What is Emmanuel Macron thinking, as he watches the images of the current protests in France? Does he wonder whether this is a revolt or a revolution? In both scenarios, he occupies the status of the hated king.
The “yellow vest” movement, or the gilets jaunes, named for the fluorescent safety jackets its members wear, has been blocking roads and motorways all around the country and protesting in Paris streets every weekend since 17 November. It started as a protest against rising fuel taxes, but has morphed into an explosive anti-precarity atmosphere.
On 1 December, for the second weekend in a row, clashes and riots erupted in Paris, with protesters ransacking shops and the Arc de Triomphe, building barricades, setting cars ablaze and tagging buildings in rich areas of the French capital. Some violent casseurs (rioters and hooligans) threw rocks and bottles at the police, and were met with teargas in response.
This wasn’t the first violent episode – two people have died since the start of the spontaneous movement, sparked by social media anger – but the main scene wasn’t the spectacular Parisian face-off, which moved from the Champs Élysées to the rest of the city. Far more telling are the protests popping up everywhere else, in what is called “la France des ronds-points” (France of the roundabouts). On 24 November, there were more than 1,600 protests, drawing 100,000 protesters across the country. At the weekend, there were 130,000 demonstrators, with more than 580 roadblocks.
The gilets jaunes are organising rolling blockades in small towns and cities, where cars are needed for everything, from going to work to food shopping. After two weeks, it has become almost normal to hear: “I was late because I was stopped by the yellow vests.” The French could grow tired of it, but for now 73% of them support the cause, even if they don’t always agree with their methods.
And the movement is rallying support from different social groups. In France’s overseas department of La Réunion, mobilisation is paralysing the entire island’s economy: shops are running low on supplies, schools and public services are closed and a curfew has been introduced. An MP from the island even brandished a yellow vest in the National Assembly. Locals in the quartiers, the disadvantaged council estates around Paris, walked at the yellow vests’ side on 1 December: “The quartiers are facing the same social issues as the rural or peri-urban territories: all are hit by Macron’s ultra-liberal policies,” they wrote. On 3 December, high-school students joined in, blockading more than 100 schools around the country.
The French government “should be careful”, a yellow vest from a remote suburb, where many struggle to make ends meet and depend on their cars, told Le Figaro. “Until now, we were desperate on our own. Now we are desperate together.”
The fuel tax, Macron says, is a necessary measure to tackle climate change. He is right in identifying that problem, and the yellow vests do not deny this: among the demands of their newly appointed board, they ask for a “citizen assembly to debate the ecological transition”. But they have more pressing concerns, concerns that Macron’s policies ignore, they say. What started out as a revolt against fuel prices is morphing into a full-blown rejection of Macron’s fiscal agenda.
Rising rents, prices and taxes, high levels of unemployment in rural and peri-urban areas, generalised precarity, stagnant wages: the yellow vests movement has united people from all political fronts around common ground: the anger of all those who barely earn enough to live. “The elites are talking about the end of the world while we’re talking about the end of the month,” a yellow vest protester told Le Monde. The dialogue between gilets jaunes and traditional politicians is almost impossible, as a TV programme recently illustrated: to an MP from Macron’s party who professed not to know how much the French minimum wage is, a yellow vest replied: “It’s incredible. And then you say that you represent the people!” He left the TV studio.
In a speech last week, Macron admitted that the frustrations expressed in the riots were “profound feelings” that ran deeper than the fuel tax. But although he is opening a three-month dialogue with the representatives of the movement, Macron isn’t planning to move on the tax – merely offering to index it on the oil market. Macron added that just like the French protests, Brexit was a response to the economic divides of the UK. “It’s citizens who say: ‘This world you are offering isn’t for me, it’s for the City’,” he declared. Yet, this French moment of discontent wasn’t triggered by a referendum, but by one tax too many
Resentment against the “president of the rich”, as Macron is known, and against the urban elite who can focus on climate change because they don’t rely on their car to live, will only wind down if the yellow vests see an improvement in their economic power. The price of the ecological transition, like taxes in general, must be seen as a collective effort, not something to be paid only by the French “squeezed middle”.
Macron is not wrong. This is not a revolt, monsieur le président. It’s the French equivalent to Brexit – a raging cry for help from the disenfranchised. Unlike the British ruling elite, it would be wise, after saying that you heard them, to act on what they say.