EVEN BEFORE a terrorist opened fire at the Christmas market in Strasbourg, killing two people and injuring a dozen more, Emmanuel Macron was facing the first real crisis of his presidency. After two weekends of rioting and four weeks of protests, a pale and chastened Mr Macron addressed the nation from the Elysée palace on the eve of the attack. His brow creased, his tone contrite, the French president acknowledged his mistakes—“I know I have hurt some of you with my words”—and promised a range of fiscal measures to boost pay packets and pensions.
Mr Macron’s address to the nation, watched by a staggering 23m people (more than watched France win the football World Cup in July), was the first time he had spoken publicly since violence engulfed central Paris on December 1st, as part of the country-wide gilets jaunes (“yellow jackets”) movement. The president promised that those on the minimum wage—currently €1,499 ($1,704) a month—would receive a net extra €100 each month without any cost to employers (partly through an expanded wage subsidy). An increase in social charges on pensions for those on less than €2,000 a month will be cancelled. Overtime and end-of-year bonuses offered by employers would be free of taxes and charges.
Economists estimate that all this will cost at least €10bn a year, or about 0.4% of GDP. Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, insists he will find spending cuts to compensate, in order to keep the budget deficit “as close as possible to the 3%” required by the euro zone’s rules. But the deficit was already forecast to rise in 2019 to 2.8%. If Mr Le Maire cannot find the savings, the new concessions could push it as high as 3.4%. That would risk a fresh crisis in the currency area, exasperate Germany and kill off any lingering French hopes of significant euro-zone reform. Italy’s deputy prime minister mischievously said he hoped France would now face sanctions, too.
Mr Macron’s decision to spend his way out of trouble did not meet all the protesters’ demands. He ruled out bringing back the wealth tax, a measure he had scrapped after taking office in line with a manifesto pledge, and which was one of the gilets jaunes’ gripes. Nor did Mr Macron announce a shift in underlying policy. “The main thrust of this presidency is not changing,” says Mr Le Maire.
Equally important was a shift in the president’s tone. Out went his know-it-all, lecturing manner. In came a degree of humility. A philosophy graduate and rationalist, Mr Macron does not do folksy politics, and true to style he opted for a conventional form, sitting at the gilt-edged desk in the Elysée palace, framed by the emblems of presidential power. But this time Mr Macron answered the charge of indifference to ordinary people’s concerns. “I may have given you the impression that this was not my concern, that I had other priorities,” he said. As an apology it was hardly grovelling, but it was something.
For many gilets jaunes, however, something will never be enough. The movement is without structure or leaders, and has no formal negotiating position. Its demands range from the reasonable (the cancellation of an increase in the fuel eco-tax, which the government has already announced for next year) to the extreme (including the resignation of Mr Macron). A fifth Saturday of protest is planned for December 15th.
The protest movement is also fuelled at least in part by conspiracy theories and misinformation. After the Strasbourg attack, which led the government to raise the terrorism alert to its highest level, many gilets jaunes expressed horror. But others spread outrageous and baseless claims on social media that the government itself was behind the shooting.
Mr Macron’s best hope now of restoring his authority rests on persuading the public that the protest movement is no longer reasonable. The numbers of gilets jaunes on the streets in recent weekends—around 130,000 country-wide—have dwindled. It is rather the scale of the violence, partly perpetrated by ultra-left and far-right infiltrators, and the backing of public opinion despite such violence, that has applied such great pressure. A poll after Mr Macron’s address showed that a majority still expressed support for the movement, but 68% thought he had met their demands over the minimum wage and 78% on overtime pay.
It is hard to see, though, how the president can emerge from this drama with his reformist momentum intact. Mr Macron still enjoys a robust parliamentary majority and the French presidency’s strong executive powers. Some of those close to him argue that he has turned the page. “Macron has acknowledged his past behavioural mistakes,” said Philippe Aghion, an economist who advised him during his campaign but has judged him harshly since. “He can move on.”
Yet Mr Macron has also now shown that he will back down if put under enough pressure on the street. That may bode ill for the future. One way or another, the gilets jaunes protest will doubtless come to mark a turning-point in his presidency. The best outcome would be if the rebooted, listening president can indeed “turn anger into an opportunity”, as his speech promised, and build a fresh consensus around his plans. The worst, however, would be the end of his laudable ambitions to modernise and transform France.