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Where France's Emmanuel Macron Blew It

He miscalculated how the burden of his fuel tax would fall on people who could least afford it
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 7, 2018 1:11 PM CST

(Newser) – Paris and other large cities in France are bracing for violence this weekend. "Yellow vest" protesters promise to be out in force, and police promise to be there to meet them. One potential sign of good news: Representatives of the protesters will meet with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe Friday night. "Our message is that we are listening to them," says a government spokesman. A look at what the protests are about, and the mounting criticism on President Emmanuel Macron:

  • The start: The original protests were over a fuel tax increase, part of a plan to steer France toward cleaner energy. Macron has since scrapped the tax hike in the wake of the protests in the first big about-face of his presidency, notes Reuters. But the protests have gone way beyond that single issue at this point.
  • Much bigger: "This is now about so much more than fuel tax," one of the protesters, a 41-year-old single mom, tells the Guardian. "We seem to live in a world gone mad where the rich pay next to nothing and the poor are constantly taxed." The newspaper sums up the complaints: Macron presents himself as a progressive to the world, but at home, he defends the old guard and is seen as "an arrogant, would-be monarch." Protesters now want reform on a wide range of cost-of-living issues.
  • A pattern: The fuel tax "was the latest of several reforms proposed by Macron that would disproportionately affect France's least well-off, including abolishing a wealth tax, making it easier for companies to hire and fire employees, and fighting unions," per the Washington Post.

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  • Not helping: images (like this one) of police forcing protesting high school students to get on the ground with their hands behind their heads. Critics say the police, in ski masks, used undue force in the incident. "You don't beat up kids," a trade union representative tells Le Monde, per the AP.
  • Miscalculation: Moving toward cleaner energy might be a noble move, but the UK director of the European Climate Foundation says Macron went about it wrong. His "policy didn’t fail because it taxed carbon," writes Joss Garman in Politico. "It failed because it was a bad, regressive policy that hit the poorest hardest." Something like this requires a creative approach, not a "blunt" tax put into place without the public's approval.
  • Miscalculation, II: Analysts quoted in the New York Times echo the above point. They "say the French tax was not politically deft, falling hardest on people outside French cities who were already feeling the pain of stagnating incomes and who do not have the same mass transportation options as urban residents." The government, for example, could have figured out ways to soften the blow on low-income families.
  • Survival: At Vanity Fair, Isobel Thompson wonders whether the 40-year-old Macron can survive this "civil war." As in the Guardian piece, she says he has developed a "reputation for arrogance and classism." He needs to drop those traits fast and truly listen to the protesters. "If Macron can successfully show that climate change and progressive social policy do not have to be mutually exclusive, he could quell France's popular revolt, restore his credibility, and become the global leader he already presumes himself to be, "she writes. "Nobody said it will be easy."
  • A 'monster': In the meantime, France's interior minister says the protests have created a "monster" and warns that "radical elements" may infiltrate them, reports the BBC. As for Macron, he is due to address the nation early next week.
  • The name: "Yellow vests," or "gilets jaunes," refers to the safety vests many of the protesters wear. French motorists are required to have them in the car.
(Read more Emmanuel Macron stories.)

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