NICE: France’s Emmanuel Macron drew fire on Monday (Mar 25) after criticising an elderly “yellow vest” protester who was badly injured during a demonstration in Nice at the weekend.
Macron has repeatedly been accused of lacking empathy and harbouring an arrogant, dismissive attitude towards ordinary people who complain about having difficulties making ends meet.
Last year he famously told an unemployed gardener, who complained about not finding work after sending out hundreds of applications, that he only had to “cross the road” to find a job.
He also told elderly citizens protesting over pension cuts that the French should moan less, and described people who took to the streets over his reforms to the labour code as “slackers”.
The target of his latest comments was Genevieve Legay, a 73-year-old anti-capitalism activist and grandmother, who suffered a fractured skull on Saturday after riot police charged anti-government demonstrators in the Riviera city of Nice.
Nice prosecutor Jean-Michel Pretre is leading an investigation into the incident. He said Legay appeared to have hit her head on a bollard as the police were trying to prevent protesters from entering an area declared off-limits to demonstrators.
Macron, who was in the area on Sunday for a meeting with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, told the Nice-Matin newspaper that he wished Legay a “speedy recovery, and perhaps a degree of wisdom.”
“When one is fragile and risks being shoved, one does not go to places that are declared off-limits and one does not put oneself in a situation like that,” he told the daily.
The remarks were immediately criticised by Legay’s family, which has accused police of using excessive force to disperse the protesters and filed a legal complaint against the authorities.
“You don’t criticise someone who is on a hospital bed,” said the family’s lawyer Arie Alimi, calling Macron’s remarks “crass and insensitive”.
The hard-left France Unbowed and far-right National Rally, which have been vying to tap support for the “yellow vests”, also rounded on the president.
“Mr Macron, our Genevieve of Nice does not need your lessons in wisdom. You could learn a lot from her. She stands up for the common good. And you, in the name of what are you hitting her?” France Unbowed’s firebrand leader Jean-Luc Melenchon tweeted.
National Rally spokesman Sebastien Chenu, for his part, said it was evidence that Macron “doesn’t like the French”.
Before being injured Legay, a regional spokeswoman for the anti-capitalist group Attac, was interviewed by France’s CNews network on the central square where demonstrators had gathered.
“We’re here to say we have the right to protest,” said the bespectacled, white-haired activist, who bore a rainbow flag marked Paix (Peace in French), adding that by talking with the police she believed she had already “touched their hearts”.
Asked whether she feared for her safety, she shrugged and said: “I’m 73 years old, what can happen to me? I’m fighting for my grandchildren, I’ve been campaigning for 50 years”.
The video of the interview was widely shared on social media, where her stance elicited widespread sympathy but also criticism from those who considered her irresponsible.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, a senior member of the main opposition Republican party, noted that Legay “could easily have demonstrated … where it was permitted”.
France’s fifth-biggest city was one of around a dozen cities, including Paris, to ban the “yellow vests” from demonstrating in central areas on Saturday after major riots in Paris a week earlier.
The protesters, who have been holding weekly nationwide demonstrations over inequality since November, complained that the ban in Nice was unwarranted, given that previous such protests in the city had passed off peacefully.