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OPINION

Eye on France: Yellow Vests sizzle under summer sun

Lovely day for a protest: yellow vests in central Paris on Saturday.
Lovely day for a protest: yellow vests in central Paris on Saturday. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The gilets jaunes or yellow vests were out in relative force at the weekend. This was the fifteenth demonstration since the citizens’ movement hit the streets back in November.

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The police counted 5,800 protestors here in Paris. They were generally well behaved, clearly enjoying the spring sunshine, and were carefully shepherded by the forces of law and order. Left-leaning Libération says it made a colourful spectacle: yellow in the middle, blue around the outside, the whole lot simmering gently on a day worthy of the month of May. The marchers ambled along a pre-agreed and police-approved route through the quality parts of central Paris.

Even if the start of the school winter holidays had a clear impact on the number of participants, the determination of those who did show up does not appear much diminished.

Libé interviewed someone called Christine. She’s 61, a civil servant, and has been at every demonstration since the start. According to her, President Macron has to go. He is, she says, a dangerous madman. And then she wants France has to leave the European Union.

Christine shows up each time because she wants the political élite to understand that people-power is not going to evaporate. She thinks the next step has to be a massive general strike, a countrywide close-down. And she wants the debate to focus, not on maintaining or improving the status quo, but on what to do once the president has been ousted.

Paris protest again marked by violent clashes

The Paris march was not without its confrontations. Several attempts by some marchers to deviate from the agreed route were met by tear-gas canisters and batons. The volunteer group Street Doctors was in action to stitch up the worst of the wounded. The police, who started the day bare-headed, were suddenly wearing helmets and the visors were down. But there was no helicopter, a sign to the marchers that they were not considered a serious risk.

After a final exchange of empty bottles and full tear-gas canisters, the yellow vests joined the tourists for a quiet evening in Paris.

Right-wing Le Figaro is taking a far less positive view of the yellow vest movement.

The conservative paper reports that the government has seriously under-estimated the economic impact of the protest movement, now into its fourth month.

Time for the government to take real action

Le Figaro says that 72,600 employees have been put on short time, and five thousand businesses are struggling under the impact of the gilets jaunes with turnover reduced by between 20 and 40 percent. And yet the government refuses to reach for the alarm signal.

History is not moving any faster in this numeric age, suggests the right-wing daily, but it has started to stammer. The famous spring riots in May ’68 were done and dusted by the end of June. But the yellow vests give the impression that they’re here to stay.

Le Figaro suggests that the government has been unable to choose and enforce a clear policy to counteract the protestors mainly because they’ve been waiting for the movement to run out of steam. And that has involved playing down the economic impact too. These people are not very significant, and will soon go away, would seem to be the government script.

As a policy it is bad for public moral, according to the right-wing paper, and it’s certainly bad for business.

Money minister Bruno le Maire has, it is true, described the gilet jaune phenomenon as “a catastrophe for the French economy.” But Le Figaro feels even he was playing the government game by adding that the protestors could reduce national growth by 0.1 of a percent. In cash term, that’s less than 2.5 billion euros . . . not peanuts, but no catastrophe either.

And the winner is . . . the French economy!

The strangest part of all this is that 2019 may turn out to be a great year for the national economy, as the 11 billion euros freed up by the president to slow the protests makes its way back into the business coffers.

But Macron is doing only what previous presidents - Sarkozy and Hollande, notably - have done before him: he’s pulling the economy up with bootlaces made of a bigger budget deficit and inevitable tax increases.

Is anybody fooled, wonders Le Figaro, and what will happen when the president is obliged to present the bill?

Worse, the impact on French business confidence is going to cost dearly for years to come.

And Le Figaro is happy to remind us of Emmanuel Macron’s pre-election promises to “put an end to fiscal instability,” of his refusal “to change the tax regime several times in five years”.

Macron marches on in the popularity ratings

The president, meanwhile, is doing nicely in the opinion polls, the latest results showing that 32 percent of French voters now think he’s doing a good job. The last time he was doing that well was before the yellow vests started protesting.

Fifty-five percent of the same sample of voters want the protests to stop.

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