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Macron’s Blind Spot: ‘President Of The Rich’ Risks Poll Backlash Over Carbon Tax


Macron’s policies are seen as favoring the urban, globalized classes at the expense of left-behind provincials. The diesel tax hike, imposed in the name of saving the planet, was the last straw.

France’s president has hit a roadblock. Emmanuel Macron prided himself on having blown up a sclerotic political system when he took office as a fresh-faced outsider last year, sweeping away the “old world” of mainstream parties, imposing reforms of labor markets and state railways over the heads of “unrepresentative” trade unions, and squeezing funds for “bloated” local authorities.

But a leaderless, unstructured protest movement against gas price hikes that went viral on social media has hit the centrist technocrat in his blind spot, driving his approval ratings to record lows and threatening his En Marche party’s prospects in the European election next year.

Pictures of protesters in high-visibility yellow vests burning barricades and trashing café terraces on the Champs-Elysées have been beamed around the world, tarnishing the image Macron has sought to project of a dynamic new France. Across the country, shopping malls have been blockaded, weekend retail sales have slumped and truckloads of fresh produce have rotted.

The old France of strikes, demonstrations and barricades is back, only this time there is no militant union leader or opposition politician with whom to strike a deal to lift the roadblocks.

On Tuesday, the self-styled Jupiterian president ate humble pie, admitting he had underestimated the distress of ordinary people struggling to make ends meet.

He promised to listen more, and to involve grassroots activists in finding practical solutions to move to a low-carbon economy without ruining poorer households. And he opened an escape hatch from the fuel tax increases that ignited the nationwide protests, saying duty on gasoline could be adjusted if world oil prices surge, in order to cushion the blow to motorists.

“I hear the anger,” the newly humble Macron told a conference on the transition to clean energy. “Our answers have been too abstract … I’m determined to recognize and take account of all the feelings and resentments expressed in this crisis.”

While vowing not to change his reform course or abandon carbon taxes, the president promised a new, more inclusive style of government, consulting the very institutions — unions, local authorities and associations — that he has disdained for the past 18 months. Symbolically, he announced that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe would meet a group of “Yellow Jacket” activists.

Whether this mixture of determination and contrition will be enough to end weekly protests that have mobilized up to 280,000 people and drawn broad public support was not immediately clear. The first reactions were predictably negative. Protesters said Macron is still out of touch.

He will need to do more to convince just-about-managing families in rural areas, small towns and peri-urban zones with little public transport and retirees hit by a double-whammy of higher heating prices and a bigger tax bite on pensions that he has got the message and will act on it.

Peasants’ revolt

“Macron has been hit by a faceless digital ‘peasants’ revolt,’” said Francis Brochet, author of “Smartphone Democracy: Digital Populism from Trump to Macron.”

“The Yellow Jacket insurgency is a product of the same phenomena that brought him to power — the discredit of the system and people’s ability to communicate on social networks and organize spontaneously.”

The angry mood resembles the anti-establishment fever that drove Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, swept Donald Trump to the White House and hoisted populist parties into government in Italy.

In Macron’s case, tax cuts for the rich and a stream of insensitive soundbites — about the “crazy dough” spent on social benefits or telling citizens to “stop whining” and “just cross the street to find a job” — have alienated many voters.

“There’s no one with deep political experience in his immediate entourage to tell him when he’s screwed up” — Veteran French lawmaker

In his first budget, Macron abolished the largely symbolic wealth tax introduced by the Socialists in 1981, introduced a flat tax on investment income at a rate lower than on salaries and increased a broad levy to fund health care that hits low earners and pensioners too poor to pay income tax.

Despite widely applauded programs to fight poverty, reform hospital care, shake up vocational training and improve schools, the label “president of the rich” has stuck, along with a reputation for arrogance. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 9 percent, although job creation and company registrations are the highest for a decade.

Macron’s policies are seen as favoring the urban, globalized classes at the expense of left-behind provincials. The diesel tax hike, imposed in the name of saving the planet, was the last straw.

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