France’s New Protest Movement Is Tailor Made for the Macron Era

A member of the Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests movement, at a protest against rising fuel taxes, on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Saturday. Credit Michel Euler / Associated Press
A member of the Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests movement, at a protest against rising fuel taxes, on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Saturday. Credit Michel Euler / Associated Press

Familiar Parisian images are back in the news: black smoke billowing from makeshift barricades on the Champs-Élysées; cobblestones hurled at the police by protesters; the Arc de Triomphe disappearing behind a cloud of tear gas. But this time, the images feature something new: The protesters are wearing yellow, high-visibility vests.

They aren’t longhaired students or militant trade unionists or even angry farmers. They are unaffiliated with a political party and they come from a variety of class backgrounds. Leaderless, they have gathered thanks to social media and they have pointedly called themselves Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vests. They are shaking French politics to the core.

The movement began about a month ago, with groups of friends on Facebook complaining about an increase in diesel prices put in place by the government of President Emmanuel Macron to try to curb carbon emissions. Seemingly from nowhere, the disparate conversations converged on a date for action: Nov. 17. Hundreds of thousands would gather around the country to demonstrate against the fuel price hike, which they feel unfairly burdens the millions of people who live in small towns and the countryside, where they can’t get around by public transportation or electric scooters.

Their high-visibility yellow vests — which French drivers are legally required to keep in their vehicle to make sure they are seen on the side of the road if their car breaks down — identify them as car drivers rather than metro riders. But they also send a clear message: They want to be seen by their young president.

Almost 300,000 people took part in the Nov. 17 protests, blocking roads and highways. One protester was killed, run over by a panicked driver taking her child to the hospital and whose car had been set upon by angry people in yellow vests. The abnormally high number of casualties (600 people were injured) in a country that has long mastered the art of theatrical but safe demonstrations was disconcerting. A week later, the protesters gathered again, though in smaller numbers, with thousands coming from around the country to demonstrate in Paris.

It’s almost as if Mr. Macron, a centrist who rejects both right and left labels, has found in the Yellow Vests an opponent to his measure: a movement that refuses categorizing.

Seizing the chance to capitalize on a protest nobody saw coming, both Marine Le Pen on the extreme right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the radical left have tried to jump on the bandwagon, but to no avail. The protesters seem wholly uninterested in party politics. Their demands are as varied as they are vague. But they do have something in common with the extreme right and the radical left: a profound dislike of Mr. Macron.

France’s main center-right and center-left parties have largely collapsed, and Mr. Macron stepped into the void, offering a vision best described as nonpartisan centrism. But at the same time, he has put himself at the center of French politics, personalizing political life. The Yellow Vests are demonstrating exactly how dangerously unstable that could prove to be.

Fuel taxes triggered their anger, but the Yellow Vests intended in fact to vent their general frustration with politics, taxes, stagnating incomes and a president who they believe is out of touch with a majority of the people.

According to recent polling, 77 percent of French people support the movement. The Yellow Vests seem to be the face of a deep malaise in French society. They are held together by their common anger at the government in general and Mr. Macron in particular, but they come from different social classes and professional backgrounds. “They do not represent a class, but a mass,” the philologist Albin Wagener wrote in an op-ed for Les Echos.

What they do generally have in common is where they come from: places that have not thrived as Paris and other major cities have in recent years, places where the post office, the hospital and the train station may have closed down, forcing them to drive farther to reach public services.

Mr. Macron needs to take note. His 2017 election pulverized the French political landscape, sending both the center left and right into oblivion and leaving the far right and the far left as the most vocal and visible opponents to the president. As a result, Mr. Macron appears both omnipotent and terribly lonely. Though he has been able to rely on a large majority in the National Assembly, his party’s members of Parliament are mostly new to politics and power. Can they help him weather the storm, or will cracks appear in the presidential majority as the protest continues to be supported by an overwhelming majority of French people?

Invited to meet with government representatives this week, the Yellow Vests have come up with eight “official messengers” chosen by the movement’s 44 regional leaders. Some have also called for another march in Paris next weekend — a sign that the movement is thinking about the future. With so much instability in the political system, it’s not hard to imagine the Yellow Vests coalescing into something more durable, akin to Italy’s Five Star. That party began as a largely inchoate, online-based movement before becoming a populist political party that now sits in the government in Rome in an alliance with the xenophobic far-right party The League.

On Tuesday, the president announced that he is standing by his fuel tax hike, though he made some adjustments to the policy to ease the financial burden of the green transition on low-to-middle-income earners. That’s a start. But he must do more to acknowledge the deep anxiety expressed by the Yellow Vests. He has to behave as if he has not only seen but also heard them.

Agnès C. Poirier is a journalist and the author, most recently, of Left Bank: Art, Passion and the Rebirth of Paris 1940-1950.

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