To appease protestors, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a reduction in taxes for pensioners and an increase the national minimum wage, but the mood on the ground hasn't changed much.
PARIS — “I live in this squat with fifteen other people,” said Sidney Ere, a video technician from the French city of Lyon now living in Paris.
Ere gave us a tour of the abandoned warehouse, where he and his fifteen fellow squatters live. It also has a makeshift brewery and music rehearsal stage.
“Housing in Paris is really, really expensive," Ere said. "Even food is. I had to find a solution, because my salary wasn’t rising.”
For him, the solution was to move into a squat house, an unusual reality in a country where the average minimum wage hasn’t kept up with the rising cost of living and taxes.
On November 17, the growing economic anxiety of people like Ere manifested on the streets of France, where tens of thousands of regular citizens took to the streets to protest against what they said was an unjust system, rigged for the privileged and protected by the politicians. Ere was one of the protestors.
Businesses were destroyed on one of Europe’s richest streets, the Champs Elysees, amid calls for the French president to resign.
“Emmanuel Macron is sellout, who has sold the poor for the interests of the rich,” said Marlene, a blonde woman in her thirties, wearing a neon yellow vest in front of Paris’ Arc de Triomphe.
The arch, considered a symbol of the republic, had been vandalised the night before, with rioters spray painting profanities against what they call “usurpers and termites”.
Much of the fury was directed at Macron – the ‘chef’ who protesters say is disconnected from the reality of millions of French citizens, who are falling through the cracks of an economically unsustainable system.
A passerby stared at the blonde woman in the neon yellow vest and accused the movement of vandalising the Arc de Triomphe, a symbol of the republic, considered above politics, and thus sacred.
“Your actions have let down the republic,” shouted the passerby who later introduced himself as Phillipe.
A retired engineer in his fifties, Phillipe also accused Marlene of spreading anarchy.
In return, Marlene burst into tears. She said she was anguished by the man's behaviour.
“This is emotional for me because today I have pain in my heart. I see that part of the population works with what Macron wants, to divide the population,” she said.
Macron - now 40 - came to power in 2017 after being hailed as the ‘French Obama’. With his strikingly boyish looks, ‘la chef’ laid out an ambitious reform agenda, with a focus on renewable energy and the environment.
But his priorities seemed to clash with economic realities of a republic imploding under the pressure of rising inflation and higher taxation, for example on fuel. Macron’s government called it an essential measure to dissuade the use of fossil fuels. But increasing the cost of fuel at a time when crude is falling and when the cost of living is rising has left France on the brink of what some say is a revolution.
“Apparently Macron is very surprised. Some would say even flabbergasted that this movement would happen in the first place. And in the second place the French population would support this movement, despite it being violent – adamantly violent,” said Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, a French political commentator once close to Macron.
In 2008, Macron left a job as an inspector at the French Finance ministry to join Rothschild & Cie Banque as an investment banker. There he helped consult at Le Monde and Nestle with the acquisition of one of Pfizer's largest subsidiaries based around baby drinks.
Years later, his talent for deal-making caught the eye of Francoise Hollande, who made him Deputy Secretary General of the Élysée, a senior role in the presidency. He rose up the ranks to become Minister of Economy and Finance. But the short man, who had earlier married his high school teacher, had other plans. He abandoned the Hollande-Valls government in 2015 to form his own political party En Marche.
“Again he was the most brilliant of the ministers and he betrayed Francoise Hollande, building his own political party. He did a magisterial coup of sorts, said Chevrolet, who is now a political consultant.
“Macron regards himself as sacred,” said Ere, the video technician-turned-squatter. He behaves as a “child-king, who has been corrupted even before he came to power,” he said.
Macron’s past as a banker has drawn comparisons with another French ruler, Louise Philippe, who was forced into exile to Great Britain after the revolution of 1848.
But for there to be a new revolution in France, it might require the formation of a group of leaders, who champion the cause of the yellow vests, something that hasn’t happened yet.
In the absence of a core-leadership, often divergent groups have tried to take over the yellow vest movement. Radical leftists, such as Alexis Cobierre and Thierry Paul Vallete, themselves followers of veteran leader Jean-Luc Antoine Pierre Mélenchon, - a veteran leader, have tried to champion the cause of the yellow vests at the top. But it is at the bottom of the yellow vest pyramid that groups such as the far-right National Front, led by Marine le Pen, are threatening with a takeover of the movement.
“Eighty percent of the French people support the yellow vests,” said Jean Messiha, the senior political advisor to Le Pen. Messiha said that given the large number of French who had supported the movement for more economic rights, it was expected that members of the National Front would support the movement, but that it didn't matter if the far right was infiltrating the protest.
“The question is what is Macron going to do about it,” he said.
Under pressure, Macron has announced a series of concessions, including an extra 100 euros ($112) for those earning the 1,499 euro ($1,690) minimum wage - at no extra cost to employers - and scrapping proposed fuel taxes, as well as eliminating extra charges on pensions below 2,000 euros ($2,255). “The grievances of the yellow vest movement are deep and mostly legitimate,” said the French president. “But talks, not violence is the way forward.”
While the government hopes the concessions would help ease the tensions on the street, in Paris, the people remain divided as to what these might actually achieve.
“The concessions are a big joke,” said Ere, the squatter. “This is a smoke screen. You won’t fool us with this.”