Jupiter descending: why Macron is facing dissent

French President Emmanuel Macron waits for a guest at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, December 17, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron waits for a guest at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, December 17, 2018 REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The 40-year-old centrist is facing the most serious crisis of his presidency, with protests on all fronts: from Yellow Vests, mayors, police, pensioners and firefighters. His domestic difficulties could have serious repercussions for Europe.


"Anger breeds more anger," comments Benoît de Valicourt, a political analyst.

"From the moment that one group starts protesting, others soon follow," he told RFI.

"Jupiter, come back down to earth, it's miserable here" could be read on banners held by disgruntled gilets jaunes protesting in November, referring to the god Jupiter, the chief deity of Roman state religion.

French police became the latest in the list of unhappy people to air their grievances Wednesday, threatening their own blue vest protests to emulate yellow vest demonstrators.

It came as the national Fire Brigade Union reported a 23 percent increase in attacks on firefighters, urging the government to take "strong" measures to protect its staff.

Nearly 300 firefighters were involved in attacks in Paris in 2018, compared to 198 the year before, according to the Paris Fire Brigade.

Its representative Guillaume Fresse told AFP news agency: "These attacks are unacceptable because they endanger not only the firefighters but the people they are trying to save."

All the while, Macron is trying to put out the fires of discontent, announcing a series of concessions to help boost the public's spending power.

However, a last minute decision on Tuesday night to suspend the new measures before backtracking and reinstating them, has underscored the government's weakness, which is feeding the blazing embers.

"It was a cock-up," reckons political analyst Valicourt. "The French population are no longer interested in big speeches behind a desk in the presidential palace, saying '''I have understood you''.

"They want concrete results and above all a relationship."

"Jupiter doesn't hold the lightning bolt anymore: it's fallen on his head," wrote Laurent Joffrin in an editorial for the Liberation daily newspaper on 1 December.

Broken promises

Out of touch, aloof to the day-to-day reality of ordinary citizens, such is the criticism that has been levelled against Macron, regularly called “president for the rich”, a reference not just to his economic reforms but his banking background.

Public dissatisfaction stems also from the gap between his campaign promises and his current policies.

"There were high expectations when he was elected [in 2017]," comments Valicourt, "people expected things to change."

That's what Macron's party, La République En Marche! (Republic on the Move!) promised, without ever really defining it.

"The President sent marcheurs [his MPs] to French homes to get the public's opinion. Eighteen months on, people realize that there's no difference between him and his predecessors. They feel as if they have been lied to," says Valicourt.

What consequences for Europe?

"The first consequence is a loss of prestige for the French president at the table of the European Council," reckons Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

The timing could not be worse at a time when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in a weakened position to provide European leadership, and as the UK positions itself to leave the European Union early next year.

Worse still, Macron's recent concessions to Yellow Vest protesters and other pockets of the population have raised fears that France will again break EU budget rules - as it did for more than a decade until last year.

"It is not a catastrophe, France has done it before. It just runs counter to the promises that France has made to the EU," Pierini told RFI.

In an interview to Radio Classique Tuesday, Environment Minister Francois de Rugy said an increase in the budget deficit was "a question of priority."

Pierini warns, "it sends a bad omen for the EU," as Italy already appears to be on a dangerous collision course with Brussels over its deficit-busting budget.

Most serious of all, Macron's domestic woes put a dent in any hope that he might fill Europe’s leadership vacuum, and could provide new fodder for extremists and populists across the continent.

More decentralization

Macron has promised greater public consultation on issues, and is preparing a national debate in the coming weeks to respond to the public's concerns.

Mayors in rural villages have already begun the process of consulting their constituents, and relaying the information to central government.

As for political analyst Valicourt, he would like to see more decentralization of power from Paris to France's other regions.

"Is it not about time we thought of devolving power to the regions as is already the case in Germany, Spain, and Italy? Because they know better than anyone the difficulties these territories face," he said.

As for Macron, critics urge him to change his style of governing, with latest polls showing his approval rating has slipped another two points in the last month, to 23%.

"We all dream of a Winston Churchill," comments Valicourt in reference to the British Prime minister who led the UK during the Second World War. "He was capable of going down to the underground to feel the pulse of the nation. That's what we're waiting for, but it will take courage," he said.

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