What can Macron really say to calm the anger of France’s ‘yellow vests’?

As France’s maligned president prepares to address the nation on Monday evening, we take a look at what options Macron might have to appease the “yellow vest” protesters, deliver the change they’re calling for and, most importantly for France, bring an end to the violence.

What can Macron really say to calm the anger of France's 'yellow vests'?

At 8pm on Monday, all eyes in France will be on president Emmanuel Macron as he addresses the nation live on TV and online, promising to deliver “immediate and concrete measures” to l’Héxagone’s current crisis. 

It’s been less than a week since the 40-year-old centrist went against his reputation as a steadfast lawmaker and gave in to the yellow vests’ demands for his fuel tax hike to be scrapped (as well as a price freeze on electricity and gas bills).

But as last Saturday’s violence across Paris and other French cities has proven, the social movement has long outgrown the question of tax and engulfed all aspects of Macron’s presidency, including the president’s persona.

France’s gilets jaunes movement has many faces and demands, but most call for the redistribution of wealth as well as the increase of salaries, pensions, social security payments and the minimum wage.

Others won’t settle for anything less than Macron’s resignation, but given that that's extremely unlikely to happen, what can France’s head of state actually do to save his presidency and satisfy protesters?

“Macron needs to respond in two areas,” pollster Bruno Jeanbart from OpinionWay told The Local. “The first is that he needs to announce concrete measures around taxes and salaries. That's a real challenge.

“Perhaps he will accelerate certain reforms like the scrapping of the council tax (taxe d'habitation).

“He also needs to show that he understands the problem that people feel they are not listened to. In other words he needs to announce some measures around democracy.

“But protesters need to understand that no matter what he announces it won't have much short term impact. It will be over the medium and long term,” he said. “So they are bound to feel disappointed.”

Here's a look in more detail about what Macron can do.


Many 'yellow vest' protesters have complained about Macron's increase in social contributions that hit pensioners hard.

Pensioners did not benefit from the cut to other social charges that left workers slightly better off.

Macron may have to offer them something now.

'Bonus' for those use their cars for work

Seven out of 10 French people use a car to get to work. The minister of transport Élisabeth Borne has already said she is looking into ways these workers can receive some kind of “prime” or bonus to put a little bit more money in their pockets. Macron could announce a concrete measure on Monday evening.

Not taxes on overtime hours

Many MPs want Macron to bring back a reform first brought in by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy before it was scrapped by his successor Francois Hollande.

Any overtime hours worked wouldn't be subject to taxes. Macron has already promised this from September 2019, but he may have to accelerate the reform.

Cap the rich

So far, Macron has refused to back down on another policy that is deeply unpopular among the “yellow vests”: his decision to reform the fortune tax (ISF) on the wealth and assets of France's richest and big industry names such as Google and Amazon.

Scrapping the ISF tax (now the tax is only applied to property rather than overall fortune) has proven to be Macron's most socially divisive measure, given that ordinary French workers have felt under more financial pressure during his presidency.

This was interpreted as Macron giving his rich mates a present, but the intention was to free money among the country's wealthiest so they could invest it in business and create jobs.

If he backtracks and brings back the cap, he’s likely to please a large part of French society that feel his presidency has so far only been geared towards the wealthy and elite.

Wages boost for low earners

France’s government has ruled out the possibility of significantly raising France’s minimum wage of €1,498/month before tax but there have been calls within l’Elysée to find alternatives to increase French people’s purchasing power.

“We know that raising the Smic (France’s mimum wage) doesn’t work, it destroys jobs,” Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud told LCI on Sunday, adding that an increase of 1.8 percent of France’s minimum wage was already planned for January.

“If we all of a sudden put up wages, plenty of businesses will shut the door on new employees, or they will raise their prices meaning no one can afford the,” she said.

“On the other hand, there are many companies where profits can be shared more equally in the form of higher wages.

