Macron’s victory overshadowed by “yellow vests”: France is torn apart by contradictions

Unpopular reforms complicate the new term of the head of state

Emmanuel Macron's victory in the French presidential election has become as expected as the protests over the outcome of the second round of voting. But the scale of the anti-presidential demonstrations, judging by the reaction of both the police and ordinary citizens, turned out to be much larger than predicted. The end of the presidential campaign may mark a new rise of the “yellow vests”, which have long been preparing to return to the socio-political field.

And France's economic problems, coupled with Macron's inflexibility on a number of fundamental issues, only exacerbate the situation.

“Down with Macron, the Robin of the Rich” is one of the slogans of the protesters, based on the nickname of the president in the leftist press; Robin des Bourges is consonant with Robin des Bois (Robin Hood in French). Photo: AP

Protest: From the web to the streets

After receiving more than 58% of the vote in the second round, the incumbent French leader went on a new term – this situation has developed for the first time since 2002, when Jacques Chirac was re-elected president.

However, as in Chirac's case, re-election is not at all an indicator of the population's stable sympathy for the head of state.

Macron's rival Marine Le Pen managed to significantly narrow the gap compared to the 2017 campaign (then the difference was 32.2%, now only 17.08%), and almost a third of the French simply ignored the second round (the turnout barely exceeded 71%), not finding among the two candidates who would meet their aspirations.

The situation is eloquently characterized by the results of an online survey conducted almost immediately after the closing of polling stations in France. According to a survey of more than 1,300 people (considered a fairly representative sample in sociology), at least 63% of the country's citizens would not like to see the Republic on the March, the Macron party, whose majority previously provided him with almost unhindered decision-making, the leading force in parliament. Thus, the parliamentary elections scheduled for June will definitely not be easy for the president and his supporters.

But even more clearly than the statistics, the riots that broke out on April 24 and continued here and there all night testify to Macron's dissatisfaction. The French police, preparing for the protests, according to law enforcement officials, did not expect such a “scale”.

Protesters with banners took to the streets not only in Paris, but also in Lyon, Montpellier, Nantes, Toulouse and a dozen smaller towns. Naturally, the largest protests took place in the capital, where the number of demonstrators, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, is in the thousands.

The leitmotif of all the actions is the slogan “Neither Macron nor Le Pen” written on many posters, shouting which the participants in the demonstrations quickly transferred the conditionally peaceful marches to the “hot stage”. The most zealous protesters set fire to trash cans and provoked police clashes by throwing stones and shouting insults. Initially, the number of law enforcement officers was increased in order to passively contain the actions, that is, simply to prevent the “spraying” of processions throughout the city. However, in the end, the police moved from a kind of protection of demonstrations to actually suppressing them: batons and tear gas were used; several dozen people were detained, although, according to official figures, most of them are already at large.

Rising gasoline fuels dissatisfied people

So far, the confrontation at the end of 2018, when actions of the so-called “yellow vests” (distinctive clothing) swept through France, did not come to pass. Then, in addition to gas and batons, the police used water cannons, and detentions numbered in the hundreds. Over time, those protests subsided, although their subsequent “relapses” were observed at the slightest convenient occasion, be it anti-COVID restrictions or another unpopular initiative by the authorities.

Now, few doubt that a full-fledged “return of vests” is just around the corner. If earlier their actions were provoked for the most part by the price policy for fuel, now this problem has changed from a narrow-profile one (affecting truckers and taxi drivers) to a general one, and, as a result, there have been more complaints.

Gasoline and diesel in France are rapidly, albeit not at the American or British pace, becoming more expensive, and even despite the popularity of electric cars in the country (and it is among the top five European leaders in terms of the number of electric cars or hybrids), this significantly hits the wallets of ordinary citizens.

In the end, the delivery of products from suppliers to the store still remains tied to the usual auto message, and the fuel surcharge increases the final cost of goods on the shelf. All this is exacerbated by Macron's adamant position on imposing an embargo on energy supplies from Russia (Paris is less accommodating in this matter than, for example, Berlin) – such a ban will further accelerate fuel prices.

As a resident told MK Paris Annette Moreau, for a liter of gasoline in the French capital now you sometimes have to pay up to 3 euros (more than 300 rubles), which is almost twice as much as even relatively recent, January prices.

“Now it is difficult to determine who are “vests” and who are not,” our interlocutor commented on the protests that took place on the night of the 25th and their prospects. – Everyone is dissatisfied with the fact that there was no choice, we saw the same candidates as five years ago, knowing what they are capable of. As long as prices for fuel, taxis, food rise, the protests will not stop. There are many groups on social networks dedicated to the smallest Parisian districts, it describes when and where to gather, this will all continue in May, and I think the police will not be able to interfere, but only anger. Moreover, people from other cities often come to Paris in their own transport, and now these (convoys) are being prepared.”

Vests on the march

Indeed, the threat to the French capital is not so much the protest potential of Paris as the mobility of demonstrators from other cities. Even in support of overseas protests—Canadian “freedom convoys”—French truckers and farm equipment farmers flocked to Paris by the dozens. Now we are talking about the fate of our own country, and the protesters are already often called “Vests on the March” on the Web, ironically over the name of the Macron party and hinting that the “vest” is the Republic.

Economic difficulties go hand in hand with a number of dubious social initiatives of Macron, in particular, about raising the retirement age to 65 years. Despite the fact that concessions on this issue (and all presidential candidates tried to play on it) could reduce tensions, the president remains surprisingly adamant, arguing his position with economic expediency.

The only thing that calms the opponents of pension reform is that this process should be fully completed by 2031. That is, the final stage will obviously not be for the Macron term – the President of France cannot be re-elected twice in a row.

Of course, Macron is trying to the best of his ability and “cajole” the electorate. So, speaking about problems with fuel, he promised to subsidize the prices of gasoline and diesel – a certain percentage of the cost at gas stations will be paid by the state. The Spanish authorities have already begun to use a similar experience against the backdrop of protests there, but the subsidy program is still in force only until June: after that, there will simply be no money left in the budget for compensation. The French leader also promised that he would not promote unpopular reforms exclusively by presidential decrees, but would do his best to seek the consent of the parliament – that is, there is no question of a fundamental easing of policy.

In this context, the struggle of the “vests” is already beyond purely economic framework, acquiring a specific political connotation. According to its representatives, the movement benefited from what was previously considered a disadvantage – its decentralization, and therefore the ability to absorb any protest forces.

“Vests” are already used as a household name for all protesters against Macron,” said Annette Moreau. She is echoed by a participant in the demonstrations in Toulouse, René Crepe. “We take to the streets for a decent life, not for fuel,” he told one of the French TV channels.


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