Why the French are fed up with Macron's grand plans
A brief breath of fresh air seemed to enter French politics when 39-year-old Macron was elected in 2017.
French President Emmanuel Macron might not have a Napoleonic complex, but since coming to power the youthful leader has exhibited a penchant for grand gestures that if left to fully mature might rival another notoriously haughty French leader, Charles De Gaul.
A brief breath of fresh air seemed to enter French politics when 39-year-old Macron was elected in 2017. But before long that breeze turned chilly both in and outside the country as he lowered taxes on the wealthy, proposed an ever-greater European Union and bureaucracy, seemed to play a self-serving game in Libya, and perhaps fatally, imposed a "carbon tax" on fuel that squeezed those least able to afford it.
The result was the most violent French protests in a decade as up to 10,000 "gilets jaunes", or yellow jackets, took to the streets of Paris and other cities over the past four weeks, met by a forceful army of police using batons, water cannon and tear gas. Largely white and working class, many from rural areas, the yellow jackets now view Macron as elitist, arrogant and out of touch.
If they were listening carefully they should not be surprised. Macron's potential for grandeur was foreshadowed in a 2015 interview with a French newspaper. "Democracy always implies some kind of incompleteness," he said. "In French politics, this absence is the figure of the king, whose death I fundamentally believe the French people did not want."
Apparently he meant that the French people instinctively demand a strong state with centralised leadership, a strain that has run through the country's politics since the French Revolution. It seems he envisions himself as that strong king-like figure.
But leadership should help unify, not divide. Today's protesters wear the fluorescent yellow jackets that all motorists must by law carry in their cars, a symbol they can't afford the fuel due to a higher tax designed to discourage consumption and lower greenhouse emissions. But the higher tax came even as the levy on wealth was lowered as much as 70 per cent.
What began as a fuel tax protest evolved into wider anti-government outrage. In the series of demonstrations that began in November, rampaging protestors, some of them provocateurs from the left and right, broke shop windows, painted anti-Macron slogans, torched cars and even defaced the Arc de Triomphe with graffiti.
French newspaper Le Figarò reports that according to official figures 8.8 million French now live in poverty while others pay some of the highest tax rates in the world. The unemployed, precarious workers, young people, women, the elderly, farmers and traders are among those who have taken to the streets in protest.
"We cannot pay bills anymore, we can't fill the supermarket cart anymore or fill our car with gas. The solution is taking to the streets, coming here with anger in our hearts," said one protestor in Paris.
"Our goal is to be the sounding board of all the malcontents," Benjamin Cauchy, an ad-hoc spokesman for the jilets jaunes, said a few days ago. "Our movement is neither left nor right. It is France that cannot make it to the end of the month."
After a week-long silence, Macron issued a mea culpa in a pre-recorded message on national television Monday night. He pledged that from January 1 the minimum wage would rise by ?100 a month with overtime pay exempt from taxes and a planned tax on pensions under ?2,000 a month scrapped. All employers "who can" were asked to give workers a tax-free bonus at the end of the year.
In earlier announcements, the widely opposed fuel tax had already been walked back.
Yet it is not only France that has found the French leader imperious. Despite Brexit, rising populism in Europe and discord over migrant policies, last year Macron announced a sweeping vision for ever-greater centralised EU powers and programmes, a view distinctly at odds with the current now rising across Europe. Only France and Germany seemed onboard the grander EU ship, but with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's power waning, it seemed almost farcical. The last thing many voters in Europe want is more bureaucracy guided by preening politicians.
Further afield in foreign policy France has moved to restore itself to what it views as its former glory, including in Libya, where it seemed to run counter to long efforts by the UN. Under Macron, France has sought to play a bigger role in coaxing warring factions to end the turmoil, holding an independent summit in May that set a December 10 date for fresh elections.
Outside France, many stakeholders said it was impossible to hold real elections with a civil war raging. The date was eventually abandoned with France's initiative a failure.
Back at home, the French are fed up, or ras le bol, which means they cannot take it anymore. The youthful and ambitious French leader has his hands full, his grand vision in a shambles.
Many are not surprised. From the start of his presidency they wondered if he was already overreaching - too much ambition, too little conciliation in a grasp for glory.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com news agency in Milan