Macron fights back

This morning’s news is that the lower house of the French parliament, the National Assembly, approved the government’s tough new anti-protest laws by a large majority, 387 to 92. But in a warning sign for president Emmanuel Macron, 50 members of his own party, Republic on the Move (LRM), abstained from the vote, although none actually dissented.

The government was supported by other centrist parties and the centre-right Republicans, but opposed by centre-left, far left and far right. (The National Assembly’s breakdown of voting figures is extraordinarily helpful.)

The most controversial aspect of the legislation – drafted as a response to the “yellow vest” protests that have been widespread across France since November – is a provision for suspect individuals to be banned from protesting for up to a month by administrative order. Such bans would be subject to judicial review but would not require any prior conviction.

The legislation has a long way to go before being enacted; it now heads to the Senate, and will not return to the Assembly until next month. But in a country that prides itself, rightly or not, for its respect for human rights, it is likely to remain hotly contested.

The bigger picture, however, is that Macron seems to be gaining the upper hand in his battle with the yellow shirts. His popularity ratings, while still deep in negative territory, have been trending upwards in the last month. (And as Wikipedia’s graph shows, there is nothing unusual about French presidents being unpopular.)

With the first flush of excitement about the protests now over, many French people will be taking another look at the more unsavory aspects of the movement and wondering whether this is really something that they want to overthrow liberal democracy for.

It’s also questionable whether the alliance between far left and far right that has sustained the protesters so far is really durable. Far left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, evidently concerned that he is being seen as betraying the left’s values, has recently made a point of directly attacking far right leader Marine Le Pen.

With elections to the European parliament coming up in May, the yellow shirts are divided as to whether or not they should participate in electoral politics. The chance of them uniting behind a single ticket seems remote; their participation is most likely to damage their extremist allies and thereby benefit Macron.

As Nicholas Vinocur argues at Politico, the movement is “now poised to disrupt the very parties that had worked the hardest to court its sympathies.”

Although he mishandled the protests badly at first, Macron now seems to have hit on a plausible combination of redress of grievances with resistance to violence. A referendum on political reform is one of the measures being considered. And with more than three years left in his term, he has plenty of time to turn those popularity ratings around.

Not surprisingly, the yellow shirts have allies among other “populist” or anti-cosmopolitan forces in Europe. Italy’s deputy prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, met with protesters yesterday and offered them support, saying “We have a lot of common positions and values.”

The reality, however, is that those positions and values are elusive. Like Di Maio’s own Five-Star Movement, the yellow shirts represent a grab-bag of contradictory impulses: left and right, pro- and anti-environment, democratic and insurrectionary, internationalist and xenophobic.

Being all things to all people can be a recipe for striking success in the short term. But it usually comes to grief in the end.

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