Gilets Jaunes Do a Big Favor for Emmanuel Macron

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Luigi Di Maio should be careful what he wishes for. Italy’s deputy prime minister lent his support to France’s Gilets Jaunes protest movement earlier this month. Di Maio’s populist Five Star Movement may well have been hoping to bolster its allies in the European Parliament with the “yellow vests,” in the event that they chose to become a political party.

But now the Gilets Jaunes have made exactly that choice, they look to be a bit of a mess. The creation in France of yet another anti-establishment electoral force will probably just strengthen the hand of President Emmanuel Macron by splitting further the vote of his rivals.

If last week’s announcement of a slate of Yellow Vest candidates in May’s European Parliament elections was meant to galvanize momentum around a leader, a policy platform or a fund-raising push, it failed. The campaign’s figurehead, Ingrid Levavasseur – a 31-year-old care worker from Normandy – was immediately attacked as a sellout by the hardcore wing of the movement (whose Facebook pages are just as popular as hers, if not more so).

There were no policies to speak of. The party will instead crowd-source ideas, implying little desire to make sense of the movement’s ambiguous and contradictory demands, not least the desire to pay less tax but get more state support. A pledge to crowd-fund 600,000 euros ($684,000) was dropped hastily after it emerged that campaign finance laws forbid it.

The fracturing of the Gilets Jaunes, who carried out their eleventh week of protests on Saturday and Sunday, has given Macron a bit of a bump in the polls, although his approval ratings are still a less-than-magnificent 31 percent. One shouldn’t underestimate the protesters’ achievements: The president has backed off from some unpopular policies, scrapping a planned fuel tax rise that had infuriated non-city dwellers who depend on their cars. Macron has so far announced 10 billion euros of budget giveaways, including a boost to the minimum wage, and launched a national debate on the future of the country.

But while a majority of the French still supports the Gilets Jaunes, its emergence as an actual party standing in EU elections will probably suck many more votes from the far right and far left than from Macron. Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon have more to lose. Polling data from Elabe that Macron’s En Marche party would pick up 22.5 percent of the vote in the European parliament election, Le Pen’s National Rally 17.5 percent and the Gilets Jaunes 13 percent.

There’s no certainty that the yellow vests will hold together as a political force, of course. One shouldn’t discount the chance that they go the same way of the red-hatted Bonnets Rouges, says Catherine Fieschi, director of the research group Counterpoint. That grassroots anti-tax protest movement was a huge nuisance for Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, but it failed to gain traction as a party.

Still, the real risk facing France is that Macron stalls his reform program. The impact of the Yellow Vests’ constant protest on an economy driven by domestic spending has been grim. The preliminary French services PMI fell to 47.5 in January – its lowest in almost five years. The Macron administration is promising to maintain the pace of change, but plenty of projects have been delayed, including civil-service reform. If a prolonged economic downturn takes root, and borrowing piles up, France may well have more in common with Italy than a popular passion for protest movements.

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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