As Emmanuel Macron prepared to pitch a dynamic new France to dozens of business leaders on Monday, many wondered if the former banker might first need to win over his angry opponents in the streets.
Macron was gathering some 150 top executives at the sumptuous Versailles palace for the second edition of his ‘Choose France’ summit, to show off reforms aimed at drawing more foreign investment – not least as Brexit beckons across the Channel.
Executives from blue chips like GE and Microsoft to tech darlings like Uber and Snapchat were attending before heading to this week’s Davos forum in Switzerland.
Macron, who is not going to Davos this year, was scheduled to give the keynote address before dinner.
Last January the young centrist was basking in the success of labour and tax law overhauls and stressing how he had delivered on promises to make France more competitive.
This year, however, the unnerving images of street fighting and vandalism during two months of fiery ‘yellow vest’ rallies against him could make such claims a more difficult sell.
‘It’s a completely new picture – Macron is all alone and facing serious opposition,’ said Jean-Paul Betbeze, an economist who has watched several governments grapple with reform drives. 
Last Saturday’s protest, the 10th since November, drew 84,000 people, and sporadic clashes again broke out against the 80,000 police deployed nationwide.
On Monday, the anger continued to simmer not far from the palace gates: some 400 trade union activists gathered nearby, while eight protesters including five ‘yellow vests’ were briefly detained for carrying masks and banners.
‘The country’s attractiveness has collapsed,’ Frederic Sanchez, head of international activities for the Medef employers’ federation, said earlier this month.
‘When you’re watching from the US, you’d think France is in the middle of a civil war.’
Still positive?
The government insists the protests haven’t dented France’s appeal as the second-biggest recipient of foreign investment in Europe, behind Germany but ahead of Brexit-bound Britain.
It points to an update in December and early January of the annual survey by the Business France promotional agency, which showed the violence had not shaken that conviction.
Foreign investments surged nearly 40 percent last year to 44 billion euros ($50 billion), according to statistics office Insee, with the government touting new projects by Google, Toyota and Facebook.
‘Foreign bosses aren’t worried,’ Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said.
One of the main projects announced Monday was from MicroPort, a Chinese maker of pacemakers and atrial defibrillators, which will spend 350 million euros to expand its R&D centre outside Paris.
Microsoft said it would add 100 engineers to its artificial intelligence centre in the capital’s suburbs, while temping agency Adecco announced ambitious plans to recruit 10,000 people in 2019.
But economic clouds are gathering in France, where growth has slowed markedly in recent months and is expected to reach just 1.5 percent for 2018 according to the central bank, after 2.2 percent in 2017.
The decline partly reflects the toll taken by the protests, which saw dozens of stores looted in Paris and other cities and forced others to board up their windows during holiday shopping weekends.
Already before Christmas the FCD retailing association had forecast lost revenue for the sector at some two billion euros.
‘Growth had already slowed and is going to slow further, meaning unemployment could rise – and that’s when the Macron ‘machine’ risks stalling,’ Betbeze said.
Macron’s promise to restore public finances to health has also taken a hit after he tried to quell the anger of the yellow vests by offering 10 billion euros of wage increases and tax relief for low earners and retirees.
That will push France’s budget deficit above the EU-mandated limit of three percent of GDP, and big companies may face higher taxes to help make up the shortfall.
Le Maire confirmed Sunday that Amazon, Google, Facebook and other US digital giants will face a new tax on their French earnings starting this year.