Will a winter of discontent spell trouble for Macron?

Will a winter of discontent spell trouble for Macron?

Protesters walk past a roadblock during a demonstration to mark the first anniversary of the yellow vests movement in Paris. (Reuters)

For the 53rd consecutive Saturday, thousands of protesters across France last weekend took to the streets, many of them in Paris, to demonstrate against the economic and social inequality in the country. The turnout was higher than in the past few months, as this protest marked the first anniversary of the “Yellow Vests” movement, which began as an impromptu demonstration against yet another hike in petrol prices due to an eco-tax imposed by President Emmanuel Macron.

Among the estimated 40,000 protesters, there were several belonging to the Black Bloc — a violent fringe of anti-globalization and anti-capitalist demonstrators that has grown in strength in France over the past year. On Saturday, they fought pitched battles with the police, leading to more than 250 arrests. The renewed violence perhaps shows the desperation of the protesters, several of whom, though not supporting violence or indulging in violence themselves, said that nothing much has changed in the country over the past year.

This scenario on Parisian streets resembled very closely the first protest that occurred in November 2018. Since that day, the leaderless group of individual activists has managed to capture not just local or national headlines, but indeed made news across the globe, mainly due to the fact that the movement was run almost entirely on social media and it knocked Macron off-balance, pushing him to accede to some of their principal demands, including a roll back in ecology taxes on fuel. Also, despite the lack of any organized structure behind them, the Yellow Vests managed to keep protesting week after week.

Media reports quoted nurses, shopkeepers and government servants at the demonstration. They all continue to support the movement because the basic issue of inequality in all its forms continues to be a problem in France. Many of them blame the pro-business policies of Macron, who is seen, at least by the protesters, as doing too little to help the common man while changing rules to help companies become more profitable and the rich get ever richer.

Though France is one of only five Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations where income inequality has declined over the past 20 years, and it has a fairly robust social security net, an increasing number of people are finding themselves slipping through the net toward abject poverty and destitution.

The attempted suicide by a student in Lyon last week following the cancelation of his €490 ($540) social security payment points to the precariousness that is growing in France and is especially hurting the youth and the rural populace, even as incomes continue to rise in big cities and the economy continues to grow fairly well.

The leftist parties and the trade unions have invited the Yellow Vests to join a huge general strike planned for Dec. 5 to protest the government’s economic and social policies. The strike is part of a series of trade union actions that have been ongoing in France for the past several months. The trade unions are making all efforts to ensure that the Dec. 5 action will cripple the entire country, as teachers, students, transport workers, government employees and health care workers are all expected to join in.

So far, the Yellow Vests have tried to remain independent and leaderless. While this has kept the movement true to its founding principle of not being aligned to any party, the absence of a support system and an organizational structure has led to a weakening of the protests and splits, with several key participants falling out.

Macron is seen as doing too little to help the common man while changing rules to help companies become more profitable and the rich get ever richer.

Ranvir S. Nayar

For the opposition parties, the renewed vigor of the Yellow Vest movement, as well as the relative success of past strikes, comes at an opportune moment — as they begin their campaigns for the upcoming municipal elections, which are scheduled to be held in March. Though the outcome will not have any impact on Macron’s government and his presidency, if opposition parties do manage to roll back the strong gains his La Republique En Marche party made in the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections, it would have significant implications for the presidential elections slated for 2022.

In the last elections held in France — to the European Parliament in May this year — National Rally, the extreme right-wing party led by Marine Le Pen, topped the list, pushing Macron’s coalition into second spot; the first time since 2017 that Macron’s magic had failed to take his party or coalition to top spot.

Le Pen will certainly hope that the strikes and protests continue, not just so that Macron and his party remain off-balance, but because they could allow her to position her party as the only option that French voters, notably the rural and the young, have — especially since the traditional leading parties on the left, the Socialists, and the right, the Republicans, continue to suffer from their meltdown of 2017. Le Pen’s party has indeed risen in popularity in key areas of France, notably the northern and southern parts, which have suffered the most from the global financial crisis and the continued decline of manufacturing in France. Among the Yellow Vests today, Le Pen is no longer the pariah that the main political parties have made her out to be for over a decade, keeping her out of power.

  • Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.
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