President Emmanuel Macron made a televised address to the nation last week on 25 April, following a two-month-long nationwide “grand debate” at town-hall-style meetings all over France. Macron wants to “show he is listening” after 23 weeks of protest by the yellow vests against his government of the rich. But his speech was more of a slap in the face than an olive branch.
“Nothing for les miserables”
Macron’s speech was delayed due to the fire at Notre-Dame, which occurred on the intended week of his address. He opportunistically called for the French “to come together” in the aftermath of this national tragedy – clearly hoping to divert attention away from the continuing injustices of French society, and the foment in the streets.
The gilets jaunes were unimpressed by this. Many expressed grief at the damage to Notre-Dame. But they were also enraged at Macron’s hypocrisy, and that of capitalists pouring millions into the cathedral’s restoration, having shrugged their shoulders for years when it came to investing in social services, and providing decent wages and pensions. “Millions for Notre Dame – but nothing for les miserables?” was the slogan on the streets.
Donations for Notre-Dame included €200m from L'Oreal, and €100m from Total, the oil giant. In all, a billion Euros were raised in a few days, showing just how much money lies in private hands, and how easy it would be to solve the pressing issues in society if this was put to use.
Outrage at this double-standard reinvigorated the yellow vests somewhat, whose numbers have been waning, partly due to brutal state repression. The riot police have shown them no mercy, inflicting maimings (with several people losing eyes, hands and fingers to stingball grenades and rubber bullets), at least one death and thousands of arrests. Macron has also deployed the army to back up the police in Paris on one occasion.
Recently, Genevieve Legay, a 73-year-old woman who attended a yellow vest march (carrying a peace sign) suffered a skull fracture and broken ribs at the hands of the riot police, who then blocked medics from reaching her. Macron’s only response to this horrific incident (images of which circulated widely on social media) was that he “hope[d] she learned some wisdom.” His dismal approval rating (which has recovered slightly, but is still barely 30 percent) is well earned.
This is not to mention judicial repression: the civil courts have become a revolving door where sentences are dispensed on yellow vest protestors with little in the way of due process, all while the bourgeois media celebrates Macron’s “tough treatment” of these “hooligans.”
This was the backdrop against which Macron delivered his speech.
Macron: more of the same
The script for Macron’s speech was actually leaked in advance, meaning there were few surprises on the day. Beginning his two-and-a-half-hour address at the Champs d’Elysée on a conciliatory note, he assured viewers he had “learned much” from the “grand debate” and recognised the “profound sense of fiscal, social and provincial injustice” behind the yellow vests’ protest. "I want the French to know, I felt it in my flesh what they were saying and expressing,” Macron said. “This period has changed me.”
But these were empty words, and he immediately performed an about turn, defending his two-year programme to “liberalise” the French economy with austerity, tax breaks for the wealthy, attacks on collective bargaining and layoffs in the public sector: “I asked myself: ‘Should we stop everything that was done over the past two years? Did we take a wrong turn?’ I believe quite the opposite.”
In fact, he said these counter-reforms “should not just be preserved but pursued and intensified”. For instance, he justified the abolition of the ISF “wealth tax” on high earners (one of the sorest policy points for the yellow vests) as a way of boosting investment, “not a gift for the most fortunate” (to most people, it’s hard to see the difference). He also pledged to press on with cuts to the public sector and welfare.
Macron’s obstinate refusal to budge from his programme is not just a symptom of stupidity or cruelty. It flows from the economic situation. He needs to smash the unions, create a more flexible (i.e. casualised) labour market and privatise the public sector, so that he can better compete in Europe, where France has long-since lagged behind the other major economies (particularly Germany).
Smoke and mirrors
Additionally, the crisis of French capitalism (which had an especially weak recovery after the 2008 recession) means that there is no layer of fat in the economy to provide genuine concessions. This gives Macron no option but to try to placate the yellow vests by recycling existing policy, or dressing up attacks as reforms.
For instance, he pledged €5bn worth of cuts in personal income tax for low-and-middle-income workers, partly by closing tax loopholes for big companies, but mostly through spending cuts (i.e. more austerity). He also added that, to earn their reward, the French would have to “work harder.” Even this tiny crumb was met with fury by French bosses’ organisations, which shows the impossibility of carrying out actual concessions in these conditions.
Macron also promised France would return to a system of linking pensions to inflation, starting with those below €2,000-a-year in 2020, and then all pensions by 2021. But he said that French workers would have to toil beyond the official retirement age of 62, as many already do. Even with this caveat, the proposal was all sleight of hand. The government had already been forced in parliament to delay its plan to under-index pensions for the next two years. So basically, Macron has promised to undo a policy that was never decided upon, and told the French they have to work into their dotage.
