Yellow Vest protestors in Paris on Dec. 8, 2018. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

President Emmanuel Macron addressed the French public Tuesday night for the first time since the emergence of the “Yellow Vests” (Gilets Jaunes) movement and the violence that has struck Paris and other major cities.

Why it matters: The highly anticipated speech aimed to restore momentum to Macron’s presidency after polls showed roughly 70% support for the anti-establishment movement. He tried to strike a balance between condemning the movement’s acts of violence and responding to the legitimate anger and demands that have fueled it.

Background: A leaderless grassroots movement born on social media, unaffiliated to any party or union, the Yellow Vests are a disparate gathering of discontent citizens, largely from the rural working class, who have risen up against Macron’s presidency and more generally against the French establishment.

  • The protests were sparked by the rollout of a gasoline tax Macron had promised on the campaign trail as a means of addressing climate change.
  • His withdrawal of the tax did not quell the mobilization, which has since focused on larger issues of purchasing power and quality of life.
  • Populists of all stripes have converged in the group, with one poll showing high representation of supporters of both the far-right Le Pen (Rassemblement National) and far-left Mélenchon (France Insoumises).

Details: In his 13-minute speech, Macron reflected on the tone of his past remarks (“I also know that I happened to hurt some of you with my words”) and assured the marchers he heard their anger.

  • He announced a minimum wage increase of 100 euros and tax cuts on overtime and for low-income pensioners, but nonetheless refused to reinstate the wealth tax, one of the movement’s demands.
  • While Macron's speech will not abate the radical elements that have demanded his resignation, it attempted to break public support for them.

What to watch: A third of the way into his first term, Macron is facing his greatest test to date. How much his new tone and concrete measures will ameliorate discontent remains to be seen, but the scale and public support for the Yellow Vest’s “Act V,” planned for this weekend, will offer an early answer.

Ben Haddad is a fellow at the Hudson Institute and worked on Macron’s presidential campaign.

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