Demonstrators clash with riot police at the Arc de Triomphe while protesting rising diesel prices in Paris on Saturday. (AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of thousands of French people have turned out in recent weeks to protest the energy policy of President Emmanuel Macron’s government. Last weekend the movement spread to Paris, generating France’s worst urban riots in years. Protesters torched cars and stormed the Arc de Triomphe, one of the most recognizable Paris landmarks, smashing the lower floors before ascending to the roof. Over 100 people were injured, and more than 400 were arrested and tens of thousands of police officers, firefighters and even the armed forces were called in to restore order.

What’s behind this unrest? Here’s what you need to know:

1. What is the ‘yellow vests’ movement?

The movement gets its name from the yellow safety vests or jackets French motorists must have in their cars while driving. The movement began Nov. 17 in rural areas and exurbs, which are generally less well-off than urban areas and where driving is a necessity. A national tax on diesel fuel was the initial catalyst for the protests.

The movement is disproportionately made up of the less well-off but enjoys the support of a fairly broad range of citizens. It was not organized by any political party or existing political or civil society organization but instead spread rapidly via social media. Copycat movements have spread to other parts of Europe, and the president even considered declaring a state of emergency.

2. What do the protesters want? 

Initially, protesters demanded a rollback of the proposed diesel tax increase. Although diesel prices in France have risen in 2018, French fuel prices are not particularly high in comparative terms. Tax rates overall, however, are extremely high; in 2016, only Denmark’s were higher.

But the diesel tax increase was merely a trigger; the real cause of the massive outpouring of anger and frustration lies deeper. The diesel tax increase was the latest of several reforms proposed by Macron that would disproportionately affect France’s least well-off, including abolishing a wealth tax, making it easier for companies to hire and fire employees, and fighting unions.

More generally, France remains plagued by long-standing social and political problems. Unemployment is high, growth is low and divisions — between urban and rural areas, highly educated cosmopolitans and less-educated “left-behinds” — are increasing.

Macron came to power promising to deal with these and other problems, but the reforms thus far led many to dismiss him as another member of an out-of-touch elite. His aloof personal style — and several well-publicized disparaging remarks to those less well-off, including that they should “stop whining” and simply “cross the street to find a job” — lead growing numbers of citizens to view him the “president of the rich.” As the protests swelled, the yellow vests’ anger became increasingly aimed at Macron and, more generally, at an establishment that seems unwilling or unable to address their needs. 

3. What are the implications for Macron, and France?

Macron faces the most serious crisis of his presidency, with popularity numbers at a new low — matching the worst figures achieved by his predecessor, François Hollande. The yellow vests, on the other hand, have approval ratings of over 80 percent.

The movement highlights tensions and weaknesses built into Macron’s presidency. The diesel tax increase reflected the French president’s desire to cut carbon emissions and make the French economy more environmentally friendly. But in a country suffering economically, such a goal is bound to run into opposition. As one protester put it, “We are talking about cost of living and Macron is talking ecology. … [Macron’s] solution for people who can’t afford food by the end of the month is to buy solar panels and electric cars.”

The outpouring of popular dissent reflects an even deeper dilemma: Macron has vowed to revitalize France’s sclerotic political and economic systems, but the reforms necessary to achieve this will have short-term costs to achieve any long-term benefits. Hollande faced a similar challenge and backed down when faced with protests — something Macron vowed not to do.

Macron may have little choice; at the very least, he has temporarily rescinded the diesel tax increases and promised to speak with the protesters. The yellow vests reflect the weakness of Macron’s political position and the French party system more generally. Macron’s election was largely the result of the collapse of France’s traditional political parties — and a desire to keep the populist National Front out of power. His support, in other words, was as much negative as positive. Macron started his own political party — En Marche — to support him, but it lacks the deep grass-roots networks or loyal base that would help mobilize support for his policies more generally.

4. What do the protesters tell us about the challenges Europe faces?

 In a well-functioning democracy, political institutions channel and respond to demands and discontent in a systematic, peaceful way. What the disorganized, leaderless nature of the yellow vest movement reflects is the decline of traditional parties and organizations, particularly unions, in France and much of the rest of Europe. It also reflects the broader failure of governments to recognize and respond to citizens’ concerns and demands.

This is, of course, the type of situation in which populism thrives. And indeed, both the populist left, represented by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his France Insoumise party, and the populist right, represented by Marine Le Pen and the National Rally (formerly National Front), have tried to exploit the yellow vest movement, claiming it naturally aligns with their goals. Their claim is that if they were in power, these politicians would address the demands.

Macron came to power promising to be the solution to populism: an anti-establishment figure from neither the left nor the right who would solve France’s problems. The yellow vest movement reflects his inability thus far to convince people he has the policies or personality to do this. If he doesn’t manage a reset in light of this crisis, we may look back on the yellow vests as another stage in the rise of populism in Europe.

Sheri Berman is the author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe. From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day” (Oxford University Press, 2019).