Monday was supposed to mark the beginning of Emmanuel Macron’s second act.
The French President, under siege for five months by yellow-vested demonstrators, had set aside April 15 for a major speech during which he was to unveil a panoply of economic, social and democratic reforms aimed at answering the grievances the protest movement has raised.
Barely 20 minutes before he was to take to the air on Monday evening, Mr. Macron was forced to postpone his speech as flames engulfed Notre-Dame de Paris. For now, at least, the tragedy has united France in grief (at the damage done to the 850-year-old Gothic wonder), and in gratitude (toward the firefighters who risked their lives to save the cathedral from total destruction). The whole country is behind Mr. Macron in his vow to rebuild Notre-Dame.
But the postponement of the speech aimed at rebooting Mr. Macron’s presidency threatens to upend the meticulously crafted political strategy he has spent weeks working to perfect. Speculation about the measures the President would unveil in his speech had dominated the French media in recent days, raising expectations for a major overhaul of the tax system.
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe last week remarked, at the end of three months of public consultations sparked by the yellow-vest protests, that French voters felt “an immense fiscal exasperation” as ever-higher taxes eroded their purchasing power. “Our country has reached a form of zero-tax tolerance,” Mr. Philippe said. “We must lower taxes – and fast.”
France remains the developed world’s tax champion. At 46.2 per cent of gross domestic product in 2017, French taxes were the the highest among the 34 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, up from 45.5 per cent in 2016. The OECD average in 2017 was 34.2 per cent of GDP. In Canada, taxes accounted for 32.2 per cent of GDP in 2017, compared with 27.1 per cent in the United States and 33.3 per cent in Britain.
Often violent yellow-vest demonstrations have been held for 22 consecutive Saturdays since the movement was launched in November to protest an increase in a carbon tax on diesel fuel and gasoline. In his first attempt to stanch the protests, Mr. Macron cancelled the carbon-tax increase for 2019 and announced a €100 ($150) monthly income supplement for those earning the minimum wage. But it was not enough to satisfy the mostly working-class protesters, who have called for across-the-board tax cuts for everyone except the wealthy.
That has left Mr. Macron with a big dilemma. He earned the nickname “president of the rich” after eliminating a wealth tax on financial assets that had been decried as a drag on investment. The tax now applies only to real estate assets, and at a lower rate than before. Yellow-vest protesters have called for a revival of the old wealth tax, known as the impôt sur la fortune (ISF), though Mr. Macron has insisted doing so would hurt France’s competitiveness.
One possible response to the yellow vests (known in French as gilets jaunes) could involve a reduction in public pension contributions and premiums for employment insurance and other social programs. They are also the highest in the OECD. But cutting them would force the French government to run even bigger budget deficits, violating European Union rules.
France already has among the highest marginal income tax rates, and one of the most progressive tax systems, in the developed world. In 2012, then-Socialist president François Hollande tried to impose a 75-per-cent tax rate on incomes above €1-million. Prominent French businesspeople and celebrities, including LVMH controlling shareholder Bernard Arnault and actor Gérard Depardieu, announced they would seek residency outside France to avoid paying the tax and a French court subsequently struck the tax measure as “confiscatory.”
Mr. Macron, an ex-Socialist who briefly served as Mr. Hollande’s economy minister, has taken a much more business-friendly approach than his former boss. But it has earned him criticism on the left, including from other ex-Socialists who have joined La République en Marche (LREM), the political party he created to launch his successful 2017 bid for the French presidency.
That makes it hard for Mr. Macron to reduce taxes on the wealthy or corporations, despite pressure to do so from his own Prime Minister and economic ministers, all former members of the Les Républicains, France’s main centre-right party. Reports of a power struggle between the left- and right-wings of Mr. Macron’s party had left the entire country eagerly awaiting Mr. Macron’s Monday-night address. That speech has now been put off indefinitely.
The delay could deprive Mr. Macron of the momentum he sought in the run-up to next month’s European Parliament elections, which pit his party against the far-right National Rally led by Marine Le Pen. She is campaigning on a protectionist platform and promising even more relief for the working class, including a reduction of the retirement age to 60 from 62.
Now, the fire at Notre-Dame has further thickened the political plot. It could even bring down the curtain on Mr. Macron’s second act.