What France's Unrest Means

What France's Unrest Means

The ongoing Yellow Vest movement is significant and could have long-lasting repercussions for France and the rest of Europe.

Macron was supposed to represent a new wave of French politics, a departure from the traditional parties of the left and right. In 2017, the electorate gave him the presidency and a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, while savagely punishing the Socialists and moderate right. Sadly, Macron failed to capitalize on his political dominance; instead he has shown himself to be a distant, almost imperial figure, given to pondering over Europe’s future and the global liberal order while finding the process of reforming France difficult and less appealing. It was not lost on many French that while parts of Paris burned over the weekend, their leader was off in Buenos Aires at the G20 summit, rubbing elbows with the American president Donald Trump, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, and Chancellor Angela Merkel.   

The growing restlessness towards Macron is reflected in opinion polls which show that the French leader’s popularity has plummeted to around 21 percent. Moreover, a November Ifop opinion poll indicated that President Macron’s La Republique En Marche (LREM) party had fallen behind Le Pen’s National Rally, garnering 19 percent of potential voters compared to the far-right party’s 21 percent.  The same poll gave another far-right Eurosceptic party, the Stand Up France, seven percent of potential voters and two percent also went to two small “Frexit” parties. Taken together, the far right looks to have 30 percent of potential voters, a five-point gain since August.

With one eye to the Yellow Vests and the other on the rise of the far-right, President Macron is approaching the May 2019 European Union parliamentary vote as a “contest between progressives and nationalists.” His targets in this battle are Le Pen in France, but also those in other European countries who lead “the nationalist leprosy.” But that is part of President Macron’s problem—while he is out saving Europe from the threat of nationalism, he faces strong domestic discontent rooted in a tough economic times at home. How he handles the Yellow Vests will also determine the outcome of the May 2019 European Parliament vote in France as well. No one has said that France is easy to govern and the Yellow Vests are proving just that.  

Scott B. MacDonald is chief economist for Smith’s Research and Gradings. His views are his own.

Image: Reuters.