Analysts: Yellow Vest Protests Sent Macron Administration Into Death Spiral

Jan 19, 2019
Originally published on January 19, 2019 11:21 am
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France's president, Emmanuel Macron, promised to revolutionize his country when he was elected two years ago. He had plans to overhaul the economy, and they seemed on track until November when he was stopped short by a massive working-class uprising now known as the yellow vest movement. Two years after taking office now, many analysts say that President Macron is finished. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley looks at the French president's precipitous decline.

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PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: President Macron's election in May 2017 was like a revolution. At 39, he became France's youngest leader since Napoleon. A few weeks later, his new party won a huge majority in Parliament, sweeping away established politicians. Macron seemed unstoppable. Yet today, his presidency is paralyzed by a grassroots movement that no one saw coming. Political analyst Christophe Barbier says Macron made several key mistakes.

CHRISTOPHE BARBIER: His government is very weak. He chose two years ago weak ministers - forgive me but very big brains and very little guts, very clever but disconnected with the real France. And all these ministers thought that to know their stuff was enough. No, it is not enough.

BEARDSLEY: Barbier says if you want to make deep change in France, you need a deep connection to the people. Macron, who had never previously run for office, had difficulty interacting with ordinary voters.

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BEARDSLEY: His cringe-worthy gaffes have gone viral on the Internet. He's called protesters lazy, and he told a young guy who admired his suit that the only way to get one himself is to go out and work for it. A comment that particularly stuck in people's craw was when Macron contrasted people who are successful to those who are nothing.

Yellow vest protesters at a roadside camp in Normandy say they are disgusted by Macron. Demonstrator Francois Boulot admits that the current crisis has been building for a while, but he says it's no accident it boiled over on the man he calls the president of the rich.

FRANCOIS BOULOT: (Through interpreter) For 40 years, our presidents have been favoring the banks, the rich and the big companies. Macron pushed these policies further. And on top of that, he has such arrogant disdain for the people. His insults have wounded us, and that's what set this movement off.

BEARDSLEY: Macron's concessions to scrap the fuel tax and raise the minimum wage have not ended the weekly protests and violence. The yellow vesters say they won't stop until Macron resigns. Christophe Barbier.

BARBIER: French people think that the duty of the people is to cut off the head of a king. Now the king's name is Macron. Fifty years ago, the king's name was de Gaulle, and French people cut off the head of de Gaulle in 1969.

BEARDSLEY: President Charles de Gaulle resigned after losing a national referendum, but Macron is hoping to diffuse and even harness people's anger in hundreds of public debates that he launched this week. Marc Lazar is a professor at Sciences Po university.

MARC LAZAR: It's going to be difficult because the yellow vests don't listen to him. It's finished. But he will have to speak to this part of the French people who have some empathy for the yellow vest but condemn and are against the violence. That's a big challenge for him.

BEARDSLEY: Political analyst Barbier believes Macron has realized his errors, and he doesn't think it's over for the young president, though he says Macron will not be able to transform France the way he wanted to.

BARBIER: This country is an old country. She does not want to move too quick. The young Emmanuel Macron frightened people with his speed.

BEARDSLEY: Macron will need a new team and a new way of speaking to the French people, Barbier says. And he'll have to slow way, way down. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.