Two weeks ago, the Gilets Jaunes turned out for a fifth straight weekend of protest. It was time for me to see the movement first hand. Crossing onto the Champs-Élysées from Rue Marbeuf, I was searched by the police like anyone else wishing to go on the avenue that day. My appearance was met with quizzical looks from the gendarmes, as I lacked a yellow vest or any other visible sign I was a protester.
Whilst the movement is another example of the strong French tradition of civil disobedience, it is also unique. Many of the grievances voiced by the Gilets Jaunes are rooted in the country’s economic stagnation, and Macron’s failure to address it. It is not policy failure, however, that constructed a broad coalition of the French working-class. It is Macron’s image as an out-of-touch, elitist, and arrogant ruler which has allowed protests over a carbon tax to become his government’s defining crisis. If he is unable to fix his image and kickstart the economy, Macron could be surrendering his country to the very populists that he defeated.
For a Saturday in December, the Champs-Élysées turned out to be surprisingly empty. Bereft of cars, and with police only allowing a trickle of protesters to enter, the broad Avenue was dotted with groups of people in yellow vests. They were mostly chanting and singing, with a handful staring down the gendarmes blocking off streets.
I spent the rest of the day speaking to protesters, trying to wrap my head around the movement that was dominating French political discourse. Every commentator seemed to have their own opinion on the origins, goals and tactics used by the Gilets, and I was determined to formulate my own.
Macron and his administration have an approval rating of 23 percent, or roughly half of Donald Trump’s. The Gilets Jaunes movement is its most serious crisis yet. The reforms to date, including a repeal of the ISF (wealth tax) and a shake-up of university admissions have been met with widespread discontent.
The “Eco Tax” on fuel, which sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement, was presented by the government as an initiative to help meet climate goals. Working-class people disavowedit for being blind to the needs of poorer communities. In a city like Paris, public transport is cheap, efficient, and used by people of all social strata. Rural areas of France, however, are lacking such services. Protesters pointed to the fact that they depend on driving every day to get to work.
Despite slowing growth in 2018, spokespeople for the Gilets Jaunes do not point to indicators of economic health. They point to specific initiatives, spun as evidence of Macron being ‘out-of-touch’. Caring little about what the policies entail, the movement is focused on personal gripes of economic hardship. What started as a movement against the self-contained issue of carbon tax has morphed into an all-encompassing proclamation of working-class anger.
This anger is largely justified. Macron’s policies of economic liberalisation have not borne the promised fruits. As France’s National Institute of Fiscal and Economic Studies reports, purchasing power and consumer confidence have waned and the business climate has continued to stagnate. People across France feel abandoned and ignored. Previously, this would mean a series of strikes, organised by experienced and professional unions, campaigning for a specific policy change. Now, the movement crosses party lines and unites most of the rural working class.
The Macron government’s main problem, however, lies not in their policies. They have an image problem. Rolling back the Eco Tax and promising an increase of the minimum wage did nothing to assuage the wave of anger, further illustrating how disconnected the anger is from policy considerations. When announcing the €15 billion package aimed at alleviating economic hardship, Macron did it from his Ivory Tower, an exquisite gilded office at the heart of the Palais de l’Élysée.
Like no other
The Gilets Jaunes are, broadly speaking, disorganised and uninformed. Unlike previous popular movements like Nuit Debout or other campaigns against Hollande’s labour law reform, there is no unified leadership or set list of demands.There is only a large group of angry, disillusioned people, many of whom simply proclaim that they want “no more taxes” or Macron’s resignation. For Macron and his administration, this presents a unique challenge, especially the latter demand. As a classically educated technocrat, Macron’s response to most issues is thoughtful policy change or grandiose speeches. His interactions with the public have been rocky and defensive.
When confronted by a young jobless man in September, Macron told him “go across the street and find yourself work”. The man was adamant that his job search had been prolonged and fruitless. This arrogant and callous remark symbolises Macron’s attitude of superiority– a focal point of criticism by the Gilets Jaunes. What Macron said to the young man was technically true: the hospitality sector has a job surplus. People, however, want to see a more empathetic President who is ready to listen to the concerns of the working class instead of talking down to them.
The dangerous alternative
As with other times of profound dissatisfaction with the ruling class, the environment is fertile for extremism to take hold. Marine Le Pen and her rebranded Rassemblement National pin economic problems on migrants and minorities. On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon points to big business as the root of all issues. This rhetoric has seen a resurgence as the popularity of the Gilets Jaunes increases.
Countless protesters that I have spoken to proclaimed that they didn’t vote in the previous election. Many used an old French saying: “choosing between the Plague and cholera” to compare Le Pen and Macron. Some of the rhetoric used by the protesters was even more alarming. When allocating blame, many lumped big businesses with the media, even alluding to a Jewish conspiracy. Reports have quoted protesters as denying climate change or blaming migrants for their economic hardship.
The spread and normalisation of such rhetoric throughout this mass movement is the most dangerous consequence of the protests escalating. Marine Le Pen voiced her support for the Gilets Jaunes, using the opportunity to promote her own ideology. The RN has been climbing in the polls as Macron’s popularity plummets, and the stage is set for a populist resurgence in the European Parliament elections in 2019. Those results will show whether Macron has allowed Le Pen’s brand of populism to flourish.
If the government cannot change the fact that thousands of voters see them as out of touch in bed with the elite, the consequence may be much more serious than a loss of power for the young En Marche party. Allowing the rhetoric of hatred to take root, something that Macron has spoken against countless times, could be a catastrophic failure and impact generations to come.
Time for a change
Macron’s concessions failed to placate the movement, as did a plea not to protest following the terrorist attack in Strasbourg. The Gilets turned out across the country for a fifth straight weekend of defiance. It is clear that the government will not be able to solve this crisis with a set of laws or a particularly emotive speech delivered from the steps of the Élysée Palace. The demands of the movement vary regionally and individually, meaning that, to make a dent in the movement, the President must rethink his image – fast.
For the angry protesters across France nothing would make more of an impact than Macron swallowing his pride and admitting personal failure for a misguided policy and for his own attitude. Delaying his address to the nation for days after the apex of violence in Paris only reinforces the image that he is hesitant to accept his shortcomings. Although Macron accepted ‘a share of responsibility’ he was not ready to admit failure in full. Everything that I have gathered from watching Gilets Jaunes appear on the news to speaking with them in person, is that policy concessions will do nothing to appease their anger. The French economy has been in stagnation long before Macron ascended to office, and it is not surprising that he was unable to unilaterally reverse this trend.
He may believe that it is unfair to take the entire blame, given the complex origins of the movement. Despite what he may believe, the crisis cannot be solved through a rational dissection of its causes and origins. It is time for Macron to beg the people’s forgiveness before it is too late.