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  • Ryan Metz

Emmanuel Macron and the Forgotten France

For the last few months, weekends in France follow a similar routine. Tens of thousands of people march

through traffic and into the streets to demonstrate against a government they feel no longer represents the

working class. These protesters call themselves the Yellow Vests, or Gilent Jaunes and first appeared as a

response to the government’s raise of fuel taxes in early November of 2018. The fuel tax increase

represented an enormous financial challenge for much of French society, many of whom rely of their cars

to travel long distances for work, and these taxes also represented the government’s tendency to favor the

wealthy. After organizing through social media, thousands across France took to the streets in fluorescent

yellow vests to voice their grievances. These protests often escalated and turned violent, with protesters

rioting and using tools such as vandalism to display their discontent. Many of the news reels tend to focus

on this violent image of the Gilent Jaunes, but there is little examination on the root causes of the

movement. At its core, the movement represents a battle for defining French society—the struggle

between the urban elites and the rural working classes—that one can no longer ignore. Contrary to his

reformist image, French President Emmanuel Macron aggravates this internal battle by refusing to fully

recognize the forgotten side of French society.

Emmanuel Macron marked his success in French politics during the 2016 elections. Macron seized the

opportunity to run as a centrist candidate when the Socialist party nominated a candidate on the far-left

wing of the party, Benoît Hamon, while the Republicans chose a candidate on the far-right, François

Fillon. Macron’s centrist candidacy allowed himself to run as a safer choice in comparison to his more

radical opponents. Yet, it was standing side by side next to National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen that

helped to secure Macron’s electoral victory. Many viewed Macron as a more respectable and reasonable

choice than the controversial Le Pen. On top of winning the presidency, Macron created a political party

almost overnight known as La République en Marche. Many party members never held a political office,

and yet, they won an absolute majority of 337 seats out of the National Assembly’s 577 seats.

The legacy of confidence-driven Charles De Gaulle profoundly influenced Macron’s view of government

and policy who stated “the French preferred to be governed by a monarch—though an elected

one—because democracy without a strong executive was incomplete.” Macron’s Gaullist confidence and

ambition drove him to mistake his majority for a mandate from the French people, despite the fact that

Macron’s victory seemed to represent more the fear of Marine Le Penn than the hope of Macron’s

agenda. At first, no significant opposition arose when Macron enacted the first reforms to labor, tax

codes, and the French educational system. To pass such reforms, the government made significant budget

cuts and chose to look the other way when local mayors complained. Federal budget-cuts often resulted in

the closure of rural schools, hospitals, and courthouses while reducing railroad services to rural branches.

This reformist enthusiasm demonstrates the great contradiction of Macron’s so-called revolutionary

leadership as his reforms typically assist the upper-classes while simultaneously stifling the working

class. Macron’s earliest endorsements came from the economists Jacques Attali and Jean Pisani-Ferry, as

well as the investment banker Alain Minc. Macron “praised the reformist zeal of the elite and from time

to time let slip his doubts about the virtues of the people. If fired meatpackers could not find new jobs, it

was because they were ‘illiterate’ or ‘lazy’.” Society as Macron saw it was like a team of mountain

climbers: “the most enterprising clawed their way to the top at the head of the rope, drawing the rest up

behind them.” Such a perspective on the functions of French society resulted in the government’s failure

to invest in rural parts of the country that shelter underserved French minorities.

Consistently championing business interests, Macron failed to recognize that millions of French people

received little to no benefit from these policies. Most significantly, Macron’s decision to abolish the

wealth tax in 2017, a tax on the total amount of personal assets, cemented the title of “Macron: president

of the rich.” Levied on individuals with assets above 1.3 million euros ($1.5 million), the wealth tax

helped make up a large proportion of government revenue and it’s estimated that the treasury lost 3.2

billion euros from its repeal. The Institute of Public Policies noted that the current French budget reforms

for 2018-2019 overwhelmingly benefit the top one percent. At the same time, the bottom twenty percent

would likely see their incomes fall due to rising prices of energy in order to compensate for the loss of

revenue. The current government’s increase of the tax burden on the bottom twenty percent comes at a

period in which Macron shows no interest in challenging the Eurozone’s austere monetary and budgetary

policies, which costs France 2.00 billion euros in customs duties on the EU’s behalf.

It does not help that Macron’s background drastically differs from the “up-by-his-bootstraps outsider”

description he gave to himself. Both of his parents had stable employment in the medical field and sent

Macron to private school before he won admission to France’s École Nationale d’Administration—the

country’s top and most exclusive school for higher education.

Macron’s privileged background and elitist agenda produced feelings of isolation and resentment amongst

France’s middle and working classes. Many have been priced out of the major centers of the city and rely

on their cars to travel for work. Thus, when Macron instituted fuel tax to reduce carbon emissions, an

online petition against the already rising fuel prices gained thousands of signatures. The rise in fuel tax,

which represent around sixty percent of the fuel prices, marked yet another example of Macron’s inability

to comprehend and recognize the other side of France’s society, the far less-privileged component.

After the government announced the fuel tax increase, thousands took their frustration to traffic circles of

major towns and cities, disrupting the flow of traffic and voicing their grievances. These protests gripped

Paris and the rest of the country, growing more brutal by the weekend as protesters acquired grenades and

police sprayed tear gas.

In January, Macron responded to the protests with the solution of a national debate designed like an

“ongoing town hall.” The debates, held by local mayors, are meant to addresses the grievances of

protesters and provide an outlet to discuss dissatisfaction with the current government’s agenda. Despite

his best attempts, Macron continued to isolate the concerns of the lower class when he published a 2,330-

word letter outlining topics the debates should focus on. These topics, formatted as questions, included

the environment, taxes, public spending, and public services. Although the list is broad and addresses

some of the protesters’ concerns, it gave the impression that France’s upper class would dominate the

debate, perpetuating the feeling of invisibility among the workers and lower classes.

It seems that Emmanuel Macron and his administration must finally come to grips with the fact that

numerous kinds of backgrounds shape French society. The problems expressed by the Yellow Vest

protesters reflect not just a desire for reform, but a longing for recognition that they exist and are a valid

part of France. Until Macron grants full recognition, one unfortunately can expect to see more grenades,

masks, and broken windows on the Sunday evening news reel.

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