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Macron bids for global business as yellow vests add to woes at home

The French president opens the second annual ‘Choose France’ summit in Versailles on Monday

France's President Emmanuel Macron waits for the Chief Executive Officer of SAP, the world’s business software market leader, during the "Choose France" summit, at the Chateau de Versailles, outside Paris, on January 22, 2018. AFP
France's President Emmanuel Macron waits for the Chief Executive Officer of SAP, the world’s business software market leader, during the "Choose France" summit, at the Chateau de Versailles, outside Paris, on January 22, 2018. AFP

A year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron launched a pre-Davos summit charm offensive of global businesses, making the glittering palace of Versailles the place to be for the leaders of the biggest companies in the world.

The French president sought to show the nation that his recently passed business tax cuts were not a handout to the wealthy but a pathway to more investment.

Mr Macron opens the second annual business meeting in Versailles on Monday, known as the ‘Choose France’ summit, as international leaders and big business head to the Global Economic Forum in Switzerland. But this time, he appears a far less confident figure than at the inaugural meeting in the French capital.

Then the 41-year-old philosophy graduate was a fresh electoral victor who had galvanised voters longing for a breath of fresh air in the Elysee Palace with a promise to lead the country on a march of progress.

Now, after 10 weekends of violent street protests across France by groups in revolt against his economic platform, the global captains of industry would be entitled to ask: What went wrong?

In his bestselling book, prophetically titled “Revolution”, Mr Macron set out his ambition to make France “grande” again. He pledged to restore the broken trust between the electorate and the political class.

The mainstream French electorate bought into it and seized on to “Macronism” as a lifeboat for their hopes and aspirations.

But the rise of the “Gilets Jaunes” – or yellow vests – movement against an eco-tax on petrol and diesel in November has shaken the presidency.

Mr Macron’s liberal economic reforms and monarchical manners are already proving too much for many of the French electorate.

He has made a belated attempt at humility by inviting a two-month “great national debate” on issues relative to taxation, the organisation of the state and its public administration, ecology, citizenship and democracy.

“This is how I intend, with you, to transform anger into solutions,” he wrote.

The proposals collected during the debate will form the backbone of a new “contract for the nation” that will influence his policymaking, he said. This, together with €‎8 to €10 billion (Dh 41bn) in concessions, wage rises for the poorest workers and tax cuts for pensioners, constitutes his exit strategy from the political quagmire in which he is engulfed.

Protesters take part in a Women's 'Gilets Jaunes' (Yellow Vests) protest in front of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France, 20 January 2019. EPA
Protesters take part in a Women's 'Gilets Jaunes' (Yellow Vests) protest in front of the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, France, 20 January 2019. EPA

The new tack is designed to redeem his party, La République En Marche, and stifle a movement that keeps morphing and widening.

“En Marche tried to be a movement that represented people,” said Susi Dennison, senior policy fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations and director of the think tank’s European Power programme. “That clearly hasn’t worked,” she told The National.

Mr Macron’s administration, made up of highly educated but politically inexperienced civil servants, is by its nature not attuned to the worries and grievances of France’s poor, who number about nine million. Rather, Mr Macron ran for office on a promise to revitalise the economy and shed France’s reputation as a country hostile to business.

But the president has also cancelled his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday because he has a busy schedule attending town hall meetings.

Putting an end to a wave of demonstrations that costs France almost €4 million (Dh16.7m) every weekend is a priority for the embattled president seeking to reassure many of the businesses he will be welcoming on Monday, as well as any prospective investors, that he can bring the population back into his fold.

But whether he will be able to do that depends on whether he can effectively strike a balance between those forces pushing for him to reform the country’s labour laws with a landscape of small and medium-sized enterprises, and the workers who oppose it.

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Read more:

France reeling from new round of 'yellow vests' protests

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In his brief time as a president, critics say Mr Macron has shown little understanding of the almost sacred value placed by the French people on employment rights. His philosophical studies of Hegel and Machiavelli did little to familiarise him with outbursts of anger that these issues have historically conjured in France.

The current protests are, in fact, not very different from France’s largest general strike in May 1968, when then President Charles de Gaulle and his Gaullist Party were forced to flee in order to pacify student protests against capitalism, consumerism and American imperialism.

Most notably, the French Revolution – that of 1789, rather than Mr Macron’s literary one – was born as a rebellion against unpopular taxation schemes that culminated in the demise of Napoleon’s dictatorship and the beginning of the Republican era.

Similarly, “yellow vest” protesters are now longing for much more than a full repeal of the fuel tax.

A study last year by French charity Secours Catholique painted a shocking picture of the 8.8 million people living below the poverty line – less than €1,026 a month – in what is one of western Europe’s wealthiest countries.

According to the report, single mothers, elderly women and foreigners are among those most affected by poverty in France. Conversely, French sociologists studying the yellow vest movement found women to be a large presence in its ranks, alongside retired people and working class men.

The gilet jaunes, sociologists found, are representative of that slice of the population that straddles the poverty line and that, at each presidential reform, verges closer to the brink.

According to ECFR’s Ms Dennison, the movement has come to represent a wide range of grievances that go all the way from cuts to pension benefits to international issues such as the Global Compact on Migration and the broader place of France on the geopolitical map.

The movement Mr Macron is trying to negotiate with, therefore, has morphed into a headless, multiform organism that feeds off of resentment towards the broader French political class and the democratic infrastructure that enables its survival.

“[The gilet jaunes] are rejecting not only the government but also the system that’s put them there,” Ms Dennison said.

In the past two months, the images of burning tyres, water cannons and teargas clouds that emerged from France have strongly resembled those of recent upheavals, from the Arab uprisings to the anti-austerity movement in Greece.

In an article for French newspaper Liberation, the Spanish philosopher and writer Paul Preciado said the yellow vests’ revolt is evidence of “a shift in the forces of oppression – as well as of resistance – from the margins to the centre” of Europe.

Thousands of protesters from Baghdad to London have donned the yellow high-visibility jacket and used it as a symbol of their own demands and grievances.

Mr Macron’s success in convincing investors that France is a fertile ground for economic profit will, therefore, hinge on his own ability to assert himself as a leader able of making a comeback from a global movement that feeds off his own demise.

While he strives to achieve that, his predictions of a revolution will serve him well.

Updated: January 20, 2019 08:25 PM

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