PARIS—The grassroots social uprising that’s taken hold across France in the past three weeks is not an ideal crisis for Emmanuel Macron.
The youthful French president excels at lofty, often abstract, rhetoric; at symbolic gestures; at grand moments, such as the one last month for Armistice Day, when he united most leaders of the free world and gave a speech beneath the Arc de Triomphe—a monument damaged by unruly protesters last weekend.
What Macron lacks is a common touch, an ability to charm citizens and make them feel they’re part of the story. So it’s not entirely surprising that a nascent, leaderless, and sometimes violent popular revolt, the “yellow vest” movement, has caused the first political crisis of his presidency and its first actual defeat. On Tuesday, Macron’s government backed down on one of its key policies, announcing a six-month moratorium on a diesel tax that was supposed to go into effect in January and was aimed at reducing France’s reliance on fossil fuels.
A cornerstone of the French president’s efforts to fight climate change through far-sighted legislation, the levy had met the ire of citizens, especially in car-dependent exurbs and rural areas without public transportation. Diesel now costs about €1.5 a liter in France, or about $6.50 a gallon, and the proposed tax would raise that even higher. The protesters have said that whereas Macron is focused on the end of the world, they are simply focused on the end of the month. And so for the past three Saturdays they’ve taken to streets and roadways across France, wearing the yellow vests that all motorists are required to own, in a series of escalating protests.