Why the Yellow Jacket movement is gift to Macron
Thanks to a movement formed to bring down the president, he’s poised to win a European election.
The Yellow Jackets were supposed to have killed off Emmanuel Macron, but they could end up making him stronger.
It didn't seem that way in December. A day after violent protests in Paris, the French president was inspecting damage to the Arc de Triomphe monument, where Yellow Jacket protesters had broken in, smashed statues and spray-painted slogans.
Macron looked stony-faced as he greeted policemen while being jeered by a few protesters calling for him to step down. He left without making a public statement. The damage spoke for itself.
That rainy day looked like a low point of Macron's presidency. A once-promising leader had flown off to a G20 meeting in Buenos Aires only to discover on his return that one of France's most iconic monuments had been damaged and dozens of luxury boutiques smashed.
And yet it was about to get a lot worse. Over the next few days Macron's popularity would sink even lower. Amid ongoing protests, a group of Yellow Jacket protesters in southern France would simulate his execution with a guillotine, and another group would break into a ministry with a forklift.
Against this backdrop, it became fashionable to pronounce that Macron, as a political phenomenon, was finished. A Financial Times commentator warned other democratic hopefuls of the lessons of Macron's political "demise." US President Donald Trump, whose bromance with his French counterpart had long turned bitter, mused on Twitter that the protests were caused by resentment of the Paris climate accord, which Macron had championed and then used as a device with which to troll Trump. Pollsters cruelly underscored the similarities between Macron's approval ratings and those of his predecessor François Hollande, the least popular president in France's post-war history. "Macron, the broken dream of an influential France," business daily Les Echos wrote in an op-ed.
Yet for all their airs of certainty, the they failed to take into account a few crucial intangibles of French political life.
The first was that despite the outrage being directed against him, Macron faces next to zero chance of being forced out of office before his term ends in 2022. Shielded by the institutions of the Fifth Republic, which enshrine stability above all, and the fact that his centrist party holds an absolute majority in the National Assembly, he has the most of three years in which to correct his legacy. That is a long time in an era of rule-by-tweet, hyper-charged news cycles and constant disruption.
The second was that the Yellow Jacket movement — which has no identifiable leader, organisational structure or unified agenda — could just as easily turn into a liability for Macron's opponents. And the president, paradoxically, could turn out to be the big winner.
That is exactly what appears to be happening. Last Wednesday, Ingrid Levavasseur, a 31-year-old nurse and moderate figurehead of the Yellow Jacket movement, announced that she would head up a list of 10 candidates to run during the election for the European Parliament in May.
Hours later, a survey by pollster Elabe measured how much support Levavasseur's group could hope to gather in the upcoming vote with her Yellow Jacket list. It was a whopping 13 percent, instantly making the Yellow Jackets France's third-most popular party ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's France Unbowed movement.
While Macron's centrist La République en Marche party lost a few points in a Yellow Jackets scenario, the real victims were the politicians who had cheered the loudest for their anti-establishment protests: Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon.
Le Pen's National Rally group lost 3.5 percentage points to Yellow Jackets, Mélenchon's hard-left group lost 1.5 points and Laurent Wauquiez's conservative Les Républicains shed one point. Of all the competitors, Macron's group — which is running jointly with the centrist MoDem — came out on top with 22.5 percent of expected votes, according to Elabe. Another poll by IFOP hinted at even deeper reservoir of support for the Yellow Jackets: As many as 41 percent of respondents said they would consider voting for them in an election.
Macron's base is increasingly immune to the lure of Yellow Jacket outrage. But the opposite is true for Mélenchon, a former socialist minister who has transformed himself into a fire-breathing defender of Venezuelan strongman Nicolas Maduro.
Before the polls came out, Mélenchon had gushed that he was "fascinated" by the persona of Eric Drouet, a leading figure of the Yellow Jackets movement who is credited with starting the movement via a Facebook post. Yet Drouet, a truck driver and car "tuning" enthusiast who's been questioned by police for encouraging protesters to storm the Elysée presidential palace, did not return Mélenchon's affection, au contraire. Ignoring the politician, Drouet spurned any attempt by mainstream groups to co-opt his movement and encouraged supporters not to vote. Many of them, given a choice, indicated they would choose the Yellow Jackets over Mélenchon in a heartbeat. Macron must have been pleased.
"En Marche's interest is very clearly to have a Yellow Jacket list running in the election," said Jean-Daniel Levy, head of politics at pollster Harris Interactive. "In the circumstances, this is good news for them."
The president's critics, who have no shortage of empathy for violent protesters, were dismayed. A movement hell-bent on disrupting Macron's presidency (itself born from a historic disruption of France's mainstream parties) was now poised to disrupt the very parties that had worked the hardest to court its sympathies. This was not at all how things were meant to play out.
After the first polls came out, the instant reaction from the movement's "base" — insofar as its Facebook supporters can be described as such — was to attack Levavasseur, spurn any participation in the election "system" and seek refuge in further protests and social media posts.
Maxime Nicolle, a popular YouTuber known as "Fly Rider" and figurehead for the movement, accused Levavasseur of "betraying" the movement by trying to force it into a democratic process. "Let's be clear, the European [election] is about staying in the system,"he said in the video, which by Thursday had been watched more than 113,000 times. "It's doing exactly the same thing we have been doing for the past 40 years."
On popular Yellow Jacket Facebook pages, reactions to the announcement of a Yellow Jacket party were overwhelmingly negative.
"Out of the question. The yellow list does not have my support," said one user. "What I can see is that you are betraying hundreds or thousands of people who believed in you," said Nicolle. Drouet, who had reacted to the announcement by writing "OK, OK...", posted a Facebook poll asking whether Yellow Jackets wanted to run a political list (almost everyone said "no") and whether they wanted to publish a statement saying that Levavasseur's movement doesn't represent them (almost all said "yes").
Meanwhile support for the Yellow Jackets, though still high, is ebbing. If 68 percent of the French backed the movement in December, 56 percent still carried the banner in January, according to a poll by OpinionWay for LCI. The weakening support is translating into lower turnouts for the Yellow Jackets' protests, with 69,000 people showing up on Saturday for "Act 11" versus 87,700 the previous weekend, according to Interior Ministry estimates. The number of arrests for violent behavior is also falling, although each new day of protests brings new controversy in the form of anti-Semitic displays and attacks on journalists.
Such controversy has done little to diminish sympathy for the Yellow Jackets among the French. But it does split the movement, which has a revolutionary core and a much more moderate base of support among retirees and disappointed socialists.
The challenge of bridging the divide between those who, like Drouet, want to storm the Elysée, and those who would prefer to vote in an election may well sink Levavasseur's political project, which will require funding to build momentum ahead of the European election in May. "Divisions and a lack of funding could get the better of them," said Levy the pollster.
But the party may ultimately prove irrelevant. For Macron's opponents, the damage is already done — the Yellow Jackets have robbed them of a claim on popular outrage. The president, for his part, has taken the Yellow Jackets' challenge as a prompt to try to revive his presidency via a series of town hall style consultations and a "Great National Debate."
Drawing on his gifts for lengthy discourse, a thinner and tired-looking Macron has held the stage for more than six hours at a time in multiple appearances in front of local officials in the past few weeks. Slowly, timidly, his approval scores have started to inch up: first by five points, then an additional four to 31 percent, according to a poll by BVA published on Friday.
The president's approval score remains dismal. A call for a general strike by Drouet and backed up by the CGT trade union could send the president into another nightmare loop of bad coverage and deeper unpopularity. But there is hope yet for the president whose "demise" may have been announced a bit too soon.
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