Macron’s ‘year of national cohesion’ ends in tatters
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Macron’s ‘year of national cohesion’ ends in tatters

More than 147,000 members of the security forces will be deployed to New Year’s Eve celebrations across France as gilets jaunes anti-government protesters were expected on the Champs Élysées in Paris and Emmanuel Macron prepared a televised address on his plans for 2019 amid plummeting approval ratings and continuing unrest.

Tens of thousands of police officers, military personnel, civil security guards and firefighters will be stationed in major cities in part due to the ongoing terrorist threat after a gunman killed five people at Strasbourg’s Christmas market earlier this month. But security has also been reinforced in Paris and cities including Bordeaux and Nice in case of surprise anti-government protests by the gilets jaunes – or “yellow vests” – movement.

Anti-government protesters are continuing to barricade roundabouts and motorway tollbooths and still come to major cities each Saturday to campaign for better pay and conditions and against what they see as Macron’s arrogance and disconnection from real life and his tax policies in favour of the rich. Regular protests in Paris and other cities have led to violent skirmishes with police, car-burnings and attacks on shops and banks.

About 300,000 tourists and revellers are expected on the Champs Élysées on New Year’s Eve for Paris’s annual light show to be projected on to the Arc de Triomphe, which was the target of protesters earlier this month. A security cordon will be set up around the area from 4pm with security guards and police checking those who enter. Some gilets jaunes demonstrators have called for peaceful, non-violent protests in Paris but it was uncertain what form these might take.

Over the past decade, hundreds of cars have been set alight on the edge of French cities on New Year’s Eve – for example, in Strasbourg or Lyon – in what has become a kind of end of year ritual. But officials said security services were on alert for unannounced anti-government protests in order to prevent violence.

Paris’s police chief, Michel Delpeuch, said on French TV that revellers should continue with their plans to celebrate. “There is no reason not to go to the Champs Élysées,” he said. “Everything has been done to ensure it goes well. Security is not the enemy of celebration.”

Macron returned to Paris to pre-record his traditional 8pm new year’s TV address after a four-day break on the French Riviera, where some gilets jaunes demonstrators had tried to access the grounds of the presidential fort to stage a protest.

A man holds a French flag during a gilets jaunes protest in Paris on Saturday. Photograph: Bruno Thevenin/SOPA Images/Rex/Shutterstock

The centrist president is under pressure to make clear in his short TV address that he has heard protester’s concerns, while also convincing his shrinking support base that he will plough on with promised structural reforms and changes to the French social protection system.

Policies planned for 2019 include the sensitive issue of a pensions overhaul. European elections in May will prove a test for his party, La République En Marche. Macron is struggling to show he can still deliver on fixing France’s mass unemployment problem and making businesses more competitive amid anti-government protests and a growing sense that ordinary French people are not benefiting from his policies.

Macron said in his New Year’s Eve speech a year ago: “In my view, 2018 will be the year of national cohesion.” But instead he ends the year with a nation that is deeply divided, where there are regular violent street protests against his presidency, and with his approval ratings having dropped from about 40% to 20% in the course of 2018.

Although he promised gilets jaunes demonstrators a costly raft of measures earlier this month, including speeding up increases to the minimum wage, the protests against him are not over.

He is also once again under pressure over the ongoing scandal of his disgraced former personal bodyguard and security aide, Alexandre Benalla, who was sacked in the summer after he was filmed acting violently towards protesters.

Benalla’s continued use of diplomatic passports prompted outrage and an investigation this week, and he claimed he had remained in personal contact with Macron. The affair has proved damaging in part because of the Élysée’s botched handling of it, giving an impression of a cover-up.

One of Macron’s main promises when he was elected in 2017 against the far-right Marine Le Pen was that he would do politics differently and in a more moral, transparent way, avoiding the cosy complacency of old political parties. But he ends 2018 with protesters clamouring that nothing has changed.

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