French President Emmanuel Macron was in Verdun, visiting a World War I battlefield when a gray-haired man on the street confronted him and accused him of "destroying people" by increasing the fuel tax.
Mr. Macron responded by reminding the man of the need to reduce CO2 emissions. "When we change things, we shake up habits and people are not necessarily happy," the president said.
The exchange on November 6 pointed to a blind spot from Mr. Macron: he tends to lecture the public rather than sympathize with it. Since then, the 40-year-old leader has been beaten by weekly street protests against hundreds of thousands of people across France. Protesters who cover the political spectrum have united behind one symbol ̵
Following the protests, the President and his Cabinet have held strained discussions about what concessions he could make without jeopardizing a broader business agenda that includes plans to reduce bureaucracy and simplify the country's pension system over the coming months. Mr Macron clashed with Premier Édouard Philippe behind closed doors, expressing disappointment that his opponents have reduced his entire environmental policy to a mere fuel tax, according to a close associate. His government should unleash France's economy, not tax it.
"I do not want us to contradict the French people in order to defend a tax. That's the opposite of what we are, "Mr. Macron told the Prime Minister.
Mr. Macron, a former investment banker and technocrat who was nursed at the elite academies in France, spent most of his presidency in the public debate on backroom negotiations to insist on comprehensive revisions. He called for a "cultural revolution" that abolished labor protection and property taxation that supported the country's social model for decades.
The "Gilets Jaunes" or "Yellow West" began against the rise of fuel in the rural communities of France. Their demonstrations have now become a national movement against President Emmanuel Macron and his government. Image: Getty
In preparing France for participation in a globalized economy, Macron came to prominence as a supporter of world order in the decades following the Second World War. This meant defending the European Union from nationalist forces that are at the seams and working for institutions such as the United Nations and multilateral agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement. However, these high goals alienated the man on the street, with Mr. Macron's approval dropping to 23%.
In rural France, people were beyond what they saw as an increasing erosion of their purchasing power. The rise of e-commerce and big boxing has undermined villages and forced people to travel longer distances, often to jobs in urban areas.
Steffy Hortobagyi, a social worker in Limoges in central France, joined the Gilets Jaunes after the Macron government cut aid on which she relies on the rent. Now she spends her weekends in county commutes along the highways and connects with demonstrators because of anger with the president.
"I can thank him for one thing: he has united the French people," said Mrs. Hortobagyi.
The increase in fuel tax for 2018, which was made without public attention under Mr Macron's first budget law, came into force in January, increasing diesel tax by 7.6 cents per liter and by 3.9 cents per liter for unleaded fuel Gas. The average lead free price in France is now $ 6.59 per gallon, most of it taxes.
On October 18, Mr Macron was in Brussels at an EU summit when Jacline Mouraud, a silver-haired singer and accordionist from Brittany, released a video about her
Invoice under consideration of the President. Ms Mouraud gently dismisses a four-and-a-half minute criticism of Mr Macron and his decision to introduce higher fuel taxes and stricter emissions standards. She accuses the President of not "digesting" the cost of the daily commuter as he and his ministers travel in government-financed tax-paid cars.
"We do not all live in the city," says Mouraud, adding that she drives more than 15,000 miles a year. "I have no choice but to take my car with it, whether it's dirty or not."
The video became viral and aroused millions of views. An online petition condemning the fuel taxes of Priscillia Ludosky, an aromatherapist from a Parisian suburb, soon attracted more than a million signatures.
Mr. Macron did not respond to criticism, but commuters from across France laid the foundation for the Gilets-Jaunes movement via social media.
On November 17, more than a quarter of a million people in yellow west walked on the streets and streets of France, blocking traffic in more than 2,000 different locations. One woman was killed when a panicky driver hit her after the demonstrators knocked on the roof of the car. Two days later, a motorcyclist was killed in an accident near a roadblock by Gilets Jaunes.
Mr. Macron was still silent, letting his Prime Minister, Mr. Philippe, fill the void. "The course we have chosen is the right one and we will stick to it," said Philippe.
The following weekend, the protests became violent for the first time in the center of Paris, where several thousand took place. Protesters collided with the police, including on the Champs Élysées shopping corridor of the capital.
Days later, Mr. Macron broke his silence at the protests to deliver a stamped speech on energy and climate change. "Our nation's strategy for the energy transition …" he said at the beginning of the speech, before he caught himself. "These words are, I confess, somewhat abstract."
Against a background with the slogan "Let's change together", the president declared that France has committed itself to reducing emissions in harmony with the rest of the European Union, as part of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Paris Climate Agreement.
"I will not give in to chaos and violence," Macron said. He refused to give up on the next fuel tax hike planned for January and instead offered to lower the tax if oil prices started to rise again, and to slow down France's shift away from cheaper nuclear energy.
Many of his critics were unmoved. "He talked about Europe, but he did not talk about the people of France," said Christophe Chalencon, a vest Jaune from Provence.
One day after this speech, Mr. Macron traveled to Argentina to visit a group of 20 people summit on November 30 and December 1 – the very weekend in which the Gilets Jaunes intended to return to the streets.
His native government had to face the leaderless and increasingly unpredictable movement. Ms. Ludosky was called to a meeting with Mr. Macron's Environment Minister, which was secretly filmed and put online.
"The anger is rising and it will continue to rise," Ms. Ludosky tells Macron at the beginning of the week, "nothing really fixed."
On the Friday before the weekend rally, the prime minister tried to bring prominent gilets to the negotiating table. Only two appeared, and one of them left the meeting a few minutes after the beginning of the meeting. He said he had been threatened by radical members of the movement. The other went through the back door.
Thousands of Gilets Jaunes stormed Paris on Saturday, causing rioting that left more than 260 people injured and more than 370 arrests. Dozens of cars were set on fire and shop fronts were smashed in the center of Paris. Near the southern city of Arles, a man died in a car accident at a roadblock in Gilets Jaunes. In Marseille, an elderly woman died when she was hit by a tear gas tank at her window in Marseille.
Fresh off the plane from Buenos Aires on Sunday, Mr. Macron visited the Arc de Triomphe resignation. Inside the monument a face of a Marianne statue – symbol of the French Republic – had been destroyed.
At the Élysée Palace, Mr. Macron debated with ministers on how to stem a movement that affected his entire program. On Tuesday, Mr Philippe convened a closed meeting of legislators from the majority of Mr Macron, in which one of them said that he had told them that the government had decided to postpone fuel tax increases by six months in January. Mr. Macron's five-year tenure, said Philippe, "is at a critical moment."
– Matthew Dalton contributed to this article.
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