“I’ve reached out to such businesses and firms so that those who can, start renegotiating wages as soon as possible,” said the minister

Penicaud’s words seem to suggest her ministry wants to pass the buck to private enterprises, although there are calls within the government for state measures to help those who are struggling to make ends meet.

Ministers Bruno Le Maire and Gerald Darmain have proposed encouraging companies to pay their employees a one-off end-of-year bonus which wouldn’t be taxable. 

Prime Minister swap

Although the yellow vests have directed most of their ire at Macron himself, French newspapers have quoted several government ministers who’ve said removing Prime Minister Edouard Philippe from his position would calm those calling for a cabinet or presidential reshuffle.

His political position has been weakened by the unruly protests of the past weeks, but his forced dismissal appears to be more of a way of shifting blame away from Macron than an actual demand from the gilets jaunes movement.

According to Le Parisien, possible replacements include Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer, Labour Minister Muriel Penicaud; Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and former Education Minister François Bayrou.

Let the budget deficit slip

The cancellation of the fuel tax hike – along with any new social measures that are introduced in the days or weeks to come – will push the budget deficit beyond the 2.8 percent target the French government has set for 2019.

It may be a case of turning a blind eye to these failed targets if Macron’s government wants to deliver on the demands of France’s yellow vest movement.

“It’s often difficult to know what measures are necessities that need resources, without letting the debt explode,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.

Character makeover for Macron 

“Detestation of Emmanuel Macron is the only point on which all gilets jaunes agree,” wrote John Lichfield in The Local France’s Sunday opinion piece following the heated yellow vest protests across France on Saturday. 

Protesters have come to see the French president as someone who’s arrogant as well as being completely disconnected and disinterested in ordinary people’s lives and struggles; his ‘Jupiterian’ style of governance catering only to the higher echelons of society and his own political ego. 

Some have suggested that it's more important for Macron to be repentant than any measure he announces.

“He must make a mea culpa like never befor,” oine minister told BFM TV. “He will not just extinguish the fires with five measures,” he said.

A more humble, down-to-earth manner when meeting ordinary people during rallies and responding to criticism of his government’s measures will be essential for disgruntled anti-Macronists to regain trust in him.

They were unfazed by his decision to backtrack on the fuel tax hike and still see him as France’s ‘president for the rich'.


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Is France’s ‘yellow vest’ movement really on its way back?

Nearly two years since 'yellow-vest' protesters flooded the streets, the signature gilets jaunes have become a rare sight in France. With a comeback announced on September 12th, what is left of the movement that shook France?

Is France's 'yellow vest' movement really on its way back?
Yellow vest protests in Paris in 2019. Photo: AFP

When Priscillia Ludosky put on a yellow vest for the first time and headed out to the Champs Elysées to protest, she had no idea that nearly 300,000 people would do the same.

It was November 17th, 2018, the first 'yellow vest' protest in the capital and the birth of a mass-movement so large that its vows to overthrow French President Emmanuel Macron’s government seemed, for a moment, credible. 

Nearly two years later, Macron is still president – and aiming for reelection – while the ‘yellow vest’ movement has all but disappeared from the public eye.

“It’s been a long time since I wore the yellow vest,” Priscillia Ludosky, founder and leading figure of the movement, told The Local.

She had not left the movement, but said she was less active than she had been.

“I'm less on-the-ground than I used to. The pandemic put the brakes on most things,” she said.

Despite France's rising coronavirus rates, the 'yellow vests' have declared a comeback protest on September 12th, promising to “never give up”.


But with the protests before lockdown gathering only a fraction of the numbers they once rallied, how much is there really left of the 'yellow vests'?

“The movement is much smaller, much less active, and much more divided than it was at the outset,” historian Sylvain Boulouque told The Local.

Boulouque has followed the movement from the beginning and has written the book Mensonges en gilet jaune (Lies in yellow vests), about the role social media and fake news played in fuelling the 'yellow vests' anger.

