Pressure on Macron as he seeks to tackle 'yellow vest' anger

French leader to unveil measures in speech that could determine whether he gets re-elected in 2022

PARIS • French President Emmanuel Macron was to set out a series of major policy announcements yesterday in response to five months of nationwide "yellow vest" protests, in what has been billed as a make-or-break moment for his presidency.

Yet the task of trying to satisfy the many, sometimes competing, demands coiled up in the protests will be a tricky one for the 41-year-old leader, who was elected two years ago on promises of sweeping changes.

His reform drive was abruptly knocked off course by the yellow vests, whose movement erupted last November against social inequality.

Mr Macron responded by embarking on a major voter-listening exercise between January and last month called the "Great National Debate", in which grievances were aired during thousands of town hall-style meetings.

"We have decided to transform the anger into solutions," Mr Macron wrote on Twitter. "For several months you told us what you think and we heard... (Monday) night I will respond to you."

The centrist was slated to give a speech yesterday (early this morning, Singapore time) setting out the "first concrete measures", the presidency said.

Summing up the weight of anticipation on Mr Macron's shoulders, Senate leader Gerard Larcher, a member of the opposition Republicans, told Le Figaro newspaper last Saturday: "He won't get a second chance."

COMING UP WITH SOLUTIONS

We have decided to transform the anger into solutions. For several months you told us what you think and we heard... (Monday) night I will respond to you. '' 

FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON, writing on Twitter.

French media said the content of Mr Macron's speech could determine whether he wins re-election in 2022.

"It's double or quits for Macron," the Le Journal du Dimanche weekly newspaper said on Sunday.

"Macron's five years are at stake," said Le Figaro yesterday, adding that the head of state has "no room for error".

Left-leaning Liberation said Mr Macron had to decide whether to side with conservative supporters or placate those wanting a softer approach.

In one of the most important weeks of the President's career, he is also due to hold a press conference at the Elysee tomorrow in an unusual move for a man who has kept his distance from the French media.

What Mr Macron intends to announce has been kept under wraps.

He has much work to do if he is to convince French citizens outside of his hardcore support base that he really cares about them.

According to an Ifop poll published on Sunday, 85 per cent of the French think that Mr Macron should pay greater attention to their concerns.

The yellow-vest movement, named after the fluorescent safety jackets worn by demonstrators, began in rural and small-town France over fuel taxes and quickly snowballed into a broader anti-capitalist, anti-establishment rebellion.

Mr Macron, a former investment banker and former economy minister, was caught off-guard when protesters began occupying roundabouts to denounce policies widely seen as tilted towards the rich and big business.

Admitting to failures, he unveiled a €10 billion (S$15.3 billion) package of tax cuts and income top-ups for the working poor and pensioners, and travelled into the rural heartland to try to reconnect with voters.

But most yellow vests boycotted the consultations. They accused Mr Macron of prejudging the outcome by taking their top demands - including the return of a popular "solidarity tax" on the rich that he cut and citizen-sponsored referendums - off the table from the outset.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2019, with the headline 'Pressure on Macron as he seeks to tackle 'yellow vest' anger'. Print Edition | Subscribe