Saturday, May 4, 2019



Workers' Day parade in Paris
President Macron’s long-awaited response to the Yellow-Vest weekly demonstrations was set for April 15th but was cancelled at the last minute when Notre Dame Cathedral burst into flames and took center stage. The postponed televised presidential address finally took place ten days later. In the meantime, on Easter Saturday, the Gilets Jaunes (GJ) returned to the streets, breaking the brief spell of national unity around the near-fatal fire of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. It was back to the business of demonstrating and disrupting.

Well before April 15 the GJ had already announced that they considered the president’s upcoming message, following three months of Grand Debates and analysis of the citizens’ Books of Grievances, totally irrelevant to their cause. Not only has the movement hardened – egged on by a core of radicalized agitators – but it has taken on a nastier tone as well. What else to call their cruel placards and police taunts of “Go Kill Yourselves!” after the number of police suicides had just climbed to 28 for this year alone? And why sneer at the generous donations for the restoration of Notre Dame, which they loudly denounce as further proof that the rich have too much money and that the government cares more about old stones than about people?

Boarded-up restaurant La Rotonde
It’s a far cry from the game-changing Gilets Jaunes movement that began in November 2018 and created a groundswell of public support for their demands of relief for the overtaxed working and middle class who feel disproportionately squeezed by Macron’s tax policies, and for reinstatement of the wealth tax which the newly elected president Macron had eliminated, earning him the sobriquet of President of the Rich. Today’s GJ movement has lost much of its moderate base and its civility, and its surviving hardcore of brawlers has welcomed the dreaded Black Bloc anarchists (who call themselves anti-capitalists) in its demonstrations “because their violence draws attention to our cause.” One example: in mid-March the Black Bloc, cheered on by the GJ, had set fire to the famous Fouquet's "capitalist" restaurant on the Champs Elysées because former president Nicolas Sarkozy had celebrated his election there, so on May 1st they targeted La Rotonde restaurant on the Boulevard du Montparnasse because that is where Macron had celebrated his win. This time, however, the restaurant had been boarded up in anticipation and sustained no damage

We can only hope that this unholy alliance with the Black Bloc will spell the beginning of the end of the newly radicalized Gilets Jaunes movement that has lost its way.  


Macron press conference at Elysée Palace
As for President Macron’s postponed televised speech, it finally took place on April 25th. After a one-hour introduction wherein he said he had learned a lot from the Debates with mayors and from the Gilets Jaunes and their “understandable” concerns, he outlined a series of measures that included another €5 billion of tax cuts (in addition to the €10 billion allocated in December), and a more equitable income tax distribution with a new tranche at the low end and two new higher tranches at the upper end. It also included a guaranteed pension of €1000/month to those retirees who currently receive less than that; financial help for single mothers; smaller classes (maximum 24 pupils); a more decentralized government and some other accommodations that are meant, in his words, to put the “human” back into the center of his policies. No details on how this would be paid for, other than “by eliminating some of the fiscal niches for certain businesses” and other solutions yet to be determined. More specific on what he did NOT want, he refused again to reinstate the ISF wealth tax, arguing that he scrapped this tax for a period of two years to stimulate the economy and then measure the results at the end of 2019. If these results are disappointing, the ISF will be reinstated in 2020. On immigration: France is following the EU rules of fair distribution of refugees across the EU Schengen space (‘free movement of people and goods’) and will not take on more. The GJ demand for a Citizens’ Referendum (RIC) was rejected in favor of an RIP (Referendum in Participation with Parliament). He also urged French people to “work more” in order to improve their pension at the retirement age of 62 – or work longer since we live longer.

During the subsequent press conference with 200 journalists that ran for an hour and a half, little of substance was added. Most notably, it showed Macron’s talent for public speaking and for poetic phrases such as “the art of being French,” which means… what exactly? 
A same-day interactive Harris poll following the press conference indicated that 63 percent of the French were “not convinced” by Macron’s arguments. Later polls confirmed this finding, adding that the lack of confidence in president Macron is not limited to his tax policies (the GJ's principal issue) but shows a general mistrust that his current roadmap can lead to the reforms he promised.     

On May 1, international Workers’ Day and a national holiday in France, all French unions traditionally gather in Paris for a big joint march that tends to be more festive than combative. This year, the Gilets Jaunes and their new Black Bloc friends decided to join this Workers’ march which, inevitably, resulted in burning garbage cans, smashed windows, police clashes with clouds of teargas, and the unions’ message getting lost in the general mayhem. 

Brief Recap of a novel Movement

What started last November as a Facebook-driven popular revolt against a 23 percent increase in fuel tax (quickly rescinded) and the demand for fiscal and social justice, has evolved into a set of non-negotiable demands expressed in increasingly violent protest marches. The problem is that the resignation of President Macron is one of those demands and that the original protest movement has morphed into a total rejection of authority and the status quo. Nothing less than a complete makeover will satisfy the Gilets Jaunes today.

Never before, however, have French street demonstrations been so violent and so costly to the State and individuals, so last month President Macron announced a Loi anti-casseurs, a set of strong measures against the black-clad thugs whose destructive rampages have marked these demonstrations. Mayors of targeted cities ordered the Saturday shutdown of their city centers to prevent vandalism, but it was not enough to protect people and property from the violence and blind destruction of these protests. Marchers managed to overrun the police to get into the prohibited historic centers of old Avignon, Bordeaux, and Toulouse where nine people were injured recently, eight of them police. 

Much of this violence, however, has been perpetrated against the poor, such as those minimum-wage earners who sold newspapers at the kiosks on the Champs Elysées and were torched out of their workplace and their jobs, or small-business owners who can barely survive when forced to close shop repeatedly on Saturdays. Yet, little is said about this in the press, while in private the usual comment is a Gallic shrug or Ah, Madame, c’est compliqué. 

To foreign eyes, it may not look all that complicated until we realize that street protests are a protected right in France and considered a form of free speech. Hence, part of Macron’s recent Loi anti-casseurs that specifically aimed at barring those known to have perpetrated violence against persons or property was voted down by the Constitutional Court because it was considered a denial of free speech and of the right to demonstrate. Only a judge (and not a police prefect) can bar a person who has already been convicted of such violence, the Court ruled, not those who were not convicted or are awaiting trial. It is up to the police to keep troublemakers under control, and not for the courts to prevent protesters from demonstrating. 

A spokesman for the police union saw this decision as a validation for the hooligans and an endangerment of the riot police. The sharp increase in suicides among law enforcement officers -26 police and two gendarmes since January of this year testifies to the extreme stress they are under and their frustration at the lack of means to respond effectively. With police at the breaking point after five months of weekend riot duty, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner could do no better than promise more suicide-prevention programs and long-term psychological support for stressed officers, and ask for greater vigilance on the part of their superiors. 

While the latest polls raised Macron's approval rating by five points (back to 32%, where it was before the December riots), his disappointing speech and press conference may well be reflected in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament where his worst enemy, the eurosceptic Marine Le Pen and her extreme-right party are expected to make big gains to the detriment of Macron's LREM party. 

In the meantime, French riot police grit their teeth, the government tries desperately to keep the lid on while zigzagging on the narrow path between democracy and suppression, and we all keep our fingers crossed every Saturday.

ERRATUM: An error has crept into this blog. The number of police suicides for 2019 is 28, not 38 as previously reported.