Emmanuel Macron on Monday night decreed a “state of social and economic emergency” in France, offering a string of generous sweeteners he hopes will quell a month-long “yellow vest” revolt that has left his young presidency on the ropes.
In a pre-recorded national address broadcast across various media and no doubt the most crucial in his 18-months in office, Mr Macron said France was at a “historic juncture” and issued a mea culpa saying: “I know that I have managed to wound some of you through my comments.”
Acceding to several key demands of the “yellow vests”, the president pledged to raise the minimum wage by €100 per month from 2019 without costing a euro to the employer. Overtime will be free of tax and charges, he said, while businesses who gave end-of-year bonuses would pay no extra taxes.
Mr Macron also announced he would reverse a new levy for pensioners with incomes less than €2,000 per month. “The effort asked of them was too great and not fair,” he said.
However, many “gilets jaunes” protesters around France appeared unconvinced.
The 40-year old centrist was under intense pressure to avoid fresh damage and bloodshed after successive weekends of violent riots in Paris and other cities that have seen 4,523 arrests and already stripped France of 0.1 per cent of GDP growth, according to its finance minister.
Meanwhile, thousands of “gilets jaunes” have been blocking roads and roundabouts for almost a month in an outpouring of anger over perceived high taxes for the poor and overwhelming accusations that he is an arrogant, out-of-touch “president of the rich”.
Many were furious that he had remained silent to their fury, hunkered down in the Elysée over the past few days despite the ambiance of quasi-insurrection. Many simply want the ex-banker to step down.
But Mr Macron stood firm on Monday night on his controversial decision to partially scrap France’s totemic wealth tax – another key demand from many “gilets jaunes”. To do so, he said, would “weaken us”.
The president, who has abruptly become the least popular leader in modern French history after a dream start, said that the anger of peaceful “yellow vest” protesters was “fair and can be our opportunity”.
He said that their movement was the result of “forty years of malaise” that “we ended up getting used to.. out of cowardice”.
However, he slammed the “unacceptable outpouring of violence” of vandals. “No anger justifies attacking a police officer or public property," he said.
Mr Macron also made it clear he intended to push on with planned reforms of social security and pensions. He also said he would start a tour of France’s mayorships during three months of local talks. “We will not simply start our lives back up as before as if nothing had changed,” he promised.
Despite a string of concessions ahead of his speech, including scrapping the green tax on diesel and petrol that sparked the unrest, many protesters had already taken to social media to call for an “Act V” of radical action.
Stunned by the savagery of the personal attacks and violence of the protests, Mr Macron had gone off radar for a week, with some aides even fearing he could be the victim of an attempted putsch.
“I have never known under the Fifth Republic such hostility against a president,” said political analyst Jérôme Jaffré. “It is a personal affair between a part of the country and president, hence the incredible stakes of this speech.”
“This is the start of Act II of his presidency where Macron II fiercely has criticised Macron,” he said.
Political opponents dismissed the proposals.
Eric Woerth of the opposition Right-wing Republicans said “tomorrow’s purchasing power will pay for today’s measures”.
Far-Right leader Marine Le Pen said Mr Macron had “given up on some his tax errors, so much the better”, but said he “refused to admit that it is the model he champions that is contested”.
Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, head of the Leftists Unbowed France party, called on protesters to take to the streets once again next Saturday.
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As for the “gilets jaunes”, reactions were mixed. Jeremy Clément, one “yellow vest” spokesman, said the proposals were a start and “coherent” but remained “crumbs”.
“We can’t be content with a €100 rise (in minimum wage),” he said.
In one hall in Galargues, in the Hérault, southern France, some pensioners applauded at the tax breaks but many said they would continue the protests.
Karl Toquard, yellow vest spokesman at a roundabout in Gaillon, Normandy, was adamant. He told the Telegraph: “There was nothing for us. We’re staying put.”