The yellow vest movement has taken its toll on the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. Given the upcoming European Union elections in May, the French president has everything to lose. All the far-left and the far-right need to do is wait it out.
For weeks, the "Gilets jaunes" (French for “yellow vests”) have been both protesting and rioting in the streets of the major cities of the République to oppose increased taxes on petrol and lament the loss of purchasing power in the country. At first, the Elysée Palace remained silent, only condemning acts of violence against police officers.
Act I was the protests on November 17, which displayed for the first time the significant mobilising power of the both leaderless and apolitical movement. During Act II on November 24, opinion polls showed that the vast majority of French politicians were in agreement with the yellow vests, igniting internal upset within Macron’s "En Marche" party. With the European Union elections coming up in May, many potential candidates could run the risk of losing their eventual chance at a seat to Le Pen's nationalists.
By the time the massive protest of Act III on December 1 occurred, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had announced the suspension of the tax increase for six months. A day later, Macron corrected his head of government, saying that the increase was suspended indefinitely. The increase was supposed to be a part of France's effort to keep promises made in the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. After all, Paris was the host city to this deal, and is putting its reputation on the line for the deal’s success. In fact, Macron has been threatening new Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro with a veto on a potential EU-Mercusor free trade deal should the South American country pull out of the agreement, as well. He is politicising trade deals, meaning that the whole project looks as if it's in big trouble. And now the yellow vests.
In a statement on Monday - which happened after the so far most destructive Act IV protest on December 8 - president Macron caved to a more general sense of the yellow vests’ demands.
It remains to be seen how much "Gilets jaunes" are now willing to invest going forward. In the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Strasbourg, France, the president is calling for an absence of civil unrest. The attack could indeed slow down the traction gained by the yellow vests.
Now the question is, of course, is with Macron's approval ratings being the lowest of any French president in history at this time of the presidency, can the far-right and the far-left capitalise on the yellow vests? In the short term, the simple answer is that they won't; however, it is very plausible in the long term.
In an opinion poll that came out in early November, prior to the beginning of the yellow vest movement, Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement national (French for "National Rally,” formerly known as National Front) was in front of Macron En Marche party. In fact, Le Pen has had a consistent rise in the polls, while Macron has seen an equally continuous decline.
If the yellow vests create a political party and run in the European Union elections in May (during which EU citizens are asked to elect members to the European Parliament), they could present a challenge to Le Pen, as well as far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Their populist message, designed to appeal to low-income and lower middle class families, could resonate with the established parties, while the Macron vote has rooted itself in the middle class, upper middle class, and upper class demographics.
If, however, the yellow vests don't run for elections, Macron could be in trouble. A large majority of French people sympathise with the goals of the yellow vests, demanding government interventionism. Despite their failure to claim the movement for themselves, Le Pen and Mélenchon could pick up on their specific demands and go after "an anti-poor climate change policy", or something of the sort.
Macron's concessions definitely wouldn't help the people who have been throwing rocks at police officers for weeks now, who won't be terribly convinced by what are, in their minds, cosmetic measures. In fact, the French president could lose support from middle class voters who supported his economic policy of not overburdening businesses, and are now seeing Macron’s call for increases in corporate taxes. In his attempt to please everyone, Macron could lose everything.
A considerable defeat in the EU elections might also hamper Macron's chances of conducting his European Union reform plans. With a low number of supportive members in the European Parliament, he won't overthrow the established political party system from within . While Macron was previously lecturing world leaders on their climate change policies and the rule of law, France erupted in flames, with increasing distrust in the police and many instances of violence initiated by police. The yellow vest protests have descended so far into chaos that the the country could lose between 0.1 and 0.2 percentage points of growth. No wonder: not only is the president openly arguing against businesses, but you might also get your windows smashed.
Meanwhile, the yellow vests are continuing to the haunt the streets, with Le Monde running stories on how the Gilets jaunes are celebrating their New Year’s Eve while protesting. The latest news doesn’t help president Macron either. He used his New Year’s message to describe the “Gilets jaunes” as a “hate-filled crowd,” whom he accused of lying. This comes after yellow vest protesters have been consistently attacking journalists.
Macron faces a monstrous challenge to his presidency, while remaining the last resort for pro-EU defenders in France. The centre-right Republican Party was decimated by his success in the presidential elections, and all other centrists and moderate socialists are on his side, with no viable option to replace him.
It's all or nothing for Macron in the years leading up to 2022.
Rien ne va plus (literally, “nothing goes any more”).