When the ‘yellow vests’ first spiralled into a national mass-movement, their rallying cry “Macron demission !” (Macron resign) was the one ringing the loudest, and it was also one of the few demands that all of the ‘yellow vests’ could unite behind.

“The movement spans all the way from the extreme-left to the extreme-right. There is no unity on the fundamental political questions,” Boulouque said.

The more time passed, the more the movement's internal divisions became clear. Today, Boulouque said, there was “a little bit of everything” left, and just keeping track of the movement had become a challenge.

“It’s so local that the demographic changes from town to town and week to week,” he said.

Among the extreme right-wing were a number of conspiracy theory believers, he said, including anti-mask activists who opposed the French government's new rules on masks.

Pro- and anti-masks was just the newest fault line dividing the 'yellow vests', Boulouque said.

“The pandemic will split them rather than reunite them,” he said.

‘Covid proved our points’

Seizing on the pandemic to re-mobilise the masses is what the still-active 'yellow vests' hope to do on September 12th.

Leading 'yellow vest' figure Jérôme Rodrigues. Photo: AFP

Jérôme Rodrigues, another ‘yellow vest’ leading figure, told Slate that the pandemic was their “best ally”.

“Covid proved our points about the degrading of the health system and the limits of the capitalist system,” Rodrigues said.

When the French government imposed a nationwide, strict lockdown in March, it was to save the hospitals in hard-hit areas such as Paris from the mounting pressure of a rapidly increasing patient flow. 

The lockdown, which lasted over two months, had a crippling impact on the economy and saw the government spend billions on emergency help schemes to prevent chain bankruptcies and mass layoffs. 

Despite the government's efforts to kickstart the economy, France’s unemployment rate is set to increase by 10 percent by the end of the year. Young people will be the worst affected, according to France’s national institute for statistics, Insee. Rodrigues predicted that the looming downturn would reaffirm people's faith in the 'yellow vest' movement.

“With the coming crisis, people who were doing well financially and who have never had a hard time are going to fall flat on their faces,” Rodrigues said.

'Yellow vest' leading figure Priscillia Ludosky has been participating in protests against police violence and in support of France's hospital sector the past months. Photo: AFP

'Sensationalist media'

Rodrigues became a symbol of the ‘yellow vests’ after he was hit in the eye by what he claimed to be an LBD rubber bullet fired by police (the police refute his accusation, but the authority overseeing the police has launched an investigation into the matter). 

Blinded in one eye, Rodrigues incorporated one of the most jarring features of the protests: their increasingly violent character. The recurring scenes of violence that dominated the protests contributed to the ‘yellow vests’ hogging headlines for months – not just in France, but across the world. 

Images of burning cars, police armed with rubber-bullet guns, violent fist-fights and black-clad protesters smashing ATMs with baseball bats shocked the world. 

But the violence also dominated the media coverage of the protests, which meant what the protesters were saying got less attention.

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

To Ludosky, this was a big problem.

“The media won’t cover anything unless it’s sensationalist,” she said. 

Ludosky authored the online petition that became the catalyst for the ‘yellow vest’ protests. In it, she wrote that the government’s proposed carbon tax was both falsely branded a green policy and was harmful to the many people who depended on their cars to get around every day.

The document went viral and gathered more than one million signatures, and the fluorescent yellow vest that all vehicles in France must be equipped with became the symbol of the masses revolting against the elites.

Ludosky said her main point was lost in the coverage. She was not an angry car-enthusiast defending her right to drive, she was saying that the tax was unfair and would impact the most on the poorest.

“The longer we protested, the more they tried to tell everyone that we don't know what we want. That we were only out there to break things,” she said.

The early days of the movement saw hundreds of 'roundabout protests' in the French provinces. Photo: AFP

'They are there'

The violence also discouraged many of the 'yellow vests' who had little experience with protesting and were shocked by the use of force on both sides.

