Fifty years after May ’68—a month where all of France held its breath—the country appears to be going through one of its characteristic outbursts of public anger once again.
Social movements are part of France’s DNA. Going on strike is part of any student’s rite of passage, and massive protests have pushed more than one government to back down from attempts at reform.
But there is something different about the protests French President Emmanuel Macron is facing today. The so-called Yellow Jackets movement is more decentralized, harder to define and more violent than its predecessors. Having started as a spontaneous revolt, organized through Facebook and YouTube, it has bewildered observers and political leaders.
The Yellow Vests are the next stage of a broader populist challenge to Western democracies, bringing together a disparate, leaderless and grassroots coalition calling for economic and social protection. As the country braces to violence this week end, many fear for the stability of democratic institutions.
Nominally, it started as an outburst of anger against a gasoline tax that was part of Macron’s electoral program to comply with the country’s commitment against climate change. In reality, it’s far bigger. The Yellow Jacket movement is not just a rejection of Macron’s presidency; it’s a revolt against the whole French establishment.
The Yellow Jackets are angry, violently so, at the country’s institutions.
The movement is larger than the sum of its parts: It is an uprising about purchasing power and quality of life; it is about people’s dignity. It is about a section of society, many of whom live in France’s rural “peri-urban” communities, that feels lost and left behind, when opportunities are in Paris.
As a movement, the Yellow Jackets are hard to define. They appear to have scooped up discontent and disenfranchised citizens from around the country, most from far outside the major cities, creating a grassroots convergence of extremists of all stripes. But although protestors’ message has clearly hit a nerve with a large swathe of people, it’s still unclear how representative the movement is.
Protestors have very disparate demands, from lowering the retirement age to increasing the minimum wage, capping salaries, banning outsourcing or reintegrating the wealth tax that was abrogated by Macron last year. And they are angry, violently so, at the country’s institutions.
Far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon have both tried to harness the movement’s disapproval of Macron’s government, but they are in over their heads. The movement is leaderless and uninterested in affiliation to any union or party.
Last weekend, public monuments were vandalized, cars burned. The movement’s spokespeople called for Macron, elected only a year ago, to resign and be replaced by a retired general. This weekend, after the government repeated its openness to dialogue, and even announced its intention to cancel the controversial gasoline tax, more violence is expected.
The Elysée has taken unprecedented steps to warn Paris residents that “thousands” of protesters are coming to the capital on Saturday to “destroy and kill.” Numerous MPs have received death threats, and the movement’s representatives have set their sights on getting into the presidential palace.
Despite the portrayal of Macron’s election as a barrier to the far-right, France is not immune to the wave of discontent striking both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, in his election campaign, Macron positioned himself as an expression of popular dissatisfaction with the political establishment. His election harnessed the desire for change, without the extremist or nativist sentiment.
A virtual unknown two years before running for office (an unprecedented feat in France), Macron created his own party from scratch and ran fresh faces for Parliament. En Marche, his party, vowed to transcend left and right to bring together a coalition of liberal reformers to finally break with 40 years of political inertia that has left the country creaking under widespread unemployment and stagnant wages.
Since coming to office, however, he has increasingly come to be seen as simply another elite politician and has been accused of being removed from the concerns of regular voters. This impression of elitism was reinforced by Macron’s reform efforts and his lofty rhetoric. And it is widespread: Some 70 percent of French people say they support the Yellow Jackets protests. In some ways, the Yellow Jackets are a response to Macron’s restructuring of the French political class, a protest against his liberal center.
Macron has to confront the unacceptable violence threatening the country.
For Macron, the challenge ahead is tremendous. France’s ills didn’t start with his election. The chaos on the streets over the past two weeks is the result of pent-up frustration. It’s the result of a decades-long lack of reforms, and a failure to prepare France for the future.
He has to confront the unacceptable violence that is threatening the country and has already cost several lives. But he was also elected on the promise that he would not to back down in his efforts to push through the structural reforms long delayed by his predecessors. And he cannot afford to renege on that pledge now.
Macron has to reconnect with the energy and desire for change that was a core part of his campaign, and offer a positive vision of the future to the millions of French voters who feel sympathy for the Yellow Jackets.