Macron sought to placate the Yellow Vest protests movement last night by offering some economic concessions, his speech may be too little too late with protesters vowing to continue.
The embattled French President Macron has finally broken his silence and addressed the nation following several weeks of protests that have often turned violent and threatened to engulf his 18-month-old presidency.
Macron introduced “four social measures” after several years of austerity that have seen youth unemployment reach 23 percent.
He announced an end to the hugely unpopular tax increases on pensioners, introduced by his government. This was followed by a voluntary appeal to businesses "that can afford it" to give employees a one-off "end of year bonus" which would be tax-free. Macron also promised to do away with all wage taxes on overtime work.
Finally and most controversially Macron increased the minimum wage by $113 a month, this was widely derided. It quickly became clear that the $113 increase was misleading as it was the gross amount and aftertax this would be a lower amount. The cost would also be borne by taxpayers and not by businesses owners, seen as another concession to business owners.
This new giveaway will also cost the government between $9-11 billion - which will, you guessed it, come from taxpayers.
Reactions to his 15-minute speech came through fast with many calling for an Act V, to follow the four other “acts”, a term used to characterise the weeks of protests.
Socialist Jean-Luc Melenchon, one of Macron’s main challengers for the presidency in 2017 said: “There is nothing about the unemployed, there is nothing about part-time employees, there is nothing about retirees. Public servants are not taken into account.”
Bengherbi Wissam an independent researcher based in France who spoke to TRT World saw the increase as paltry: “This is a supplement provided by the state to employees with low wages. But this is too ridiculous, because, as the government confirmed, in the 100 euros [$113], the 70 euro increase was already envisaged…So Macron only proposes 30 euros extra a month.”
Macron’s government had previously envisioned an increase in the minimum wage in 2019 this which has now been repackaged as new promise with a small additional amount.
Yasser Louati, a French human rights and civil liberties activist, speaking to TRT World was equally scathing about Macron’s speech, which neglected police brutality in a widely shared video that showed police rounding up children from ethnic minorities and forcing them to kneel.
“Not a word on state brutality against high school students, kids who had their hands mutilated by explosive grenades. An 80-year-old woman was killed by a tear gas grenade shrapnel while she was closing her window,” added Louati.
Macron’s speech, for Louati, was troubling for another reason as it touched on identity politics and the secular nature of the state, “his speech spoke of ‘identity’ and ‘nation’. We must see if he will not play on national unity to get out of the crisis.”
Not mentioned in Macron's speech is the wealth tax which has crystallised in many people’s mind that he is a “president for the rich”.
“Adding insult to injury,” added Louati, Macron “doubled down on not cancelling the wealth tax (which brings in about $5.7 billion, a year) and on not effectively tackling $68-$91 billion a year represented by tax evasion”.
A theme emerging amongst protestors is a sense that many did not vote for the economic plan that Macron is implementing. Many voted for Macron to keep Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, out of office.
“Emmanuel Macron has again mentioned his legitimacy as if he forgot the conditions in which he was elected (51 percent of voters had abstained) and that in his position, he should show more humility instead of behaving like the divine man that nobody wants,” added Louati.
Houria Bouteldja, a French-Algerian political activist and anti-racism campaigner, viewed the speech as “skilful” attempt to deal with the some of the issues raised by the protestors.
However “these are proposals [sic] do not disturb the privileged and the wealthy,” she added.
The reaction has fed into a growing sentiment that these proposals, far from being a sign that Macron was being conciliatory, show that he may be seeking to buy time in the hope that a few carrots will result in the movement losing momentum.
Taha Bouhafs, 21, a native Parisian, has been one of the many people at the forefront of the Yellow Vest movement and watched Macron’s speech unimpressed with the concessions offered.
“The rich are celebrating tonight because the president has announced he does not want to cancel the abolition of the wealth tax,” said Bouhafs.
He quoted a French saying, “The people do not want breadcrumbs they want the bakery."
Defiantly adding his response to the speech, that the “the rich will not celebrate Christmas in peace this year.”
There is a great deal of scepticism amongst protesters towards a president who has been the instigator of economic policies that have largely benefited the rich while targeting the middle class, students and pensioners.
Macron’s late intervention may have come too late and offered too little to protestors who now have a series of grievances that they think won’t be met by his government.
Asked whether the protests will continue, Bouhafs said, “Yes it will, of course, continue this Saturday and all the others Saturday’s until the demands are accepted.”