Paris, France – French President Emmanuel Macron addressed an angry nation on Thursday: He vowed to lower taxes, raise pensions and give more power to local governments.
Above all, he said he had listened and understood.
“There are parts of society that have fallen by the wayside,” Macron said in a televised speech. “People who to some degree have been forgotten from our public discourse and our public policies.”
For almost six months now, thousands of yellow vest protesters have hit the streets of Paris and other French cities every Saturday, saying they are ignored, over-taxed and becoming poorer as the “one percent” get richer.
In response, Macron launched the “The Grand National Debate,” in January. He attended hundreds of local town hall” meetings across France and solicited responses from thousands of questionnaires, giving the French a chance to vent their grievances.
The results of the debate caused a shift in the government, leading to policy changes scheduled to be announced in a televised speech April 15 – before the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral pre-empted it.
Meanwhile, the speech was leaked.
On Thursday, during an hour-long speech, followed by a question-and-answer session, Macron introduced many of those changes.
He said he would review a “fortune solidarity tax” on top earners in 2020 and make adjustments to all French pensions for inflation starting in 2021.
The policies are not really the problem any longer - the problem is Macron himself.
He also said he would shut down the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, a college that trains public servants. The school has been criticised as a breeding ground for the country’s elite.
He also offered a few surprises. Macron said he would restructure the parliamentary election system to give more power to smaller parties and make it easier for citizens to launch national referendums.
But for many watching, it was too little too late.
“It just feels like the middle class is always the one that pays while the upper class is still being protected,” said 49-year-old Sandrine Placier who watched Macron speak from a neighbourhood bar in Paris’ working class 20th district.
Even so, Placier did applaud Macron’s announcement that he would put an end to planned closures of a number of public hospitals and schools.
“Even if I find him arrogant, he won points with me there,” said Placier, a medical engineer in the public sector.
According to an Odoxa poll released last week, the majority of French citizens support the reforms.
“The policies are not really the problem any longer – the problem is Macron himself,” said Martial Foucault, the head of CEVIPOF, a think-tank. “In a sense, they believe Macron is no longer the right president to respond to this crisis.”
Macron started his speech by saying he was “confident” that the measures taken in the first two years of his presidency “were the right ones.”
Members of the yellow vest movement, from both the far left and far right, have been united in their distaste for Macron.
They say he is a president for the rich and disconnected with the working class’ everyday struggles.
“He didn’t listen to what we said,” yellow vest figurehead Maxime Nicolle told French broadcaster BFMTV. “He started his speech by saying everything he has done over the last two years has been great and [the yellow vests] just don’t understand that. We understand very well, he is incapable of a mea culpa.”
More than 23,000 yellow vest demonstrators marched across the country on Saturday, with 9,000 protesters in Paris alone, according to the French Ministry of the Interior, holding signs reading “Millions for Notre Dame. What about the poor?”.
The nearly one billion euros donated by French billionaires to help repair the cathedral, they said, could have been used to ease inequality.
The protesters say the movement will continue, regardless of Macron’s words.
“It’s important we continue, important for social justice,” said a protester on Place de la Republique square in Paris on Saturday, who goes by Voltuan. “This is an historic moment, a historic movement. We can’t stop now.”
According to polls, most French people are fatigued with the yellow vest demonstrations.
While there was support for the movement two months ago, around 60 percent now think they should stop their rallies.
Macron’s approval ratings, meanwhile, have climbed from 23 percent in December – after the protests began, to just under 30 percent.
Analysts say it might give him enough political capital to usher in real reform.
Last year, unemployment hovered around almost nine percent while the economy grew well under two percent as buying dipped.
The economy in France, unlike Germany and other Western European countries, did not rebound strongly after the 2008 financial crisis.
I guess I'll vote for him again - but he's not my president.
Macron, a former banker and economy minister, won the presidency with his new party La Republique en Marche (the Republic moving forward), promising to jumpstart competitiveness.
But some economists say his strategy has unsettled many voters.
“He promised balance but I think that since his election, a lot of people have found an economic policy a lot less balanced than they anticipated,” said Shahin Vallee, an economist at the London School of Economics and former advisor to Macron when he was the economic minister.
Macron, with his upstart party, broke the political status quo, but now has an uphill battle.
“I’m among those that are really disappointed in him,” said Vincent Caplan, a 48-year-old film editor who said could only bear to watch fifteen minutes of the speech. “I feel like he’s trying to cut corners but not really succeeding.”
When asked about who he saw as an alternative, Caplan shrugged.
“Who else do we have? Le Pen?” he said, referring to the head of the far-right National Rally party who ran against Macron in the 2017 presidential elections.
“We already saw this scene play out once,” Caplan said. “So I guess I’ll vote for him again – but he’s not my president.”