- - Monday, December 10, 2018

PARIS — A chastened French President Emmanuel Macron surrendered Monday to the demands of protesters who have shut down much of the country over the past month, offering wage hikes and tax cuts starting next year while signaling a retreat from his greater plan to overhaul France’s heavily regulated economy and generous social welfare system.

Addressing the nation on television after weeks of seclusion, Mr. Macron called the protesters’ grievances “deep and in many ways legitimate” and asked businesses to help quell their anger.

“I would ask all employers who can, pay an end-of-year bonus to their employees,” said Mr. Macron, who just 19 months ago won an overwhelming election victory that handed him a massive mandate in the national legislature as well.

In announcing the measures, Mr. Macron said one problem was that the fruits of his reform agenda have not arrived fast enough to overcome popular fears of change.

“We probably have not been able for a year and a half to bring quick enough and strong enough responses,” he said.



Mr. Macron’s concessions reflected the tense atmosphere after four consecutive weekends of violent protests throughout France that called to memory the unrest of 1968, when youths and workers clashed with authorities and eventually drove longtime President Charles de Gaulle from office.

His retreat also was widely seen as yet another political blow to the cause of climate change. Mr. Macron originally conceived of the fuel tax hike as one way to lower France’s reliance on fossil fuels, but even after abandoning that proposal last week, the government was not able to quell the unrest.

President Trump weighed in several times by Twitter over the weekend, blaming the French unrest on reaction to the costs of climate change policies and the Paris climate accord that Mr. Macron has championed. Mr. Trump’s tweets drew a rebuke Sunday from French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who accused the U.S. president of meddling in France’s internal affairs.

The planned fuel tax increases sparked particular anger among French blue-collar workers and rural residents. They said the higher taxes symbolized the president’s aloof approach and lack of sympathy for residents beyond the glittering urban core of cities such as Paris.

Mr. Macron, a former banker, has pursued pro-business policies to boost France’s lagging international competitiveness. Critics say these policies have neglected ordinary people.

Mr. Macron won points for displaying a tone of humility Monday, but analysts weren’t sure his concessions would be enough.

Macron has made some convincing gestures,” said Bruno Cautres, a political science researcher at Sciences Po university. “He spoke in a simple, modest and less-arrogant tone than we’ve seen. But I’m not sure it was convincing enough to change the hearts and minds of the French people.”

The president’s popularity plummeted last month to a dismal 26 percent, a remarkable decline for an outsider politician who routed mainstream parties in May 2017 with the hopeful promise of outside-the-box thinking at the highest levels of power.

The Gilet Jaunes — named for the fluorescent yellow safety jackets that drivers in France are required to keep in their cars — first hit the streets in mid-November in anger over Mr. Macron’s proposal to hike gasoline taxes as part of a program to reduce carbon emissions.

Generalized discontent

But the demonstrations have quickly morphed into a general expression of populist discontent over living conditions in France. Mr. Macron’s pro-business policies have made it easier for employers to hire and fire workers and cut taxes on corporations, but they have yet to restrain living costs or spark significant job growth for ordinary people. Specifically, many of the protesters want higher salaries and pensions, jobs, better services and tax cuts. The movement has no official leadership and is organized via social media. The Gilets Jaunes’ ranks include the young and old, urbanites and rural residents who have traveled hundreds of miles to join the street protests. More notably, the movement appears to have no political orientation, although both the far left and far right have sought to piggyback on its appeal.

Support for the movement is high. Polls suggest about three-quarters of the population approves of the movement, though many people disagreed with the violence.

“I’m not against the cause, but I am completely against the way it has been carried out,” said Arnaud Dumas, 28, who works for a communications consultancy on Boulevard Haussmann in central Paris.

The Interior Ministry said 136,000 people participated in Saturday’s protests, similar to the previous week’s numbers. Police made four times the number of arrests — more than 1,700, compared with 400 the week before. About 900 arrests were in Paris.

Others said the Gilet Jaunes were taking necessary steps to be heard. Mr. Macron would have never modified his reform agenda if they hadn’t stood up to him, they said.

“The government did not listen to the people when there were peaceful protests,” said Christian Sourd, who owns a record shop in northeast Paris. “So clearly these tactics have worked.”

In his speech, Mr. Macron pledged to increase the minimum wage by about $125 a month, scrap taxes on overtime pay and stop a planned tax increase for low-income pensioners.

The concessions were significant, but they might have been unavoidable given how the protesters had shut down the country.

The riots have undercut commerce, leading tourists to avoid downtown Paris, and clogged highways and commuter train lines. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the disruptions have lowered gross domestic product by one-tenth of 1 percent in just a month. Business groups have said the country could lose a total of more than $11 million.

The losers of the 2017 election, the far left and the far right, have been trying to capitalize on the anger at the government. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right National Front chief Marine Le Pen have been calling for the National Assembly to be dissolved, which would mean new elections. That would threaten the power of Mr. Macron’s new centrist political party, En Marche.

Monday night’s address was the first time the French president had spoken in weeks.

The president said he would spare “no indulgence” for protesters who had hurt people or damaged property. He also pledged to continue his policies of liberalizing the economy to make France more competitive.

“We will respond to the economic and social urgency with strong measures, by cutting taxes more rapidly, by keeping our spending under control, but not with U-turns,” he said.

But he nonetheless appeared humbled by the explosion of dissent on the streets of the capital.

“I know that I hurt some of you with my previous comments,” said Mr. Macron. “If I fought to shake up the political system, it’s because I believe in this country more than anything else.”

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