The French have soured on their 40-year-old President Emmanuel Macron who has been heckled and booed in recent days as he grapples with a tax revolt. Why does he inspire such hatred among “yellow vest” protesters?
At a blockade outside a fuel depot in the city of Le Mans — famous for motor racing — around 50 protesters were fortifying their barricades on Tuesday in preparation in for a long winter of discontent.
While all expressed bitterness with the political class as a whole, seen as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters, Macron was the main target of their ire.
The 40-year-old former investment banker swept to power at the head of a new grassroots political movement in May last year but once in office adopted a top-down, Paris-centric approach.
Tax hikes on fuel and pensions, seen by the protesters as fleecing the working and middle classes to fund tax breaks for the rich, coupled with a series of remarks seen as scornful of the poor, have hardened feelings towards him.
In a repeat of scenes in Paris on Sunday when he was booed while surveying the damage caused by rioters, Macron was heckled during a visit Tuesday to local government offices in the central town of Puy-en-Velay, which were torched during a protest at the weekend.
“Emmanuel Macron is a little boy who has always been told he’s the best, he’s always been idolised. He’s never been told ‘you shouldn’t do that’. The guy thinks he’s God!” said Claudio, a 47-year-old mason and father of four, standing next to a stack of burning pallets outside the depot in Le Mans.
Like many of the demonstrators, Claudio — he refused to give his full name because he did not want to be accused by the “yellow vests” of speaking out of turn — likened the explosion of anger to the 1789 French Revolution.
“He deserves to have his head chopped off, symbolically,” he said of Macron, who has been accused of draping himself in the symbols of the pre-revolutionary Ancien Regime.
“He’s the king. It’s as if we’re in the Middle Ages!” Philippe, the 74-year-old leader of a group of “yellow vests” that has been periodically holding up traffic in the central Sarthe region, fumed.
– ‘Napoleonic method’ –
Macron’s refusal to acknowledge any of the protesters’ demands before rioters ran amok in Paris last weekend have sealed the image of a president short on empathy.
“The Napoleonic method which worked at first for launching his reforms is no longer working,” Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, a specialist in political communication, told AFP.
“His deafness is responsible for the growing hysteria of the yellow vests. He’s setting the country on fire,” said Marc Beaulaton, a 59-year-old retired energy technician demonstrating in Le Mans .
Adding fuel to the fire is the perceived extravagance of the president and his wife Brigitte, with many protesters citing the set of porcelain tableware reportedly worth half a million euros that he ordered, days after complaining about the “crazy amounts of dough” spent on social security.
– ‘Cardinal sin’ –
Analysts say that by sidelining trade unions and centralising power in the presidential palace, Macron has left himself singularly exposed to voters’ anger.
This was a similar criticism to the one made against right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy during his time in office from 2007-12.
“Sarko” left office as the country’s most unpopular leader ever, only for his successor Francois Hollande to do even worse, famously falling to four percent in one opinion poll.
An Ifop poll Tuesday showed Macron’s approval rating sinking to a new low of 23 percent.
Macron, who had never held elected office before becoming president, tried to respond to popular anger about the country’s political class by bringing scores of newcomers into politics.
But Michel Papin, a white-haired retired poultry farmer at a protest camp in a field 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Le Mans, said the greenhorns had become part of the problem.
“These people cannot respond to the people because they are technocrats,” he said.
But the spark that lit the revolt was Macron’s perceived bias towards the rich, exemplified first and foremost by his decision to scrap wealth taxes on investors at the same time as he raised taxes on pensioners, the protesters say.
The government has defended the move, one of Macron’s first on taking office, as necessary to encourage the investment needed to create jobs.
But Macron was henceforth branded the “president of the rich” — a label he has struggled to shake off.
“Pay your wealth tax!” shouted some of the demonstrators who battled police on the first of two weekends of violent protests in Paris last month as they swarmed down the Champs-Elysees avenue.
“Macron, you bastard, resign”, one of the protesters had scrawled on her yellow vest at a motorway toll booth near Marseille on Tuesday.
SOURCE: Clare Byrne