PARIS — Emmanuel Macron has a popular uprising on his hands.
After more than 280,000 people took to the streets on Saturday in opposition to the French president’s planned hike of taxes on gasoline, protests resumed on Monday, causing road blockages across much of the country.
The so-called Yellow Jacket activists, named after the neon vest worn by motorists during roadside emergencies, are demanding that Macron abandon or at least reduce the planned tax increase. One Facebook group is already calling for a second national day of protests on Saturday, this time converging in Paris. So far, 400 of the activists have been injured in accidents, with one fatality.
While the mass movement focuses on the gas tax, it highlights a broader array of frustrations with Macron. The French president was already struggling with approval scores in the mid-twenties and an underperforming economy before protests began.
Now he faces an amorphous, grassroots movement with no clearly identifiable leader in the run-up to an electoral showdown with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in the race for European Parliament.
“The course we have chosen, we are going to keep it” — Edouard Philippe, French prime minister
Renouncing the gas tax could spare Macron some short-term suffering. But it would leave a gaping hole in the French budget and embolden protesters. Moreover, a retreat could earn the ire of environmental backers, who are already being courted by the center left.
For now, France’s leadership is sticking to its guns.
“When it’s difficult is not when we should change course. The course we have chosen, we are going to keep it,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a TV interview Sunday evening. “We want our fiscal policy to weigh more on carbon than on work.”
Motorists’ frustration, however, shows few signs of relenting.
A poll on Friday showed 74 percent of French people support the movement, after 78 percent voiced support two weeks ago. Meanwhile, 68 percent of those who saw Macron tackle the subject in a November 14 interview found their leader to be “rather unconvincing.”
Macron’s government has already dealt with large-scale protests due to its reforms of the French labor code and SNCF state railway. The latter prompted three months of on-again, off-again strikes that routinely halted services.
Yet unlike the labor code protests, which were led by unions, the Yellow Jackets arose organically through social media. “I’m fed up with spending €250 every month on gas,” one grassroots Facebook organizer told Le Monde. Another spoke out for “hostages of this fiscal shakedown bearing accents of pseudo-environmentalism.”
The movement, whose members cut across party lines, has particular strongholds in rural and suburban France, where fewer alternatives exist to driving a car. According to price-aggregating website Carbu, the price of gasoline in France is up 15 percent compared to a year ago, although the inflationary trend has reversed somewhat in the past month. A petition calling for “decreasing the price of fuel at the pump” has attracted more than 900,000 signatories.
Macron is attempting to focus frustration with the higher rate on rising global oil prices.
“The increase in the price at the pump that one finds today is linked 70 percent to the price of petrol,” he said in an interview in early November.
But the city-living president finds himself an easy antagonist for the Yellow Jackets movement.
“Emmanuel Macron is no longer only accused of being president of the rich, but also as [president] of electronic scooters,” quipped journalist Pierre-Antoine Delhommais in weekly magazine Le Point.
Rival parties are treading carefully so as not to spoil the grassroots character of the movement, while nonetheless riding its coattails.
“It’s our duty to be at their side,” said Laurent Wauquiez, leader of the right-leaning Les Républicains, who attended a protest but did not sport a neon jacket.
“This is a movement of French citizens that should not be claimed [by a single party] but which has the right to have the support of all elected officials,” he added.
Similarly, Le Pen avoided overtly engaging in the protests, but encouraged local National Rally groups to take part. She called the Saturday demonstrations a “great success of the French people.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed movement, accused the French state on Twitter of deliberately understating the amount of participation.
“This movement looks like nothing we have seen until today. In my eyes, it has all the characteristics predicted by the theory of the Era of the People,” he wrote in his blog entitled “Era of the People,” named after his vision of the end of the Fifth Republic and the creation of a new, more redistributive Sixth Republic.
For all its troubles, the carbon tax could have been initially seen as politically savvy for Macron, as it has potential environmental and fiscal merits.
But as of November 6, during a morning radio interview, the French president was backpedaling.
“For this type of movement, I am always prudent, because it aggregates a lot of things that have nothing to do with each other, all forms of demagogy” — Macron on the Yellow Jackets
“I hope we move a little,” he said, announcing support for a monthly subsidy that would go to low-income families with long commuting times.
But he criticized the then-fomenting Yellow Jackets. “For this type of movement, I am always prudent, because it aggregates a lot of things that have nothing to do with each other, all forms of demagogy,” the French leader said.
On November 17, the first day of mass protests, the normally Twitter-active Macron refrained from posting.