Le Grand Diversion! Paris is burning and Macron’s popularity is plunging

Along the Champs-Elysees the sting of tear gas has gone. The wrecked barriers, the barricades of café furniture, the lakes created by the water cannon and the cobblestones used as missiles will take longer to clear.

After hours of violent mayhem on Saturday, during which riot police fought with almost 10,000 gilets jaunes — yellow vest — demonstrators, the most famous boulevard in Paris has almost returned to normal.

And one person in particular would like his country to quickly forget what has just happened there. Emmanuel Macron, the so-called ‘President of the rich’, is in crisis.

Several hours of violent mayhem on Saturday saw riot police fight with almost 10,000 demonstrators in Paris (pictured: A demonstrator throws debris at a burning barricade while on the famed Champs Elysees avenue)

Several hours of violent mayhem on Saturday saw riot police fight with almost 10,000 demonstrators in Paris (pictured: A demonstrator throws debris at a burning barricade while on the famed Champs Elysees avenue)

Several hours of violent mayhem on Saturday saw riot police fight with almost 10,000 demonstrators in Paris (pictured: A demonstrator throws debris at a burning barricade while on the famed Champs Elysees avenue)

Emmanuel Macron, the so-called ‘President of the rich’, is in crisis. His approval ratings are at a record low

Emmanuel Macron, the so-called ‘President of the rich’, is in crisis. His approval ratings are at a record low

Emmanuel Macron, the so-called ‘President of the rich’, is in crisis. His approval ratings are at a record low

For the past two weekends, the disgruntled provinces have marched on the capital to protest at proposed fuel tax hikes, and Macron’s approval ratings are at a record low. His response? He has tried to create a distracting diplomatic row.

On Sunday, while France was still reeling from the images of violence in Paris, the French leader announced, to the fury of British MPs, that he would use the newly signed EU Brexit deal to try to ‘leverage’ concessions from the UK on fishing rights.

Unless the UK agreed to allow EU vessels the same access to British waters as they have now, the talks on a wider trade deal would fail, he said, forcing the UK into the ‘backstop’ customs union permanently.

Most of the gilets jaunes — named after the hi-viz jackets they wear, which every French motorist must by law carry in their car — are not much interested in fishing. But here was Macron being presidential, faced by a traditional national opponent all can unite against: Perfidious Albion.

Yesterday, Theresa May rounded on Macron, saying he was wrong to suggest he could prevent the UK taking back control of its fishing grounds. The PM told MPs that the UK would become an ‘independent coastal state’ after Brexit, following her success in rejecting EU demands to link access to markets for British seafood products to access to British waters for foreign trawlers.

‘The EU have maintained throughout this process that they wanted to link overall access to markets to access to fisheries,’ she said.

Yellow vests (gilets jaunes) shout slogans during a protest near the Arc of Triomphe on Saturday

Yellow vests (gilets jaunes) shout slogans during a protest near the Arc of Triomphe on Saturday

Yellow vests (gilets jaunes) shout slogans during a protest near the Arc of Triomphe on Saturday

‘They failed in the Withdrawal Agreement and they failed again in the Political Declaration.’

In a direct response to Macron’s threat — which was at odds with other EU leaders who lamented the UK’s departure — she added: ‘It is no surprise some are already trying to lay down markers again for the future relationship. But they should be getting used to the answer by now — it is not going to happen.’

The PM is probably right, and Macron’s troubles are too longstanding and too deep for a fuss about fishing quotas to do him much good.

In the past ten days two people have been killed and more than 600 injured in the fuel tax protests. Hundreds more have been arrested across France.

While the gilets jaunes have a specific grievance, their protests are symptomatic of a wider disenchantment with the occupant of the Elysee Palace. As one commentator put it: ‘Anger with Macron had crystallised into a cause’.

Only 18 months after his election, Macron’s approval ratings have slumped to 26 per cent, a record low for a French head of state. A poll last week showed more than 70 per cent of the population backed the yellow vest protests.

Eighty per cent agreed with the assertion that Macron is the ‘president of the rich’, pandering to the affluent while the French unemployment rate is approaching 10 per cent (more than double the UK’s).

He has even been overtaken in the polls by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party (a rebranded version of her father’s racist Front National).

So how has it come to this?

To say Macron’s shock victory in May 2017 broke the mould of French politics would be an understatement. At the head of his new En Marche movement, he ground the old establishment of socialists and the centre-Right into the dust.

Good-looking, articulate and assured, the one-time minister in the previous Socialist government made a virtue of being different from those who had gone before. Aged 39, he was the youngest ever President. He had married his school drama teacher, who is 25 years his senior — and they have no children of their own. France was his family, he said.

For the past two weekends, the disgruntled provinces have marched on the capital to protest at proposed fuel tax hikes

For the past two weekends, the disgruntled provinces have marched on the capital to protest at proposed fuel tax hikes

For the past two weekends, the disgruntled provinces have marched on the capital to protest at proposed fuel tax hikes

There was a brief honeymoon period. Macron was — and is — a charismatic presence on the international stage, calling for a more integrated EU and opposing populist politics.

While a liberal progressive in domestic social matters, he was astute and ruthless in facing down the powerful unions in his largely successful early efforts to reform the hidebound French economy and labour laws.

