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Yellow Vest Protesters Still Waiting For France's President To Respond To Demands

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

French president Emmanuel Macron was due to address the nation this past Monday; he was set to respond to demands from yellow vest protesters and others about social and economic woes. But Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire the same evening. Macron has called for unity after the blaze, but the public's demands aren't going away. From Paris, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Outside Notre Dame, both the French and tourists continue to make the pilgrimage to the cathedral. A father and daughter, Philippe and Isabelle le Bourgeois, and her two young sons are visiting. I put it to them that many people seem to be united in grief and speak of Notre Dame as being a national treasure, an emblem, a unifier in a divided France.

PHILIPPE LE BOURGEOIS: Yes, it is, in a way that it's symbolic of our country.

QUIST-ARCTON: But is it a unifier? Does Notre Dame bring people together?

P. LE BOURGEOIS: Yes, certainly.

QUIST-ARCTON: You're looking up at Notre Dame.

ISABELLE LE BOURGEOIS: This is happening in a very bad period. Here we are feeling it more deeply because we are hit more concretely. And Notre Dame is just an additional blow to our civilization and for our culture.

QUIST-ARCTON: Politics was meant to be top of the agenda for President Emmanuel Macron this week, addressing the French people about the problems facing the country. But he had to abandon a keynote address to the nation and instead attempt to rally the French and try to raise people's spirits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

QUIST-ARCTON: Macron said France had faced challenges like the Notre Dame fire in the past and had overcome them and gone on to perform better. So has the cathedral blaze given the French leader breathing space as he again prepares to face the yellow vest protesters who vow they'll be back on the streets of France tomorrow? Christophe Barbier is an editorialist and commentator with leading French news magazine L'Express and the BFM TV network.

CHRISTOPHE BARBIER: The tragedy of Notre Dame was not a tragedy because nobody died. And I think these days just gave to Emmanuel Macron a short breath, a short peace to prepare the next part of his mandate.

QUIST-ARCTON: Barbier says two years into his term of office, yellow vest demonstrators and the French public in general are waiting for Emmanuel Macron to deliver the goods, notwithstanding the cathedral fire.

BARBIER: People will say, what about us? Notre Dame is very important. We have to rebuild. But what about us? What about our banking accounts? What about our daily problems?

QUIST-ARCTON: Precisely the questions demonstrators, mainly teachers opposed to a planned new educational law in France, were asking during a protest in Paris Thursday.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Speaking French).

QUIST-ARCTON: The teachers say Macron has a lot to answer for and has let French people down, which has nothing to do with Notre Dame. The yellow vests protesters say they respect what the cathedral symbolizes and will hold a moment of silence during tomorrow's demonstrations. But the yellow vests say they're appalled that in just a few days, up to a billion dollars have been donated to restore an ancient cathedral, yet there's no money for France's poor people or social programs cut back by Macron's government. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.

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