Europe Politics

Macron's popularity recovers as support for 'Yellow Vest' dwindles

Key Points
  • French President Emmanuel Macron's popularity is rising again according to the latest opinion poll.
  • In February, 32 percent of French people consider Macron to be a good president.
  • While still a low rating, his popularity has recovered from a personal low seen during the "Yellow Vest" protests.
French President Emmanuel Macron smiles as he listens to a mayor during a meeting gathering some 600 mayors who will relay the concerns aired by residents in their towns and villages in the Normandy city of Grand Bourgtheroulde on January 15, 2019, as part of the official launch of the 'great national debate.'
LUDOVIC MARIN | AFP | Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron's popularity is rising again according to the latest opinion poll, showing a recovery from a personal low seen during the "Yellow Vest" protests.

In February, 32 percent of French people consider Macron to be a good president, according to the latest opinion poll by Odoxa, up from a low of 27 percent seen in December when civil unrest and anti-Macron sentiment gripped Paris and wider France.

The "Yellow Vest" protests started in November in rural France initially as a reaction against proposed fuel tax increases (protestors wore the fluorescent yellow vests French motorists are obliged to carry in their cars) but they morphed into wider discontent with former investment banker Macron's leadership and policies, and a perceived drop in French living standards.

Protests in Paris and other cities have been frequently marred by violence and vandalism although in recent weeks the protest movement has lost some steam and splintered into left-wing and right-wing factions. As protests took place for the 15th consecutive week last weekend, an estimated 46,600 people took part - down from the hundreds of thousands seen before Christmas.

Public support for the protests has also waned. The Odoxa poll, conducted on February 20 for several French media outlets, showed that 55 percent of the 1,004 adults surveyed thought the protests should stop. This is the first time a distinct majority has been in favor of a stop to the protest movement (last month 49 percent believed the protests should stop).

Long listening exercise

Macron was initially slow to respond to the grassroots movement but as protests became more widespread and serious he cancelled proposed fuel tax rises and announced a series of budget-busting measures to appease the public. Protests continued, however, and in January he launched a three-month "great national debate" intended to address the public's grievances toward the state.

French citizens are currently able to give feedback on themes including taxation and public services online and the government will address and report on the consultation mid-March.

The "long listening exercise" had been a success on two key fronts, according to Eurasia Group's Europe Analyst Charles Lichfield.

"First, it has grabbed the attention of ordinary French citizens, not just elites. Second, it has coincided with a visible radicalization of those who still insist on protesting every Saturday.  Macron's popularity is increasing and support for the protests is dwindling," Lichfield said in a note Friday.

However, maintaining that momentum after the national debate could be tricky, especially with Macron pushing ahead with contentious reforms to the pension system and public sector.

"The government will struggle to satisfy most participants, either on policy or in its actual political response. On policy, the recurring yellow-vest demands for more direct democracy and reinstating the wealth tax remain non-starters for Macron. Instead, he has instructed ministers to find ways of accelerating simplifications to citizens' everyday interactions with the state," Lichfield noted.

Golden age coming?

Economists at Berenberg Economics were more optimistic, noting that although the "yellow vest" protests had put Macron's ability to reform France "to its sternest test yet," the president could still lead an economic revival in France which is expected to grow 1.3 percent in 2019 and 1.5 percent in 2020, according to the European Commission's latest winter forecasts.

"Emmanuel Macron can reform France, like Margaret Thatcher cured the U.K. in the 1980s and Gerhard Schröder changed Germany some 15 years ago," Berenberg's Holger Schmieding, Kallum Pickering and Florian Hense said in a note Friday.

"As a result, France may be heading for a golden decade. Over time, a reinvigorated France can help to ease many tensions within the euro zone that have stemmed from the gap between weaker and stronger countries."

The economists noted that Macron's popularity dip had also happened to his predecessors, Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and that "the worst may be over now."

"As the yellow vests have become more radical, they have lost some public support. Macron's fiscal sweeteners offered in response to the protests are starting to play out. His new dialogue with citizens also seems to be bearing fruit."

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