Reuniting the Yellow-Vests Protesters and the French EU Agenda

After several years of divisions in the face of the refugee crisis, the Brexit process and economic austerity, many French citizens question the viability of the EU. The most recurring criticism the Union faces is the lack of democracy in its functioning. Its complex institutional structure and the limited powers of the Parliament make the EU seem distant and out of the people’s reach. Consequently, in the autumn of 2018, according to the EU Barometer poll, 57% of French people reported propensity not to trust the Union’s institutions.

To make matters worse, during the recent years, the EU has become a scapegoat for several populist parties, whose bread and butter is criticising the way the Union works.  Those parties and Eurosceptics gave birth to a shared narrative which has been gaining momentum in several countries: fix internal issues before allocating some time, budget and attention for European affairs.  As the European Parliament elections have a long history of being shunned by the people, with considerable abstention rates throughout the years, the upcoming 2019 elections will share the same fate if no action is taken to foster voter turnout.

President Macron’s ambitious European program is resolutely in favour of a stronger integration and a renewal of fruitful cooperation between member states. According to his line of thought, there is a need for group action in order to deal with the refugee crisis, set in motion an efficient ecological transition, and effectively combat the numerous economic challenges of globalization. His announced platform was one of trust building: turning the tide in public opinion by establishing more democracy, for instance by instituting a citizen consultation before each major European reform. Additionally, he is determined to have people realise how beneficial the Union has been and he strives to foster the feeling of belonging, of European citizenship, especially through the Erasmus program.

Emmanuel Macron has made several bold speeches in favour of the EU, for instance the one at Sorbonne University, calling for a “European rebirth”. Yet, their echo inside France has been dampened if not completely silenced due to the constant waves of protests. Notably the labour legislation reform, the changes to the university system that led to student strikes, the national railroad privatization project that got workers out in the streets, and the Benalla affair, which has been monopolising both the public’s and the medias’ attention for almost a year now.

In September 2018, an extra tax on gasoline gave birth to a protest streak which has proven to be a formidable foe to Macron: the yellow-vests. What makes it stand out from the other social movements is the fact that it has been going on for over 20 weeks now, with demonstrations happening in major French cities each Saturday. The demographics (socio-economic status and political affiliation alike) of this movement are blurry, the claims hardly have any cohesion and some of them are flat out contradictory. Given the unprecedented composition of this protest movement, there is no telling which policies would quell anger, and satisfying the bulk of the protesters at once appear unrealistic. Despite its unusual duration, the movement still benefited from half of the population’s approval, as of mid March, even though support is wavering.

Consequently, one question arises: how can Macron go about and convince the people that it is time to put an end to a five-month-long social protest, and focus on the European elections? How does he even phrase this without fuelling the sentiment of disconnection between working-classes and political elites, a recurring theme among the yellow-vests? Although right now the EU is seen more as a culprit for citizen’s woes rather than a potential solution, some convergences between yellow-vest demands and Macron’s EU plan can be found.

A number of protesters’ proposals were aimed at deeply changing the way French institutions work, asking for more direct democracy. Among those demands, one particularly stands out: the Citizen Initiative Referendum (RIC). Although its definitive shape has not reached a consensus yet, the concept behind the RIC is to allow citizens to partake in the legislative process and submit law propositions directly to the population’s vote, thus bypassing the parliamentary stage. Discussions are still ongoing about which other powers could potentially be granted to RIC: the ability to revoke existing legislation and elected members from office; amending the Constitution and even approving or rejecting treaties. If the yellow-vests want to push forward this flagship measure of their movement, they first need to reach an agreement amongst themselves on what the modalities and powers of this referendum will be.

Although Macron had reluctantly shown some inclination to discuss this specific measure, the recently announced reforms were a letdown in that sense. Indeed, a national scale debate was organised earlier this year, to allow citizens to voice their opinion about what changes should be made in the country. This resulted in a set of measures –mainly of economic nature- that was announced in late April. However, those reforms seem insufficient in comparison with the intensity of the outcry for participative democracy. The RIC was not adopted, but instead a watered-down version, dependent of the parliamentarians’ approval. Nevertheless, it is a good first step, albeit timid, that needs to go further in order to convince protesters their demands were heard.

Implementing the RIC might be a good opportunity for Macron to counterbalance the reproaches made to him about his unilateral way of exercising power, with a tendency to pay no heed to the opposition parties or French citizens. This is the chance for the President to reach out to his fierce opponent and gain all the immediate approval he can get, as European Parliament elections are looming large. As of now, polls give the La République En Marche! (Macron’s party) list slightly behind the far-right movement Rassemblement National (Marine Le Pen’s party).

The window of opportunity for Macron to untie his hands is narrow, but existent. This is the perfect occasion for him to appease dissensions in France, and obtain the representation he needs in the European Parliament. The Citizen Initiative Referendum proposal might be the President’s best chance for manoeuvre, by showing he is ready to establish more democracy and involve citizens.

If he desires to accomplish more changes during the rest of his mandate, especially at the EU scale, he needs to regain his population’s approval, by making concessions. It is a very promising opportunity for a government which has been stuck in a slump for over five months now.

Maxime Yvenou, intern at European Policy Centre (CEP).