Just like in his last big televised address last year, in which Macron promised a “minimum wage increase of €100” (which was actually just an existing revaluation of the minimum wage), this was political smoke and mirrors.
Tinkering around the edges
The rest of Macron’s proposals were pure demagogy. He addressed the yellow vests’ hatred of the political establishment (embodied in their demand to abolish the National Assembly) by promising electoral reform, including greater proportional representation in Assembly and Senatorial elections, and cutting the number of parliamentarians.
He also suggested he would make it easier to carry out public referenda, touching on a popular demand to expand usage of the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum, by which (theoretically) the constitution allows any matter of public interest to be submitted to a popular vote. As we have explained previously, there was always a danger that this proposal could be co-opted, in a limited fashion, by the French state to divert the yellow vests’ fight for ‘citizens’ control’ down safe channels, when what is really needed is workers’ control of the government and economy.
This manoeuvre (and Macron’s other proposed “reforms” to the existing state apparatus) is precisely as we warned: the bourgeoisie want to give the impression of granting the people more of a say, without relinquishing an inch of actual authority, and leaving all the old levers of state power intact.
Demagogy and division
Macron attempted to play on divisions in French society to weaken the movement against him. For example, he emphasised the split between the provinces (where the yellow vests movement started) and the ‘metropolitan elite’, promising greater decentralisation of powers from Paris to local authorities. All this really means is he will pass the buck of carrying out austerity to mayors, saying that there would be no new closures of schools or hospitals… without the authority of local bodies.
He has also promised to close down the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA): a prestigious “grande école” (private university) seen as a breeding ground for state bureaucrats and politicians (that Macron himself attended). Presumably, this will result in hundreds of staff being laid off, and have absolutely no impact on ordinary people.
Macron also leaned on racism and nationalism in his speech, likely noting the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally. He stated that the “wonderful Schengen zone… no longer works”, and promised to “completely reform immigration policy”. He also drummed up Islamophobia in his defence of “secularism” against “people who in the name of a religion pursue a political project, that of a political Islam that wants to secede from our republic.”
There have been many attempts in the bourgeois press to slander the yellow vests as racists or nationalists. But at its height, the movement united very wide layers of French society in common struggle, from all walks of life. However, a lack of leadership from workers’ organisations meant it remained a popular anti-establishment movement, with confused, middle-class and reactionary elements. With the yellow vests tiring and weakening, Macron hopes to appeal to more backward layers to undermine and divide them. Whether this has any effect remains to be seen.
With his nationalist rhetoric, Macron also sought to isolate the yellow vests from wider French society, where support for the movement is starting to fall (though 50 percent of the French still back it). He said France was “not a society of individuals” with separate demands, but a nation of citizens who needed to “rediscover the art of being French.” The implication was that the yellow vests are an unpatriotic, minority fringe of selfish, violent radicals bent on smashing up national and private property (a common theme in press coverage of the movement). In the same breath as pandering to Islamophobia, he also pointedly drew attention to a handful of antisemitic incidents on the yellow vest protests (which spokespersons have already disavowed), in an attempt to further discredit them.
This two-pronged attack of division and slander must be cut across with socialist demands for a decent living wage, fair pensions, expropriation of the one percent and dismantling of the whole rotten edifice of the French state in favour of workers’ governance. These should be taken up by the leaders of the mass organisations like the CGT and France Insoumise, led by the rank-and-file activists who have shown consistent solidarity throughout the yellow vests movement.
Macron’s speech was a calculated exercise in throwing dust in the masses’ eyes. His proposals were all counter-reforms that will continue to reward the wealthy while forcing ordinary workers to shoulder the burden of cuts and austerity. The masses can see this. As one yellow vest commented in the Washington Post: “[Macron] does not have the willingness to announce real measures that are actually strong… He’s stayed with his original programme, in fact.”
Despite his defiant tone, Macron is in a weak position. His inability to offer any proper reforms will deepen the exasperation of the French masses and his En Marche party may lose to National Rally in the European elections, which will be seen as a referendum on Macron’s presidency.
However, despite their determination, a combination of repression and a lack of direction means the yellow vests are beginning to tire. It is possible that Macron’s pseudo-concessions may have a certain effect on more demoralised and exhausted layers. The fault for this lies with the leadership of the labour movement, who have failed to expose Macron’s manoeuvres and provide the programme necessary to translate the yellow vests movement into a rolling general strike to bring down the government.
Still, the French masses have demonstrated their revolutionary traditions are alive and well. They have come a long way: Macron’s authority and social base are shattered, now they have to finish the job.