Macron Should Take a Page From Obama to Deal With Protests

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The violence of the Yellow Vest protests in France forced President Emmanuel Macron to promise costly concessions. This raises the question of how a government, and a national leader, should deal with a Facebook revolution of that kind. There are are plenty of precedents, both successful and disastrous. 

On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin used the Yellow Vests to justify the arrest last week of 77-year-old human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov for endorsing a call for an unsanctioned rally. “We don’t want events like those in Paris, where people pick stones out of the pavement and burn everything and then the country plunges into a state of emergency, do we?” Putin told his Human Rights Council. Putin’s answer to the Russian version of the Yellow Vests — supporters of the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny are probably the closest analogy — is to harass the movement’s leaders and put them behind bars for several weeks every time they organize a protest without permission. The level of police violence at the rallies themselves has varied, but it has rarely been so high as to be a deterrent.

Putin’s tactic is more cunning than simply using brute force, a method that has led to the downfall of the regimes that apply it, as in Libya in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014; protracted civil strife, as in Syria; or coup attempts followed by a new cycle of violence, like in Turkey in 2016. But violence is a more difficult tool to deploy against the classic Facebook revolution, which has no leaders. Macron wouldn’t get anywhere by harassing a bunch of Facebook group administrators: New ones would spring up overnight.

On the other hand, going soft can be as ineffective as using indiscriminate force. Macron’s generosity, including promises to raise the minimum wage and cut taxes for low-earners, may land him in hot water with the European Union, which frowns at increasing fiscal deficits. At the same time, his peace offering hasn’t swayed about 50 percent of the French, according to a poll. With handouts, there’s always the risk of encouraging protesters to push for more concessions. Also, success of this kind may inspire the protesters to develop political ambitions; there’s talk of a Yellow Vest ticket in next year’s European Parliament elections.

Perhaps the best example of a successful handling of a Facebook revolution was the U.S. experience with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in September 2011. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama let it be known repeatedly that he understood and supported the protesters. “We are on their side,” he said

Yet Obama never made any specific promises to the Occupy protesters (who, like the Yellow Vests, were leaderless, organized through the social networks and anti-elite; “We are the 99 percent” was their rallying cry). All he offered was to “set up a system in which hard work, responsibility, doing what you’re supposed to do, is rewarded. And that people who are irresponsible, who are reckless, who don’t feel a sense of obligation to their communities and their companies and their workers that those folks aren’t rewarded.”

This attitude meant Obama couldn’t be accused of being unsympathetic to the plight of ordinary Americans — nor of trying to throw money at an irksome problem. Macron, who tarried with his expressions of sympathy, felt he could no longer get away with mere words. 

At the same time, the U.S. authorities showed firmness in getting the protests under control. The Occupy movement was monitored and crackdowns were coordinated. Any attempt at Paris-style street fighting likely would have met with a forceful response.

This doesn’t mean Occupy was entirely unsuccessful. It drew attention to inequality as a major problem and helped shape the Democratic Party’s current political agenda. It spawned a movement to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which has met with at least partial success, and other groups dedicated to specific issues such as student debt. In a way, Obama’s approach pushed the movement in a more constructive direction without letting it turn into a political or public-order threat.

The French, of course, are generally more inclined to demand handouts from the government than Americans, and even at the best of times, it’s harder for a president to shake them off with a few words of support. And Macron, with his elite credentials and youthful cockiness, was never going to have an easy time sidling up to the rioting protesters. But the French president, whom many saw as a European version of Obama when he was elected last year, has failed an important test by failing to show the right mix of sympathy and firmness. He dug himself into a hole and won’t have an easy time climbing out as the Yellow Vests threaten to turn into a political force.

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

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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