Emmanuel Macron Has Boxed Himself Into a Corner

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Gilets Jaunes movement is splintering after Emmanuel Macron shelled out billions of euros to appease French citizens fed up with the high cost of living. But plenty are still taking to the streets, with turnout of about 50,000 across France last weekend. The violence is proving hard to contain. Rioters used a forklift truck to break into the offices of a top minister, who fled by the back door. Separately, a former boxer was arrested after beating up a cop.

The president’s response has been to promise a tougher ground game, in the mold of a law-and-order politician on the campaign trail. His prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has promised to deploy 80,000 security forces on Saturday to contain the next round of protests, and proposed new laws and better equipment to crack down on the yellow jackets. With the far-right doing well in French opinion polls, you can see why Macron and his ministers have chosen this tack.

But chucking boots at the problem isn’t a long-term solution. The more awkward question is why there’s still public support for the Gilets Jaunes, running at about 55 percent according to some media groups, despite widespread sympathy for France’s beleaguered police officers. The roots of the crisis clearly run deep, with the economy weakening, and the risk is that more brute force backfires.

Government attempts to get the French public on-side have already gone awry in some cases. The former boxer, whose actions were dubbed “intolerable” by a senior minister, took to social media to defend himself. That led to a successful crowd-funding campaign.

Macron’s real game should be politics, not policing. All the warning signs of popular discontent over the past year should have been picked up at the local and regional level, but were either missed or misinterpreted – hardly a surprise when a president regards himself as Zeus-like. It’s this sense of a void between voters and Olympus-dwelling technocrats that lingers.

Those below Macron in the political food chain failed to read the runes. Thousands of people for whom fuel costs are a major expense were protesting as far back as early 2018 against a lowering of the speed limit on French roads. A proposed hike to fuel taxes redoubled their anger. That protests had to turn violent to force a policy U-turn shows the problem. There are no midterm elections in France to capture the attention of its leader.

Work is needed at the parliamentary level to reconnect with voters. Macron’s “En Marche” party secured a resounding majority in 2017, sweeping out the old two-party system and bringing plenty of first-timers into politics. Yet it’s done little to secure political support beyond its urban middle-class base. Worse, the Paris-centric workload of reform and legislation has left precious little time to respond to constituents’ more immediate concerns.

One lawmaker who sympathized with the Gilets Jaunes back in November, before the movement became violent, was reportedly berated by top party officials. That was a missed opportunity to better understand their more reasonable grievances.

France has a history of playing catch-up to popular unrest rather than getting ahead of it. Images of paramilitary-style police officers taking to the streets are commonplace. In fairness, the Gilets Jaunes’ urban guerrilla tactics have caught the authorities off-guard so there’s a case for beefing up security. But if Macron really wants to show the whole of his country a better way forward, good policies are better than an iron fist.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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