French president Emmanuel Macron’s speech scored as many viewers last week as his country’s World Cup football victory did during the summer. But while the gilets jaunes “yellow vest” protests were smaller this weekend, it remains to be seen whether his 13-minute speech will be a turning point.
Around 66,000 protesters turned out yesterday (Dec. 15), the fifth week of unrest. That compares with about 125,000 a week before. That’s after a record 23 million people reportedly tuned in to watch Macron’s speech, which was recorded from the opulent Élysée Palace on Dec. 10.
After weeks of country-wide protests—sparked by an increase in fuel taxes that morphed into a broader bundle of working- and middle-class grievances—Macron retreated (paywall) on several policies: he indicated there would be essentially a €100 ($113) a month increase for minimum wage earners next year, tax-free overtime and Christmas bonus pay for some workers, and a backing off of higher social charges on smaller pensions. The government had already canceled the fuel-duty that ignited the mobs, which had become increasingly violent.
Macron appeared only slightly more humble, acknowledging that some of his words may have been hurtful in the past. The speech by the 40-year-old leader, criticized as a president for the rich, might have been seen as a more of a shift if it hadn’t taken place from the gold-decorated presidential office known as the salon doré.
Macron has insisted he won’t back down on the drastic scaling back of the country’s wealth tax that went into effect this year. Critics of the tax say it was routinely avoided and drove away investment while raising little money. Macron also signaled that he will stick to his labor market reforms, which may hearten business leaders while discouraging supporters from the left-side of the political spectrum.
Questions remain, such as where Macron will find the extra €10 billion or so needed to pay for his recent promises, which are expected to push the country’s budget deficit above the 3% limit set by EU rules. And while the size of recent protests appears to be thinning, more than 70% of French people at least initially approved of the movement, signaling the public may still be on their side. It’s possible that Macron’s speech convinced some activists that the government is listening—or it could have been the lousy weather. Either way, it seems unlikely that the uprising is ready to blow over.