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French President Emmanuel Macron Faces His Biggest Political Crisis Yet


France's President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest political crisis yet. A grassroots protest movement known as the yellow vests began three weeks ago against a gas tax. The demonstrations have grown increasingly violent, and now this leaderless movement is threatening Macron's presidency.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent this report from Paris.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Tonight, workers were still sweeping up the glass in front of a shuttered cafe a block from the Arc de Triomphe. Cars were burned and stores looted in this upscale neighborhood.

Forty-five-year-old Valerie Bonhomme, who lives here, says she's never seen the country at such an impasse.

VALERIE BONHOMME: (Through interpreter) It's sad for the country that we've gotten to this point. We need a way out, but I don't know how the president's going to do it. There's a lot of hatred, and people don't respect each other anymore. We've tipped into another mentality, and it's ugly.

BEARDSLEY: Just off the plane from the G-20 in Buenos Aires, a grave-looking Emmanuel Macron walked around this neighborhood Sunday morning after the rioting. Some people on the streets applauded him, but others booed, and there were chants for Macron to resign.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in French).

BEARDSLEY: Thierry Arnaud, a political analyst with BFM Television, says Macron woke up too late.

THIERRY ARNAUD: I think he's clearly facing the deepest crisis of his presidency by far, and you could even make the case that it's the deepest, deepest political and social crisis France has faced in the past 10 or 20 years.

BEARDSLEY: Many are wondering how it got to this in just three weeks. Some analysts say the crisis has been a long time coming and the gas tax was just the last straw.

The yellow vest protest movement rose up from rural areas and small towns where people struggle to make ends meet - places that are worlds away from France's richer cities.



BEARDSLEY: Last week, in a televised address, Macron confidently told the nation he would not sway from his plans for the tax. He didn't even mention the yellow vest protesters by name.


BEARDSLEY: Then came Saturday's rioting. One-hundred-sixty-two people were hospitalized in Paris and more than 400 arrested. The interior minister said 136,000 people demonstrated across France. The government is under pressure to end the crisis before next weekend, when the yellow vest movement has threatened to demonstrate in Paris again.

Today, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met opposition leaders, including the head of the far-right party, Marine Le Pen.

MARINE LE PEN: (Through interpreter) I told the prime minister only a couple of hours remain for him to put an end to the strategy of confrontation chosen by Emmanuel Macron for the last three weeks now.

BEARDSLEY: The yellow vest movement now has more demands than just dropping the gas tax. Political analyst Thierry Arnaud says Macron will have to concede if he wants to end the crisis.

ARNAUD: Unless and until he says that the gas tax is not going to happen and he makes other concessions with respects to other taxes. Unless he says at least that, nothing else he can say will be received and will be audible for those people wearing those yellow vests.

BEARDSLEY: Representatives from the yellow vest movement were supposed to meet with the prime minister tomorrow, but late today, they canceled after several of the representatives received death threats from militants within their own movement. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.


Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.