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Eye on France: What can the president say to ease anger?

Gendarmes apprehend a protester wearing a yellow vest during a national day of protest in Paris, 8 December 2018.
Gendarmes apprehend a protester wearing a yellow vest during a national day of protest in Paris, 8 December 2018. Reuters/Stephane Mahe

As the yellow vest protest movement continues to dominate local and international front pages, French President Emmanuel Macron is to address the nation tonight at the start of the main evening television news. The daily papers are falling over themselves in a frenzy of speculation about what he might say.


The normally sober centrist daily Le Monde considers that Macron’s task this evening amounts to nothing less than saving his presidency.

The yellow vest protests have already forced a reversal of the government’s carbon tax proposals. Saturday’s demonstrations were less violent than previous weekends, but that seems to have been achieved at the expense of a record number of arrests of potential activists.

Nobody thinks the anger fuelling the dispute has dissipated.

Everyone is sure Emmanuel Macron is going to bring Christmas forward by two weeks, with gifts for teachers, pensioners, single mothers, farmers, drivers, stilt dwellers. It just depends which paper you read. Everyone except the stinky rich is going to be ho-ho-hoing all the way to the bank.

Who will pay for presidential largesse?

There’s just one problem, and it’s a serious one. Christmas presents cost a lot. And since, according to Le Monde, the cancellation of the carbon tax is going to leave a four billion euro hole in next year’s budget, the scope for presidential generosity is severely limited.

Worse, the economic impact of four weeks of demonstrations has already chopped one-tenth of a percent off French growth prospects for the end of the year, now reduced to a barely breathing 0.2 of a percent by the central bank.

The view from elsewhere

Financial paper Les Echos says foreign media continue to be “stupefied” as they look at what’s happening in France.

The front page of the Portuguese paper Publico has a headline on the “Twenty-first century French revolution”.

The German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says France is a nation "torn asunder" by an "unprecedented" outburst of “anger, hatred and violence". Steady lads.

Across channel, the London Times wisely notes that street fighting is a French tradition, saying the yellow vests are the modern sans-culottes, a reference to the pre-Revolutionary trend which saw aristocrats going around in their knickers while working folk wore long trousers. Trust the Times to keep its finger on the pulse of international fashion.

Trump and Erdogan stir the pot

Foreign leaders have not been slow to offer French lessons. Donald Trump, American president and defender of truth and accuracy in the media, has been telling his Twitter readers since Saturday that there have been “riots all over France”, after “a sad day and night in Paris”, all of which proves to the White House key-holder that the Cop 21 climate deal just won’t work. Thank you Mr President. The French foreign affairs minister has told the Donald to butt out and mind his own onions.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been critical of the violence of the French authorities. And he, let it be said, knows a thing or two about authoritarian violence.

How are we looking in New York?

The gilets jaunes are making front-page news as far away as the Big Apple where the New Yorker magazine currently has a most-read article headlined “The yellow vests and why there are so many street protests in France”.

The piece is signed by Adam Gopnik, who used to be the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent. So he can claim to know the territory. And he also seems to have his head screwed on, since he begins by quoting an older New Yorker journalist, A. J. Liebling, to the effect that a reporter tells you what he’s seen, an interpretive journalist tells you the meaning of what he’s seen, and an expert tells you the meaning of what he hasn’t seen. This yellow vest crisis has seen the emergence of a huge flock of experts.

Liebling, incidentally, doesn’t descend the food chain to the level of the press reviewer, but I suspect we come in somewhere in the category shared by pond slime, single-celled amoeba and the hairy nematode. It’s a tough neighbourhood!

Blame the constitution!

Self-confessed expert Gopnik says the attempt to understand the movement in political-economic terms misses the point. The problem is nothing less than the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. A-ha!

The Fifth Republic, for those whose eyes might be staring to glaze over, was established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, and so centralised power in the presidential palace that it had the unintended effect of making street protests the only alternative to government policy. Even the national parliament is subsidiary to the president.

That’s why there was street fighting in 1968, the shutdown in the winter of 1995, and why there are now yellow vests.

Far right likely to reap political benefits

Gopnik warns that, “given how well organized and how alarmingly popular the far right has been in recent decades, it is surely the most likely to benefit from a social rupture: in a contest between the far right and far left that might come in Macron’s wake, anyone would bet on Le Pen. For that reason, the gilets jaunes seem more likely to become the French face of Trumpism   or of Orbanism, or even of Putinism   than of a more tolerant future.” That’s a grim prospect.

Gopnik ends his article with the observation that “rage is ignored at its peril and must always be addressed, however irrational it may seem; and rage can never, in itself, constitute politics. Those who bet that they can benefit from rage, or exploit it, eventually lose their bets, and sometimes their heads.” Is that less grim? I’m not sure.

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