Mrs Buzyn, health and solidarity minister, said in a meeting with yellow vest activists in the southern French town of Lozère: “You have the feeling that we’re trying to bury your heads in the sand … when in fact, we’re just trying to help you. We want to act in your best interests, and it is our duty to listen to you.” One yellow vest, Eric Lecuyer, told the health minister that the “lack of dialogue” between the government and protesters was “stoking anger,” while another denounced the young leader’s “haughty behaviour and arrogance problem”. The Macron government is struggling to defuse the widespread anger driving the yellow vest demonstrations.
The yellow vest movement – so-called because of the high-visibility safety jackets all French motorists must carry and worn by protesters at rallies – began mid-November with the aim of drawing attention to the squeeze on household budgets caused by rising fuel prices.
But it has since morphed into a broader, sometimes violent rebellion against Mr Macron’s liberal economic policies and perceived elitism.
And with little sign its concessions are calming protesters’ nerves, the government is preparing for a new round of possible unrest on Saturday.
Announced in December, Mr Macron’s conciliatory measures included scrapping the planned fuel taxes that sparked the unrest, wage increases for the poorest workers and a tax cut for cash-strapped pensioners. He also said workers would no longer have to pay taxes on overtime pay.
The measures will leave a 10billion euro (£8.96bn) hole in the Treasury’s finances, pushing France back over the EU deficit limit of three per cent of national output and dealing a blow to Mr Macron’s reformist credentials.
Faced with worsening protest violence, the government announced this week plans to introduce legislation to toughen sanctions on undeclared protests.
It could model the new law on existing legislation against football hooligans whereby individuals can be banned from stadiums. The law could be introduced as soon as February.
But while Mr Macron has had the unwavering support of his ministers, other senior officials have been more vocal in their criticism of his at-times clumsy handling of the worsening social crisis.
Gérard Larcher, the conservative president of the French Senate, said on Thursday that the 41-year-old centrist had to pay more attention to the public’s anger and to the wave of violence sweeping across France.
“(Mr Macron) must listen to the country. He must immediately put a stop to his top-down governing style,” Mr Larcher told France’s Europe 1 radio.
The senior lawmaker also said that he had “warned” Mr Macron a social crisis was brewing and was on the verge of erupting “months ago,” but that the president had turned a deaf ear to his advice.
The protests, which mark the most acute political crisis of Mr Macron’s 20-month presidency, have badly dented his popularity.
A Kantar Sofres-one point poll published on Thursday by Le Figaro magazine showed that only 22 per cent of French people approve of their president’s actions, compared with 75 per cent who said they disapprove.
The poll of 1,000 people, carried out online on January 3-7, asked French voters whether they “trusted” Mr Macron.