Can Macron placate restless and angry French?

French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron

President to address nation following four consecutive Saturdays of street protests

PARIS • Secluded in his presidential palace, Mr Emmanuel Macron is looking for a miracle. An angry France waits to see if he finds one.

Mr Macron was due to address the nation last night. Everyone, from "yellow vest" protesters to his dwindling number of supporters, is anticipating some solution to end the downward spiral of Europe's second largest economy, started last month with a grassroots movement against fuel tax hikes.

Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux has promised that his boss would bring "tailor-made solutions'' to "find the way back to hearts of French people".

"Macron has let things go for so long now that people are waiting for a grand gesture,'' said Dr Arthur Goldhammer, a researcher affiliated with Harvard University's Centre for European Studies.

"He finds himself in an impossible situation where he has to admit his errors, not change the substance of his mandate, and offer a whole new sequence of priorities.''

Dr Goldhammer called Mr Macron's planned address a "crucial moment of his presidency".

The French leader will speak after four consecutive Saturdays of protest and even street violence. A newly formed association of yellow vests has called for a fifth Saturday of protests on Dec 15, but is insisting that it be "peaceful".

Before his address, Mr Macron has organised a series of meetings, including yesterday morning, with labour leaders, political opponents and Parliament chiefs. Last Friday, he met mayors of Paris suburbs who claimed on Europe 1 radio that they gave him "a hard talk'' on what they considered his failures.

DEEP HOLE

Macron... finds himself in an impossible situation where he has to admit his errors, not change the substance of his mandate, and offer a whole new sequence of priorities.

DR ARTHUR GOLDHAMMER, a researcher affiliated with Harvard University's Centre for European Studies, on the problems facing French President Emmanuel Macron (photo).

One union, Solidaires, has said it will not attend the meeting because "we're not sure unions right now have to talk with a desperate President". It also dismissed his response as a "communication plan".

Mr Macron has not made any public appearances or comments since Dec 5 and is facing a political and economic quandary.

Analysts say there is no way for Mr Macron, who has already backed down on energy tax hikes, to meet the many and often contradictory demands of the diverse group of protesters.

His proposals could also add to France's economic burden - billions of euros that would eventually have to be offset by spending cuts - that will be closely watched by the European Union and by markets.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire yesterday said the disruption has already knocked a 10th of a percentage point off growth this quarter.

Also, the end of the fuel tax increase will cost the state €4 billion (S$6.3 billion) for next year.

Voters are split on whether the President can go on with his reform plans after the protests. In an Ifop poll released yesterday in La Lettre de l'Expansion weekly, 49 per cent of respondents believe he will still be able to enact meaningful change while 51 per cent think he will not.

"This result signals that Emmanuel Macron's five-year mandate is not over," Dr Frederic Dabi, deputy head of Ifop, told La Lettre.

Mr Macron has several possible options: cancel his measures that have hit retiree pensions; repeal his cuts to the wealth tax; push companies to give workers a one-time cash bonus; restore housing benefits to the level he inherited last year; cancel the speed limit on rural roads that angered many; suspend or postpone talks to squeeze unemployment benefits; or delay reforms to the pension system.

But he is constrained from the outset: Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud on Sunday said the government will not raise the minimum wage, while Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said France could not afford to deepen its deficit.

The protesters' goals differ - from lower taxes to a higher minimum wage, and Mr Macron's resignation - making his negotiations with them all the more difficult.

Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian on Sunday said the President needed to talk to the people "directly" and offer them "a new social contract", preparing them "for what the 21st-century welfare state and wealth sharing should be".

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2018, with the headline 'Can Macron placate restless and angry French?'. Print Edition | Subscribe