Over 300,000 French gathered in the streets on May Day, protesting against President Emmanuel Macron’s economics and politics.
In the last week of April, at a wide ranging press conference, the first since he became the President two years ago, Macron announced another series of decisions aimed at the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Jacket) protests that have become the norm every Saturday in this country since November.
Organised at the end of what he called the ‘great national debate’ in which Macron attended dozens of town hall meetings in various parts of France, over a period of three months, a mix of tax rebates for the middle classes and improvement in some subsidies for the poor came alongside a promise of rapid acceleration of the reforms that he has been implementing in the country since winning the elections in May 2017.
Macron also ruled out rolling back any of the measures that have been taken by his government and said that he would continue with the ‘transformation’ of France, albeit with a more humane face and consideration for the poor. His pronouncements were almost immediately rejected by the gilets jaunes, who accused Macron of turning a deaf ear to the demands that the French have been making since November and including in the town hall meetings that he and his ministers have been holding since December.
And they promised him their response on the streets on May Day, a day that has traditionally been celebrated on the streets with flowers and a festive environment, but has also become a point of gathering for airing of grievances against the government and the society as well. Hence, this Labour Day saw nearly double the number of people on the streets across France than last year. And supporting the gilets jaunes on the streets were the extreme left Black Bloc militants who had rampaged through Paris and other key cities in last year’s May Day protests, leaving behind scores of shattered store fronts and burning cars on the key streets and landmarks of France.
This year, thanks to a stronger presence and a better preparedness, the police managed to avoid any major damage, but the sheer number of demonstrators and the merging of the extreme left militants with the mainly non-violent gilets jaunes is cause for worry for Macron, who seems incapable of putting the Yellow Vests djinn (genies) back in the bottle, despite numerous attempts to placate them, even if some were clearly half-hearted.
In his address, Macron also announced that he aimed to end unemployment in France by the year 2025, maintaining his target of bringing it down to seven percent by the end of his current mandate in the year 2022. However, he also alluded to a radical transformation of the unemployment benefits to go along. He did not say what that meant and also did not give any details about how his measures would be implemented and, more importantly, financed. He once again ruled out rolling back the abolition of wealth tax, a key demand of the protestors who see this as the biggest hurdle in countering the economic inequality that has been rising in France, as also in many other parts of the world.
His measures were derided by his opponents and the protestors, within hours of them being announced. They accused the President of not really listening to anything that the nearly two million French have said in various forms of participation in his own ‘grand national debate’. They say that Macron has ‘gifted’ the very wealthy nearly EUR 5 billion a year by abolishing the wealth tax, while the common pensioners have to struggle with a monthly payment of only EUR 800, about 40 pc lower than the minimum wage in the country. The unemployment rate, which though declining, remains stubbornly high around nine percent as against barely three percent in Germany or the United States and even the Brexit-hit UK has seen unemployment fall below four percent. In France over 5.6 million persons, close to nine percent of the total population, are looking for jobs. And worryingly the number of persons out of a job for over a year has been rising. The unemployment is also extremely unevenly distributed and there continue to be ghettos in the metros like Paris as well as several older industrial towns and rural areas where the jobless rate amongst the youth is close to 35 pc.
Many of these, as well as the pensioners and persons in ‘old economy’ industries don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and have almost given up on the government helping them out of their misery. It is this core group, which is large, that remains unimpressed by Macron and many of them have hardened their opposition to practically everything that the French President has to say.
Making up a big chunk of voters, they are likely to vote with their feet in the upcoming European Parliament elections later this month. Though they remain politically disparate between the extreme right and the extreme left wings, two principal parties, the extreme right wing leader Front Nationale and the extreme left wing France insoumise are expected to harvest the discontentment of the voters who feel excluded from the political and economic scenario in the country.
Macron’s La Republic en Marche, which has swept practically all the elections since his surprise win two years ago, is unlikely to be able to repeat its magic, with significant gains forecast for the opposition, even if it remains severely divided.