By Robert Holloway
Violent protests against France’s government and concessions to calm tempers are likely to have consequences for the European Union.
Demonstrators pressing various demands have taken to the streets in Belgium, Britain, Germany and Greece in high-visibility yellow vests worn by French protestors.
But the repercussions of events in France go further than that.
The protests have damaged the image of French President Emmanuel Macron, who only months ago was widely regarded as the one European statesman able to stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump on climate change and trade tariffs, and to resist nationalist governments in eastern parts of the EU.
There are now question marks over France’s ability to keep its public deficit within EU targets and over elections to the European Parliament in May.
Macron’s initial reluctance to respond to demands that he scrap a carbon tax designed to encourage a switch to cleaner motor vehicles fed accusations that he is out of touch and a president for the rich.
It encouraged those wearing the gilets jaunes – yellow vests that all French motorists must carry in case of emergency – to broaden their agenda to include calls for the re-imposition of a wealth tax and for a Constitutional amendment allowing citizens to call a referendum on matters of national importance, a right hitherto exercised only by the head of state.
When at last he did react — after rioters looted luxury shops and set cars and buildings on fire in the ritzy parts of Paris — Macron offered to increase the minimum legal wage by 100 euros a month and to cancel planned hikes in motor and heating fuel prices.
“Alarm bells should be ringing in Berlin.”
Thus, the man who earlier this year faced down striking workers on the state-run rail network while forcing through unpopular reforms of France’s labour laws suddenly resembled previous presidents he had criticised for bowing to pressure.
Speaking in Brussels as heads of government discussed Britain’s imminent exit from the EU, Macron conceded: “No country can go forward unless it also listens to the legitimate part of its people’s anger. That is being expressed everywhere in Europe.”
Other EU governments have kept discreetly quiet about Macron’s about-turn, but respected German newspaper Die Welt said, “Alarm bells should be ringing in Berlin.”
Macron’s decisions are estimated to cost between 10 and 14 billion euros, meaning France’s public deficit will top three percent of GDP — the EU’s ceiling.
“France has the potential to challenge Germany’s position as the economic leader of Europe,” Die Welt’s economics editor wrote, “but it now runs the risk of joining Italy in the third rank.”
Part of Macron’s difficulty is that the gilets jaunes have no structure and no leader to negotiate with. A dozen representatives who had been invited to meet Prime Minister Edouard Philippe declined, saying they had been threatened by others in the movement.
One of the best known gilets jaunes, Hayk Shahinyan, nevertheless said without apparent contradiction: “This movement is in for the long haul. We are starting to organise. We will put forward a list for the European elections. We want to enter the political arena.”
The European Parliament is the only EU institution directly elected by citizens and ranks above all other EU bodies. More than 380 million people are eligible to vote, but elections are organised country by country and polling will take place over four days, between May 23 and 26 next year.
The powers of what was originally a consultative body have steadily grown and now include control of the EU budget.
Still, the Parliament is not as well known as the European Commission – the EU executive – or the EU Council, which comprises the 28 heads of state or government, and is seen by many citizens as having little impact on their lives.
Voter turnout has declined at every election since 1979, from 62 percent then to 42.5 percent in 2014. Voters have usually seen the elections as a chance to punish governing parties in their own countries.
Social media and the downtrodden
But elections for the European Parliament are not without consequences.
In 2014, the United Kingdom First Party (UKIP) won 24 seats – more than any other British party – even though it denied the legitimacy of the Parliament and campaigned for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
The result prompted former prime minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU in the hope of deflating the UKIP. The vote did not go Cameron’s way, he resigned, and his successor, Theresa May, is still trying to negotiate terms for Britain’s exit from the EU that will satisfy a majority in the House of Commons.
The drama of 2014 was not confined to Britain. Anti-EU parties in Denmark and France also did remarkably well, while the Five Stars movement picked up 17 of Italy’s quota of 73 seats. It has since become the largest party in Italy and has joined the government.
Like the gilets jaunes, Five Stars has used social media to focus anger against the ruling elite and the government’s austerity policies, and the movement claims to speak for the downtrodden, in particular poorly paid workers and pensioners.
Unlike the French movement, however, Five Stars was launched by a well known face, the comedian Beppe Grillo, and is more organised than it lets on. It also contains an anti-growth, pro-environment tendency that has no echo among the gilets jaunes.
Nor have the gilets jaunes been outspoken on behalf of those at the very bottom of the social heap, the homeless and migrants. Housing and unemployment benefits do not figure high among their priorities, and, judging from television reports, there are few black faces among those manning road blocks across France.
How might gilets jaunes candidates affect European Parliamentary elections?
An opinion poll published by French business magazine Challenges on December 14 focusing on the European Parliamentary elections predicted the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front) of Marine Le Pen would take 21 percent of the vote in France, just ahead of 20 percent for Macron’s party République En Marche (REM).
That was in line with other recent polls. But REM is not certain to do as well as that. Formed to support Macron’s bid for the presidency last year, REM has been tested only once – at legislative elections which followed his victory.
It scored a landslide then, thanks to euphoria surrounding his election. But many REM members, including some in France’s parliament, have been disappointed by Macron’s top-down style of governing, and it may be hard to mobilise their support for the EU election.
The only poll offering comfort to Macron was one analysing how gilets jaunes candidates might affect the European elections.
Commissioned by REM and taken by the market research firm IPSOS on December 10, it showed 12 percent of French voters would support gilets jaunes candidates, mainly at the expense of both the far Right and the far Left.
It put support for REM at 21 percent, the National Rally at 14 percent, the Greens at 13 percent, the conservative Republicans party at 11 percent and the far-Left party France Unbowed at 9 percent.
Even before that poll was done, Le Pen seemed worried by the possibility of losing support. Playing as usual on her party’s fears of immigrants, she told a news conference on December 3 that “the gilets jaunes are aware that we cannot accept hundreds of thousands of additional people without that having an impact” on public spending.
Robert Holloway had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. A British-born French citizen, he joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.