the name of economic justice. According to Macron, the tax, known as l’impôt de solidarité sur la fortune the (solidarity tax on wealth), made rich citizens flee. That is “completely false”, according to Thomas Piketty, the economist and author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, who noted in Le Monde that the tax continually brought in more money from 1990 until its abolition in 2017. Macron must reinstate the tax, Piketty concluded, “if he wants to save his presidency”.

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The gilets jaunes won’t be fooled so easily: many watched Macron’s address and reacted online, but most have dismissed his offers as “crumbs”. “Macron is offering us cent balles et un Mars (100 quid and a Mars bar)”, joked some gilets jaunes on Facebook, using a French saying that means “Don’t hold your breath!” and referencing the €100 minimum wage “increase”. Many might also feel forgotten. As Jean-Luc Mélenchon noted, Macron offered no solutions to the unemployed, the part-time workers or the students (who are blockading around 120 high schools today for what a union has called “Black Tuesday”). Newspaper Liberation summed up Macron’s address with the headline “I have understood your concerns… partially”. These “crumbs” are unlikely to convince the gilets jaunes to cancel their “Act V”, planned for 15 December.

It took Macron four weeks of violent protests and a badly hurt economy to consider measures that will, in the end, have little impact on what unites all gilets jaunes: their demand for more disposable income and a fairer tax system. He offered a minority of the protesters an additional €100 on their paycheck only after the police preemptively arrested thousands, illegally shot gilets jaunes in the face with flashballs and teargas, humiliated children, and patrolled the capital with armoured vehicles not seen on Parisian streets for decades. If gilets jaunes decide they’re unhappy with his offers and protests continue, then what?

Macron’s presidential credibility has been wounded because he repeatedly chose to ignore warnings, and the gilets jaunes’ anger turned personal because he refused to address their concerns until being cornered into doing so.

With an audience of 21 million for his TV address last night, more than the number that watched the last World Cup final, Macron had a chance to redefine his presidency. Instead, he falsely presented pre-planned measures as social breakthroughs and maintained an unjust tax system. Twice, the gilets jaunes listened, and twice they were given “crumbs”. This moment of reckoning isn’t over yet, but Macron has now lost momentum, and, possibly, the French people’s trust.

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