Let’s say it right away, Emmanuel Macron’s task, on Monday the 10th of December night, seemed difficult, if not impossible. It was for him, despite the violence, to renew the link with his people who were and continued to be massively in sympathy with the claims of “yellow vests”, without however losing the support from the heart of his voters who would not understand or a fortiori admitted a “change of course”. At the same time, he had to ensure the backing or at least constructive neutrality of intermediary bodies and business community.
The last three TV appearances of the President did not prompt much optimism. Whether it was in the chiaroscuro of his office, relying on notes with crossed-out lines kindly shown by the director, after the reshuffle following the resignation of the Minister of the Interior Gerard Collomb, or on the nuclear-powered French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, surrounded by fighter planes and in the roar of the machinery of the boat, to speak on the energy transition after the climate summit of November 11 and the “tribulation” during his “memorial roaming”, or finally in the over-lighted Festival Hall of the Elysee Palace to present the energy transition plan, Emmanuel Macron, far from appeasing the claims, seemed to have strengthened and radicalized them. He seemed to have lost the relevance and strength in his words, arousing this so true and disappointing statement from a “yellow vest”: “he talks about the end of the world while we talk about the end of the month.” Not to mention the shilly-shallying, early last week, between his Prime Minister and him, on the question of whether the carbon tax was “deferred”, “suspended” or “canceled”. And this is not yet the disastrous statement of Richard Ferrand (President of the National Assembly) to AFP on Thursday night, saying that the French Président was not taking the floor on the conflict “in order to not add fuel to the fire”. Macronia seemed to have forgotten the fundamentals of political communication.
Well, in fact , the President has largely fulfilled his mission and achieved his objectives this time. Unlike previous three times, his speech on Monday night marked a break or at least triggered a change in trend.
It can be seen from the first polls after his speech: his support goes from 20 to 40%, while that of the yellow vests from 80 to 60% and the measures announced by the President are considered positive by a great majority of the people questioned even if still a large number of them consider that they are insufficient. More significantly, the police counted on Tuesday 1,000 “yellow vests” on the roundabout in contrast to 10,000 of eight days before. The tone of the comments from the intermediary bodies and the media has regained some moderation.
How to explain this success? For reasons of form and substance.
A good speech in form. In a calm and reassuring voice, Emmanuel Macron read a well written speech with the help of a teleprompter, without ever being arrogant or of too much “intellectualism”, for which he was often criticized. He knew how to be concise despite his natural inclination while covering all aspect of the crisis. No deviation was allowed and there was none.
Contrary to what we often learn in communication schools, it is sometimes advisable in this kind of situation to stick to the text prepared and to this end to read it, even with the help of a prompter.
A good speech in substance. Macron has developed five messages which allow him to deal with all the aspects of the situation:
- A call for back the Republic’s order and a message of firmness welcomed by the public particularly after the violence in the two previous weekends, including the mess made at the Arc de Triomphe, a real offense to the commemoration of soldiers who died for the Republic and therefore in this case, it is astonishing to see that the act has not sparked more indignation or condemnation,
- An announcement of significant but reasonable measures to the benefit of the disadvantaged: increase in the SMIC via employment allowances, withdraw of CSG (general social contribution) taxation for small pensions, de-taxation of overtime hours, possibility given to the companies to grant exceptional tax-free year-end bonuses, (almost) all underprivileged categories were covered,
- A mea-culpa made necessary by the personal hostility he provoked among the “Yellow Vests” , in clear but firm terms in respect of his position,
- A brave defense of his wealth tax reform in the name of the need to develop productive investment and enhance the attractiveness of our country,
- An emphasis on the future national debate, which should lead to a re-founding of social contract, in terms that are sufficiently general so that everyone is able to find his “grist for the grain” without reducing the room for manoeuvre for the executive and its ability to adapt the content of future discussions according to the change of circumstances.
A real success that does not, however, guarantee a serene future.
After his speech, Emmanuel Macron took back control of the situation but still has at least two major problems to deal with.
First of all, he confirmed his aim to introduce at the beginning of 2019, three fundamental reforms on pensions, unemployment benefits and Civil Service, which do not necessarily concern the current “yellow vests” but will also be new occasions to arouse protest… All the more so when the main left-wing leaders did not hesitate to stress, after the President’s speech, that ” struggles are paying back” and when the European elections are approaching.
Furthermore, the personal hostility shown by a significant part of the opinion towards the President, becoming the symbol of all French “social fractures” – rich / poor, Paris / Province, metropolis /peri-urban and rural areas, Bobos / “Deep France”, young and beautiful / all the others – obviously acts as a brake to the implementation of his plan to transform our society.
What to do?
In the first place, being more eager to launch and lead the big public debate rather than to announce the detailed content of next reforms. It is necessary to launch the reforms to avoid being resigned, at the same time it would not be wise to be willing to go too fast. Wait until the end of the European elections to announce measures too “disruptive”.
Secondly, taking advantage of this national debate to renew the dialogue with his citizens, while avoiding all the errors made in the previous months. For example, organizing non-publicized working meetings with participants in the big debate to hear and discuss their conclusions and proposals. Jacques Chirac, credited in autumn 1994 with 6% of voting intentions, crisscrossed the country with a small notebook in hand, to collect the suggestions of different socio-professional categories in the context of “tupperware” meetings. As a result, he was elected six months later thanks to his claim on the necessity to reduce “social fractures” in France.
In short, it is for Emmanuel Macron to find back not only the foundation of his candidacy, the “at the same time” via a better balance between measures in favor of economic growth and those in favor of the more disadvantaged people, but also the meaning of his initial approach, which gained for him first support in the summer of 2016, when he met French people face to face, with now limitations and adaptations that his status of President of the Republic imposes on him.