Can the Notre-Dame fire freeze the ‘Yellow Vests’ uprising?

Yellow Vests in action. Central Paris. Photo by Norbu Gyachung on Unsplash

Can the fire that partially destroyed Notre-Dame act as a game changer in the French socio-political scene? Probably yes, but let’s see to the forces in motion, the national grief and the anger of the left behind. Luckily on the Seine river islet, in the heart of Paris, the eight hundred year monument still stands.

It’s the apex of the Gothic ecclesiastical architecture in Europe and has become a rock-solid reference for the entire European civilization. For the French people, despite their traditional resistance to religion, Notre-Dame acts as a symbol of their high spirituality and confirms the nation’s sense of being the European protagonists.

Notre-Dame is located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, named after the Latin speaking scholars who flocked there from all over Europe in the medieval times. In the modern era, the Latin Quarter attracted colossal literature figures like Ernest Hemingway and painters like Picasso, confirming the title of Paris as the ‘City of Light’.
Notre-Dame and the near neighborhood have been the solid base for the emergence of Paris as the avant garde of the western civilization from the medieval times onwards. The ‘Enlightenment’ of Europe took place just there.

What about today?

The special position of Notre-Dame in the French psyche, may then turn the latest martyrdom of the monument into a socio-political game changer. It may decisively touch on the country’s directions and even her position in Europe. President Emmanuel Macron sensed that right away.

In his address to the nation after the fire he avoided his usual references about reuniting the European Union. It was France and Notre-Dame all the way. Macron’s skillful handling of the whole affair catapulted his popularity to levels prior to last November, when the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement erupted. The same polls gave a 54% response against the movement which ‘must now be put on hold’ as worded in the poll.

It wasn’t though. Last Saturday, in the major French cities some 10,000 protesters continued their rallies for the 24th weekend. The government mobilized 60,000 police to confront them. More than one hundred citizens were arrested and grave injuries were reported. To be reminded, the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement started in the suburbs of the major cities, after an increase of taxes on fuel. It developed into the regular Saturdays’ nationwide protests, but lately has lost its initial vigor.

Macron’s chance

By a telling coincidence, Macron was supposed to deliver a speech to the nation with more concessions for the poorer households, just when the Notre-Dame fire erupted. Some weeks ago, he withdrew the tax increases on fuel. According to press reports, this Thursday, Macron is expected to address the nation once more, announcing more measures in favor of the less privileged.

Last Saturday, though, protesters held banners saying “Millions for Notre-Dame, what about for us, the poor?” This was in reference to the avalanche of donations to the tune of €1 billion from some immensely rich French to rebuild Notre–Dame.

Tax reductions

It remains to be seen, then, if some more tax concessions for the less privileged will allow Macron to continue with his neo-liberal economic reforms. This program has met nationwide opposition which was triggered last November by the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement, engulfing at the time around 60% of the population.

The concessions that Macron now plans to announce are tailored to confront and possibly overturn exactly the socio-political situation that the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement has created. His tacit handling of the Notre-Dame catastrophe may help him in this direction.

In times of national catastrophes societies tend to support the government. At the moment Macron counts on that.

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