Danielle Tartakowsky, a professor at the Paris 8 University who specialises in social movements in contemporary France, said it was important to distinguish between the ‘yellow vest’ who still turned up to protests in Paris – often young, keen and ready to go head to head with police – and the ‘yellow vests’ mobilising in less urban areas.

“In the countryside the ‘yellow vest’ movement is the same as it was at the outset,” she said.

In her new book, On est là ! (We’re here), a main ‘yellow vest’ rallying cry, she concludes just that; the movement had changed, but the ‘yellow vests’ were still present.

“That does not mean that they are ready to rally in the same ways, but it would be dangerous and delusional to say that they have disappeared,” she said.

Tartakowsky said that, while the 'yellow vests' successes could seem limited from the outside, they had pushed through important change indirectly by showing that it was possible to force through change.

“Even if they did not win on all points they showed that it was possible to win something, to make the government backpedal,” she said, referring to the carbon tax.

The camp

When the protests started, the roundabout became the main stage for the protesters who did not travel to Paris to make their discontent heard and seen in the capital. 

From June 2019 until March 2020, just before the pandemic hit with full force, Séverine spent most of her free time on a local roundabout where she and some 30 other ‘yellow vests’ had set up a camp.

A teacher in Amiens, a city a couple of hours north of Paris, Séverine was an early believer that the ‘yellow vests’ would be the movement that finally could radically change a system she saw as unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable.

“I passed all my evenings, all my weekends at the camp,” she said.

The camp was a microcosm of the world they hoped to create.

“We cooked together, discussed, we really had some great moments there together,” she said.

They were all kinds of people at the camp; a waiter, a metro driver, a nursery teacher, a few retirees. An Indian student who just needed somewhere to crash for free. 

“It was a very open environment,” Séverine said.

But the problems soon surfaced. The camp, like the movement, swore to a leaderless management style where no one had a final say.

“It was a mess. Obviously, we didn’t manage to make any decisions,” Séverine said.

Violence at protests became a major problem. Photo: AFP

'People are exhausted'

They split themselves into two groups. Oddly enough, the division had little to do with politics.

“It was not about left or right. We actually agreed on the fundamental issues. It was more about strong personalities and people simply not getting along,” she said.

The atmosphere soured. They argued more, discussed less. They went from 30, to 20, to about 10. Then, after the local election in March, just before the pandemic made social distancing the norm, the mayor told them to clear the camp. 

Critics have long said the ‘yellow vests’ lack of leadership was their major, perhaps the decisive, default. How could they push for change when they had no idea what they wanted?

Despite having become so disillusioned with the movement that she no longer knew if she wanted to call herself a ‘yellow vest’ at all, Séverine was not sure this was their main problem. 

“Demonstrating every weekend is tiring. It requires a significant commitment. I think people are exhausted,” she said.

'I was fed up'

In the months that followed the movement’s heyday in early 2019, the protests followed the same pattern as Séverine's camp.

They were increasingly sparse in numbers and the atmosphere increasingly tense and bitter.

“You're walking in a state of complete stress, afraid that someone is aiming at you. You don't hear the messages anymore,” Séverine said.

Five people have lost a hand in the protests. Twenty-five were blinded in an eye. According to government numbers, 2,500 protesters were hurt in the protests by the end of 2019, along with 1,800 police officers.

“No one could imagine that a movement could last this long without losing momentum,” Ludosky said.

“Keeping on going cost a lot to the people who got involved. It's money, time, people lost limbs, couples separated.”

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: French police are not all thugs – they are being placed in an impossible situation

Like many others, she was put off by the violence. In the end, she left her yellow vest in her car.

“I was fed up,” she said. “Every time I wore it I worried about the police controlling me.”

She was not sure if she still believed in the movement.

“It’s complicated. The presidential elections are coming up soon, crying out for Macron’s resignation doesn’t make sense anymore.”

“But the 12th will be the moment to go out on the streets. Not necessarily in Paris, but we need to show something.”