Earlier this year a Macron supporter told me: ‘He is doing something very rare in France … and that is standing firm against powerful interest groups.

‘He is saying and doing things no politician dared say before. France, you must remember, is in the same position as Britain in the late Seventies. It desperately needs reform.’

But now many believe the politician known to his supporters as ‘Jupiter’ — leader of the Roman gods — has grown imperious, arrogant, outspoken, condescending. Success has gone to his head.

He is accused of spending lavishly on personal luxuries paid from the public purse — he spent £23,000 on make-up in three months last year — while expecting the public to tighten their belts.

He painted himself as different but critics have pointed out that he has the same background as the old guard, went to the same schools — he is a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration — and worked for the Rothschild investment bank, earning €2.9 million (£2.6 million) advising Nestle on one deal alone.

He talks down to the poor and would prefer to chase benefit fraud than millionaire tax cheats.

Last autumn, as his austerity measures began to bite and after he had proposed reducing a wealth tax and cut the maximum rate of the capital gains levy, the ‘president of the rich’ tag gained traction. During an infamous TV interview early this year, he refused to use the term ‘tax evasion’. Instead, he insisted on the vague phrase ‘fiscal optimisation’.

On Sunday, while France was still reeling from the images of violence in Paris, the French leader announced, to the fury of British MPs, that he would use the newly signed EU Brexit deal to try to ‘leverage’ greater concessions from the UK on fishing rights

On Sunday, while France was still reeling from the images of violence in Paris, the French leader announced, to the fury of British MPs, that he would use the newly signed EU Brexit deal to try to ‘leverage’ greater concessions from the UK on fishing rights

On Sunday, while France was still reeling from the images of violence in Paris, the French leader announced, to the fury of British MPs, that he would use the newly signed EU Brexit deal to try to ‘leverage’ greater concessions from the UK on fishing rights

That triggered open season on bashing Macron. In June came a perfect storm: those spending stories, provocative statements and idiosyncratic social media postings that seemed to affirm the view of him as someone who didn’t give a damn what others thought.

Macron retweeted a video of himself almost shouting in exasperation at Elysee Palace staff. For too long France had ‘spent loads of dosh’ on social benefits, he complained in the footage.

This prompted prominent Leftist Benoit Hamon — the defeated Socialist presidential candidate — to remark: ‘When you look at how he talks about the least well-off people . . . Macronism is a form of social racism.’

That same month a clip of Macron publicly reprimanding a schoolboy for not referring to him as ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr President’ went viral. It recalled a similar incident during the presidential campaign when a striking worker accused him of being a ‘man in a suit’. Macron snapped back: ‘The best way to pay for a suit is to get a job.’

At the time, Macron was requesting a new swimming pool for his official retreat on an island off the Riviera — and let’s not forget the 1,200 new state banqueting plates at a cost of £44,000 allegedly ordered by the Macrons.

July brought France’s football World Cup triumph in Moscow and an opportunity to try to regain his popularity. A photo of him in the VIP box in the Moscow stadium after Les Bleus opened the scoring in the final appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the globe. Feet apart, head thrown back, fists punching the sky, it was a rock star moment.

Macron was then seen planting kisses on the heads of the victorious French team and ‘dabbing’ — a popular street dance style — with them. Not everyone back home was impressed by a leader known to have little interest in the game.

Yesterday, Theresa May rounded on Macron, saying he was wrong to suggest he could use ‘leverage’ to prevent the UK taking back control of its fishing grounds

Yesterday, Theresa May rounded on Macron, saying he was wrong to suggest he could use ‘leverage’ to prevent the UK taking back control of its fishing grounds

Yesterday, Theresa May rounded on Macron, saying he was wrong to suggest he could use ‘leverage’ to prevent the UK taking back control of its fishing grounds

And within days, Macron was embroiled in a serious scandal. His deputy chief of staff and security adviser Alexandre Benalla had been secretly suspended for physically attacking anti-Macron demonstrators at a May Day rally. When opposition MPs asked why the incident was hushed up, Benalla was finally dismissed. The President’s approval ratings continued to fall.

In September, one of Macron’s MPs resigned from his party, saying she felt as if she was ‘on the Titanic’, while a string of cabinet ministers have followed in recent months, including Interior Minister Gérard Collomb and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, who quit live on TV with no warning.

Then came the yellow vest revolt when on November 17 almost 300,000 demonstrators, led by a Facebook campaign, threw up roadblocks across France. Toll stations were burned, tempers ran high and the two fatalities occurred when drivers panicked or tried to escape from the roadblock chaos.

Le Figaro described it as ‘the yokels against the bobos’ — the yuppies. While white-collar Parisians have little use for cars, in provincial France private motor transport is a necessity of life.

What’s more, much of it is diesel-powered — the most ecologically unfriendly fuel and much frowned-upon by Macron and his supporters. His insistence on a punitive hike in taxes at the French petrol pump in January — by 6.5 cents per litre for diesel and 2.9 cents for petrol — is being viewed as another example of his disdain for low-income and rural drivers.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the yellow vests are largely non-partisan, united only by their fury at Macron and his policies. And, as last weekend’s events suggest, that fury shows no sign of abating.

Right now, Jupiter needs to use every trick — however fishy — if he is to stay in charge.

Additional reporting: Peter Allen in Paris

Link hienalouca.com

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