Sarah Maza is a professor of history at Northwestern University.
Both in the United States and in France, commentators have been quick to compare the swarming “yellow vests” who have taken to the streets railing against President Emmanuel Macron as a heartless autocrat to the sans-culottes who beseiged the Bastille in 1789 to howls of rage against the government.
Both violent protest movements were touched off by tax increases on top of years of hardship for the poor. In 1789, Parisian workers hated their haughty queen far more than their hapless king; it seems as though Macron has stepped all too easily into the role of a modern Marie Antoinette. While progressive in many of his beliefs — he’s a Europhile, an environmentalist, and is open to multiculturalism and gay rights in ways still rare in French politics — he is mostly tone-deaf to the problems of the poor, cutting taxes on the ultra-rich and telling the occasional protester to just go and get a job. Cake, anyone?
Political conditions in today’s France do have some similarities with the situation in 1789. Macron’s 2017 election as an independent — a blow to traditional political parties — has resulted in an atomized population facing an isolated president just as when the French kings lured aristocratic grandees to the golden cage of Versailles, leaving the people to face an increasingly remote central state without patrons and protectors.
But the similarities end there. The working-class revolutionaries of 1789 were inspired and sometimes manipulated by the upper-class liberal ideologues who clashed with the monarchy over issues of representation. The gilets jaunes are on their own, leaderless by choice and defiantly antipolitical. Their emblem, the fluorescent yellow safety vest, unlike the revolutionary patriots’ red cap of liberty, symbolizes angry anarchism rather than democratic freedoms, and concessions do little to appease them. The government’s capitulation on their initial grievance, an increase in the gas tax, as well as Macron’s frantic back-pedaling on wage- and pension-related matters last week, have barely slowed their whack-a-mole succession of demands, including for the dissolution of the National Assembly and the president’s resignation.
This is not to say that the protesters — most of them poorer, older, and living outside Paris — don’t have good reasons to be scared and furious. Living standards for modestly paid workers in France have been eroding steadily for years, and many thousands who make just enough not to qualify for government assistance struggle to keep their refrigerators stocked and their cars running by the end of the month — in a country where the middle classes make fetishes of good food and hedonistic vacations. The rebels’ pain is sharp and all too real, but the available evidence suggests that long-dismal economic conditions for those at the bottom have not gotten significantly worse under Macron. France’s young president has not made the poor noticeably poorer, but his aloofness has made them a whole lot angrier.
By some accounts, the flames of this rebellion have been fanned by far-right supporters of Marine Le Pen, who was defeated by Macron in last year’s election. Most of the protesters profess ideals of “solidarity,” but while the movement was initially mostly free of racism, journalists have noted a slow uptick in anti-migrant rhetoric and banners have appeared in recent days tagging Macron as the puppet of Jewish moneyed interests. Whether right-wing followers of the National Rally party are active behind the scenes, the inchoate rage of the “yellow vests” and their drain-the-swamp rhetoric — which enjoy the support of some 70 percent of their compatriots — are certainly playing into the hands of Le Pen, who during recent television appearances has seemed barely able to contain her delight.
The revolution of 1789, for all its excesses, gave the modern world its most influential tradition of universalist democracy. Today’s protests carry a strong risk of sending France hurtling in the other direction, into the arms of blood-and-soil ideologues who want to Make France Great Again by repudiating the nation’s most important historical legacy.