Macron faces hard test as mass roadblocks planned across France

Published 16.11.2018 00:18

Calling themselves the Gilets Jaunes, or "Yellow Vests," they are a vast social movement with little to no political underpinnings. They organized in various, loosely associated websites and social media sites and united under the banner of wrath against policies and a president "of the rich," who is defiantly looking to raise taxes on both diesel and gasoline.

French President Emmanuel Macron has not backed down but rather doubled down on his proposed tax raise as well as saying that the policy is part of a larger plan to promote environmentalism in France.

Named after the highly visible safety jackets they wear that all French drivers are required to have in their cars, the protesters have become a new symbol of opposition to the 40-year-old center-left leader whose popularity has plummeted to new depths in recent weeks.

The Yellow Jackets are planning to block the nation's road en masse this Saturday as well as part of their protests, a tactic that had been commonly used by farmers during the height of the financial crisis in Greece.

While the protesters seem to be treading on the same political fault lines that characterized the 2017 French presidential election, the organizers have been careful not to politically fringe in favor of any wing, be it the right or left.

The president is also planning to reduce the speed limit on two-lane streets from 90 kilometers per hour (kph) to 80 kph. Despite having roughly the same population and number of cars as Britain, France experiences around 3,500 road deaths per year, compared to the U.K.'s 1,700.

Both measures – the fuel price hikes and the 80 kph limit – are seen in rural and "peri-urban" France as an attack by a "metropolitan president of the rich" on the countryside and the poor.

Macron has been seen as a "president of the rich" even during the election campaign. Satirical imagery of him wearing a race car suit tiptoeing on big corporate and big bank logos made waves around the internet in 2017.

While the motorists might be seen by city dwellers as uneducated farmers and suburbanites who just want cheap fuel instead of a more environmental agenda, the reasons the protesters give are actually pretty hard for anyone, and even the government, to argue with; they include the fact that cars and pickup trucks in suburban and rural France are not just instruments of weekend leisure but tools that carry equipment, transport children to schools and adults to work.

"When is this hounding of drivers, which you've pursued since your arrival, going to end?" Jacline Mouraud, a motorist from Brittany, said in a wildly popular YouTube tirade.

While Macron did say that the government is considering a 20 euro ($22.62) "tax refund" for anyone who has to drive more than 30 kilometers to work, the protesters say it is not enough. Indeed, the relief will apply only to those who make less than double minimum wage and also do not have access to public transportation; in other words, a recipe for bureaucratic chaos.

However, while it might seem like a struggle of the little man versus big corporations and big government, the fuel price surge has gotten so unpopular in France that even supermarket brands such as E. Leclerc and Carrefour have reduced their rates for a short period of time.

"It's the consumers who drive growth and today, this discontent is legitimate; it's important commercially to satisfy our customers, but it's also important to send a signal to the public authorities," Michel-Édouard Leclerc told France Info radio.

Be it a popularity and pseudo-political stunt on the part of the supermarket giants, the average French citizen was pleased to see gas prices fall to 1.45 euros per liter from 1.60 euros per liter.

The former investment banker Macron's popularity remains at record lows with less than 30 percent of respondents rating him favorably in various polls.

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