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Protests Threaten Macron's Campaign to Remake France

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12/09/2018 | 05:38pm EDT

By Noemie Bisserbe and Stacy Meichtry

PARIS -- President Emmanuel Macron is facing unprecedented pressure to roll back his overhauls of the French economy after a fourth consecutive weekend of "yellow vest" protests unleashed another torrent of rioting despite stepped up security.

The Macron government deployed the full weight of France's security apparatus on Saturday, but it wasn't enough to contain a movement that authorities said mobilized 136,000 protesters. They included droves of rioters who waged pitched battles with police in the heart of the French capital and other major cities, lighting fires, smashing storefronts and leading to 135 injuries and more than 1,000 arrests.

The weekend violence left Mr. Macron cornered like at no other time in his presidency. Unable to control protesters through security measures, Mr. Macron is now facing calls to placate the masses by reversing course on his signature agenda: making France more economically competitive through sweeping changes to its labor market, taxes, public spending and pension system.

The 40-year-old former investment banker is scheduled to address the nation on Monday evening, officials said. Many French are calling for a shift in both policy and tone that discards the top-down leadership style that has marked his first year-and-a-half in office.

Though Mr. Macron doesn't have to face voters himself again until 2022, panic has spread through the ranks of his allies and supporters in the National Assembly, where he holds a commanding majority. Lawmakers who were handpicked by Mr. Macron to run for his party have provided unflinching support for his agenda until now. But they are starting to question whether Mr. Macron's drive to turn France's workforce, which is cosseted by job protections and generous social benefits, into upwardly mobile go-getters has run aground.

"France isn't a startup. People need empathy, dialogue," said Patrick Vignal, a lawmaker who is in Mr. Macron's Republic on the Move party.

The yellow vest, or gilet jaune, protesters -- so named because of the reflective safety vest some of them wear -- are demanding that Mr. Macron do something to repair what they say is an erosion of their purchasing power. In rural France, which is home to many of the protesters, households are struggling to make rent on monthly disposable incomes as low as EUR1,500 (about $1,700).

Lawmakers like Mr. Vignal are pressing the government to announce measures that swiftly put money in the pocket of middle class and working class people. Proposals include cutting taxes that retirees pay on pensions; increasing the minimum wage; boosting social welfare payments; and persuading banks to stop charging overdraft fees that add up to billions, Mr. Vignal said.

Mr. Macron's administration has already delayed a fuel-tax increase that sparked the protests, and French officials say the government is weighing another demand: the reinstatement of a decades-old wealth tax that Mr. Macron abolished as one of his first acts as president in a bid to stimulate investment.

Earlier this year, Mr. Macron increased a tax that all French people pay to fund the country's social security system in order to create fiscal space to deliver a deeper cut on payroll taxes. That benefited salaried employees while penalizing other forms of income, such as pensions. The government also decided last summer to stop pegging pension payments to the rate of inflation, a measure that takes effect at the start of next year.

"Macron taxes the poor and gives to the rich. It's totally unfair," said Serge Mairesse, a 62-year-old retired Air France worker who lives in Aubervilliers, just north of Paris. Mr. Mairesse joined the protest in Paris on Saturday with the aim of reaching the Élysée Palace to "register his anger."

One challenge Mr. Macron faces is that many gilets jaunes believe he is cut from different cloth, incapable of relating to their struggles. The president is from the provincial town of Amiens, north of Paris, but he was groomed by elite academies in the capital before becoming a deal maker at Rothschild & Cie. He uses antiquated idioms in his public speeches, and he has garnered a reputation for gaffes when interacting with voters.

Mr. Macron's ministers fanned out on French media on Sunday, pushing back against his critics, including President Trump, who weighed in on the protest with a Saturday post on Twitter that falsely claimed that French protesters were chanting "We Want Trump!"

"I say to Donald Trump, and the president told him too: We don't take part in American debates, let us live our life as a nation," Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told French radio. He added that video of people chanting "We want Trump" was actually filmed during a Trump visit to London several months ago.

Many protesters say they will settle for nothing less than Mr. Macron's resignation, and those who have attempted to negotiate with the government say they have received threats over social media from more extreme members of the movement.

Polls show that support for the demonstrations is strongest among people who identify with political parties led by Marine Le Pen of the far right and Jean-Luc Melenchon, a left-wing firebrand.

On Sunday, some protesters were already organizing another round of protests on Dec. 15. A group created a Facebook page for an event located at the Élysée Palace titled, "Macron's farewell party." More than 5,200 people had already marked themselves as going. Another 39,000 said they were "interested."

"What we want above all is respect," said Benjamin Cauchy, who is a spokesman for a group of protesters and who met with French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Friday. Mr. Cauchy is calling for constitutional changes allowing French people to directly propose laws and hold referendums on proposed reforms.

The stark economic divide between city centers and the blighted suburbs at their edges, known as banlieues, is also working against Mr. Macron. Bands of young men have seized on the weekend protests and riots as a means of distracting police, allowing them to maraud at night, smashing through shop windows and looting everything from iPhones to pharmaceuticals.

Paris went into lockdown Saturday as protesters arrived, with shops boarding their windows up and down the city's celebrated boulevards. Clad in heavy riot gear, police advanced down the avenues flanked by armored cars. Other officers conducted random searches to confiscate any objects that could be used as weapons.

Protesters responded by prying cobblestones from the Champs-Élysées and hurling them at police. They also stripped off shop-window boarding to build barricades.

The clashes didn't produce the level of violence that erupted last weekend, when protesters defaced the Arc de Triomphe and rioted across some of the city's most upscale neighborhoods. Still, the protests paralyzed the capital and other big cities at a time when the holiday shopping traditionally kicks into high gear. Tourists caught on the street took refuge inside of cafes and restaurants that barricaded their doors and windows.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called the protests "a catastrophe for our economy."

Write to Noemie Bisserbe at noemie.bisserbe@wsj.com and Stacy Meichtry at stacy.meichtry@wsj.com

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WILL GROUP, INC. -1.22% 648 End-of-day quote.-48.24%
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