French Yellow Vest Protests Undeterred by Notre Dame Fire, Macron Promises
(Bloomberg) -- France’s Yellow Vests are notoriously unpredictable, but all suggestions are that this week’s fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral won’t deter some of them from protesting in Paris for the 23rd straight Saturday.
Several key members of the disparate and eclectic movement have posted that they intend to demonstrate Saturday, saying that contesting President Emmanuel Macron’s policies isn’t incompatible with grieving over the damage to the iconic Gothic monument.
“Yesterday a historic building burned and it’s very serious, but money has flowed in and this monument will be rebuilt,” Nicolle Maxime, a truck driver from Brittany who goes by the online name “Fly Rider” and has a wide following, said in a video he posted Tuesday. “The Earth still turns, we have people who can’t make it to the end of the month, we have people who sleep on the streets, and that’s what our fight is about.”
Although the fire united France in its grief, the Yellow Vests are showing that it won’t quell the political volatility that Macron’s government has to contend with. For the protesters, the risk is a public backlash in the event of violence and destruction this weekend, with little tolerance for such behavior so soon after the tragedy.
The Notre Dame fire broke out Monday evening, an hour before Macron was due to address the country on television to outline tax and other measures he’s proposing as a result of the “Great Debate,” a two-month series of town-hall meetings he organized to let the French vent grievances raised by five months of Yellow Vests protests. That speech was canceled, and Macron next week is likely to make the announcement, perhaps in a different format.
According to people briefed on his planned speech, Macron was due to announce tax cuts for middle-class households, inflation indexation of small pensions and no more closings of schools and hospitals until the end of his first term in 2022. He was also set to unveil plans to shut the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, an elite institute that trains French civil servants and many of its political and business leaders -- an old-boy network that has drawn the ire of the Yellow Vest protesters.
Still, most Yellow Vests who were interviewed said the measures were too little too late to greatly improve their purchasing power. Many want to continue their weekly protests.
Recent demonstrations by the Yellow Vests have seen turnout in the tens of thousands, well below the hundreds of thousands at the end of last year, and have been largely peaceful. But three Saturdays ago there was widespread looting and vandalism on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris, reminiscent of the Dec. 1 ransacking of the Arc of Triumph. Much of the worst outbursts of violence has been blamed on Black Bloc anarchists, who often accompany protests across Europe.
Nathalie Loiseau, the lead candidate for Macron’s Lrem party in the May 26 European elections, said the violent protests need to stop. “We just can’t go on with shops having to shut every Saturday,” she said Thursday on Radio Classique. “When young people protest Friday to save the planet, there’s no damage. On Saturdays, smashing things up has become a form of expression. That has to stop.”
The last polls gauging public support for the Yellow Vests were held in late March and showed that about half the French have sympathy for the movement, well below the roughly 80 percent who expressed such views last year. The movement began as a protest against rising gasoline taxes and morphed into general unhappiness about the cost of living and Macron’s supposed out-of-touch governing style.
The Yellow Vests have no central leadership. Protests are organized by various local leaders via social media. The widespread damage to Notre Dame seems to have done little to dim their fervor.
Many have, in fact, criticized the huge sums of money being pledged for the rebuilding of the cathedral as well as the tax breaks that encourage donations. French billionaires -- including Francois Pinault and Bernard Arnault -- and many of the country’s largest companies have collectively promised almost 1 billion euros ($1.13 billion) for the reconstruction.
That has been something of a red flag for the Yellow Vests.
In an interview on BFM television Wednesday, Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the early leaders of the movement, denounced the “inertia of big groups when it comes to poverty and who then show off their ability to assemble crazy sums of money in one night for Notre Dame.”
Benjamin Cauchy, another early Yellow Vests leader, said on Twitter that it’s “good that the oligarchy is giving. But exemplary tax behavior would be better. Good conscience doesn’t cover up for poverty and austerity.”
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