Removing portraits and throwing manure — French activists' new anti-Macron tactics

The scale of discontent against the French president means even the summer provides no respite. 

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In France, as is well-known, everyone is on holiday in August: office employees, bakers, restaurant owners, and even protesters. The gilets jaunes still march every week in small numbers (this Saturday will be “Act 39”) but most have taken a break, preparing for larger actions in September. In the meantime, aggrieved voters are staging more creative protests than mere marches. While green activists enter city council chambers to remove Emmanuel Macron’s official portrait, others have turned their wrath on the president’s National Assembly supporters. 

Dozens of MPs' surgeries have been graffitied and walled-up. A few were even set ablaze. The main reason: a majority of La République en Marche (LREM) MPs voted in favour of the CETA free trade deal between the EU and Canada, which is decried by gilets jaunes and farmers alike. 

One surgery was covered with 20 tons of manure by farmers in Saône-et-Loire (east), one in Creuse (west) was walled-up; one in Haute-Saône (east) was covered with red paint; one in Ariège (south-west) was covered with graffiti reading “anti-police, anti-system, anti-LREM”; another in Paris was daubed with anti-police and anti-CETA slogans; straw and eggs were thrown on one in Oise, near Paris; in Pyrénées-Orientales (south-west) windows were broken and protesters sought to set the building on fire — although in this case, there was no link with CETA opponents. A surgery in Toulouse was walled-up one weekend and covered with insults the next.

Opposition to CETA is mostly concentrated in rural areas, where French farmers view the deal as “suicidal” for their work. The manure, they said, represents “the shit that CETA will bring”. Gilets jaunes, who have previously supported other social groups’ struggles, have joined in — the farmers’ complaints aren’t too remote from their own demands and financial difficulties. 

Meanwhile, green activists have removed official portraits of Macron from council walls in protest at the president’s climate unfriendly policies. The movement, which was formed in February, called on protesters to take down 125 portraits to match “the 125 days it took France to overtake its annual carbon footprint this year”. The 125th one was removed on 26 July in Espelette, south-west France, and replaced with a poster that read: “Climate, social justice, where is Macron? CETA: no thank you.”

Around a hundred “portrait activists” have been arrested and subjected to police questioning (the first offenders were prosecuted for “robbery and ruse” and handed fines of €250). The stolen portraits will be paraded together at an anti-G7 protest in Bayonne on 25 August. The aim, the movement has said, is to demonstrate that “Macron’s policies on climate and social justice are nothing like what he praises in his great, international speeches”. 

Both movements, in spite of their political differences, have been depicted by the government as attacks on French democracy. Former environment minister François de Rugy said that removing Macron’s portraits from walls was “particularly unwarranted in the context of a violent challenge against the democratic institutions”. LREM spokesperson Aurore Bergé has decried the “extremely foul climate” for democracy, while the interior ministry has sent “vigilance advice” to MPs’ surgeries and asked for police patrols to be established. “No intimidation towards an elected official of the republic, even on social media, will remain unpunished,” interior minister Christophe Castaner has said, calling the attacks “intolerable”. (Both the minister and LREM officials were notably slower to respond to public outrage over the death of a young man who drowned after a police operation, the summer’s other political controversy.)

The radically diverse protests all symbolically target Macron: either by literally removing his image, or by confronting his closest allies, the LREM MPs, who turn his policies into law. “Behind these degradations, the only target is the head of state [Macron],” the weekly magazine L’Express said of the vandalised surgeries, noting the president’s severed connection with voters.

If removing a decried president’s portrait is harmless, then attacking MPs’ surgeries is more serious. The regularity with which they occur denotes the fury against LREM and Macron’s political direction. If summer has not prevented their rise, it is unlikely that public anger at the government will have subsided by the time France goes back to work.

With the Benalla scandal (when Macron’s security aide Alexandre Benalla beat up a young protester), the gilets jaunes crisis and the outcry over police violence following a young man’s death, Macron has been unable to escape outrage for almost a year. That his political lieutenants are now being targeted shows that discontent is merely spreading. 

As he puts the finishing touches to his contentious reforms of the pension and benefits system — which promise an autumn of discontent — Macron can at least boast of having changed one thing: France now protests all-year round, the summer holiday included. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.