What Trump Got Wrong About the Riots in France

President Donald Trump seemed to respond with glee this week as widespread protests in France forced President Emmanuel Macron to postpone his proposed carbon tax, but experts say Trump misrepresented the reasons behind the demonstrations.

France's most serious eruption of civil disobedience in years has seen Paris and other major cities blanketed in smoke and tear gas. The protests began with a group known as the gilets jaunes—meaning "yellow jackets," after the vests they wear—railing against the carbon tax, which would have significantly increased the cost of gas for motorists. As the demonstrations continued, however, they morphed into a wider movement against Macron. 

“I am glad that my friend @EmmanuelMacron and the protestors in Paris have agreed with the conclusion I reached two years ago,” Trump tweeted late Tuesday.

The U.S. president went on to blame the Paris climate agreement—a 2015 multinational deal to limit global carbon emissions from which he withdrew the U.S. in June 2017—for the proposed tax and protests.

“The Paris Agreement is fatally flawed because it raises the price of energy for responsible countries while whitewashing some of the worst polluters in the world,” Trump wrote. “American taxpayers—and American workers—shouldn’t pay to clean up others countries’ pollution.”

Read more: Macron declares dramatic u-turn on carbon tax amid weekend of riots and plummeting popularity

Trump also retweeted a post by the founder of right-wing student group Turning Point USA, Charlie Kirk, which claimed—without evidence—that demonstrators were chanting, “We want Trump.”

But the protests have spiraled into something far bigger than the carbon tax. Many protesters consider Macron’s policy yet another attack on some of France’s most vulnerable people in favor of the country’s wealthy elite. Some critics even suggested that the carbon tax is designed to cover the losses incurred by Macron’s tax cuts for wealthy citizens.

The 40-year-old came to power in 2017, leading his nascent Republic on the Move party to electoral success. However, some analysts have said many citizens chose him in the runoff with Marine Le Pen simply to vote against the far-right National Front party leader. 

Macron “inherited a fractured political system and also inherited a growing middle class that feels very alienated and frustrated with the political system,” Georgina Wright, a freelance analyst formerly of the Chatham House think tank, told Newsweek.

Though Macron quickly became an influential figure abroad after his election, he has been plagued by plummeting domestic approval ratings. The pro-business policies that he promised would spawn a “startup nation” and warned could be painful in the short term have angered many French people already struggling with the tide of globalization, and some experts say he has failed to connect with the public. 

“A lot of people claim he is very disconnected from the French electorate,” noted Wright. “It’s his way or the highway, and people are becoming tired of it.”

“The gilets jaunes are a group who earn enough that they can’t claim benefits but don’t earn enough to make ends meet,” Wright explained. “It's no longer a class division…. This is a group that feels very frustrated by the political system and feels let down.”

For many French citizens, the fuel tax was the last straw for the “president of the rich.” Residents of suburbs and rural areas rely heavily on cars to commute to work and complete daily tasks. Macron’s proposed carbon tax—which especially penalizes diesel vehicles and older cars—would have restricted their freedom. With no corresponding increase in public transport options, these communities would be left at a loss. And for people working in the transportation and delivery industries, such a tax would dramatically affect their cost of doing business.

“When Macron came to power, he said, 'I will be a president for all,'” recalled Wright. “This is [the gilets jaunes] saying, ‘Well, you're not.’”

The Economist’s Paris bureau chief, Sophie Pedder, acknowledged on Twitter that Macron's perceived elitism has fueled the protests. Demonstrators “are angry at Macron’s early tax cuts for the better-off, and a perception that he is indifferent to ordinary people’s concerns,” she wrote. 

But Pedder cautioned against thinking of the gilets jaunes as a group with a single motivation. Those the streets are drawn from across the political spectrum, and not all of them are protesting for the same reason.

“The gilets jaunes do not have a single demand. Some want the green tax on fuel to be overturned. Others want the president to resign, and the national assembly dissolved, in order to elect 'real representatives of the people,'” Pedder wrote.

Much of the violence has been blamed on far-left and far-right groups reportedly attempting to hijack the unrest. These groups have been seen fighting running street battles against each other.

“French society is fracturing,” Wright told Newsweek, “people are growing frustrated, and divisions are not only across class, which was a key determinant for a very long time.”

Emmanuel Macron Paris Gilets Jaunes Riots French President Emmanuel Macron (C) is pictured walking in a street of Paris, France, on December 2, 2018, surveying the damage causes by the gilets jaunes protests. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP/Getty Images

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