A sign that reads ‘Macron Resignation’ stands on a barricade as members of the grassroots movement branded ‘Gilets Jaunes’ or ‘Yellow Vests’ block a highway during an ongoing protest against fuel costs in Narbonne, France. (Photographer: Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg)

Macron Struggles to Match Intensity of Angry Protests

(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron is struggling to match the intensity of the protests roiling France.

The grassroots “Yellow Jackets” movement has blocked highways and fuel depots across the country for the past two weeks. On Saturday some supporters lit fires and clashed with police on the Champs Elysees in Paris to protest the rising cost of living and policies they say favor the rich.

The president’s response so far has been soft by comparison.

Macron Struggles to Match Intensity of Angry Protests

Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne, unveiling subsidies for cleaner cars and ride-sharing schemes as part of a transport plan Monday, acknowledged as much.

“There is a very deep problem and we won’t be able to address it in the blink of an eye,” she said at a press conference in the French capital. “I have been hearing the anger expressed by the Yellow Jackets for a long time.”

The ideas crystallized in the president’s transport strategy might help small town France eventually, but they are doing nothing to address the anger in the streets right now. The same could be said for the 10-year energy strategy slated for release on Tuesday.

While France’s centralized election system has given 40-year-old Macron control of both the legislature and the presidency until 2022, he won just 24 percent of the vote in last year’s first round and took over a country simmering with resentment after years of economic under-performance.

The yellow jackets are giving voice to that feeling.

“There’s a spiral of misunderstandings between the head of state and the French people,” political analyst Bruno Cautres said in a report for pollster BVA. "The promise of emancipation met the reality of a French society fractured by inequalities."

Cautres said Macron’s presidency is in crisis, his approval rating at 26 percent lower even than that of his hapless predecessor Francois Hollande at the same stage of his mandate.

Technocrats vs. the Street

While Borne was putting the finishing touches to the new transport program unveiled Monday, the Yellow Jackets were getting organized.

The movement sprang up on social media, named after the high-visibility jackets carried by all drivers, and at first had no leadership. Now supporters have elected a team of representatives to speak with the government.

Macron Struggles to Match Intensity of Angry Protests

The Yellow Jackets are demanding sweeping tax cuts, the abolition of the French Senate, and hikes to the minimum wage and to pensions, Agence France-Presse reported. They voted to continue their action, according to their website. An Odoxa poll released Thursday showed 77 percent of the French support the protests.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on Monday vowed to make sure people are able to shop and travel freely in future, noting that sales by large retailers declined by 18 percent during Saturday’s protest and by 35 percent the previous week.

Macron Struggles to Match Intensity of Angry Protests

France Info reported Tuesday that the government has no plans to meet with the Yellow Jackets, concentrating instead on local officials and unions affected by its latest policy plans.

The barrage of measures Macron’s team presented Monday also included scrapping a planned tax on trucks, more commuter trains and local public transport.

But the hike in gasoline tax which first energized the Yellow Jackets remains in place. A further increase is slated for January.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.