Macron returned to France from this past weekend’s Group of 20 summit under duress. For the third weekend in a row, heated protests had taken place throughout the country, reaching a violent peak in Paris. Dozens of cars were burned; the debris of barricades lay strewn across famed avenues; clashes between police and protesters blanketed parts of the city with tear gas and broken windows. At least 260 people were wounded across France — 133 in Paris alone.
The unrest is linked to an inchoate movement known as the “gilets jaunes,” or “yellow vests,” after the reflective jackets French drivers must wear in case of roadside emergencies. The roots of their anger are rising diesel prices and a new gasoline tax, imposed by Macron as part of France’s climate change commitments. On Tuesday morning, a chastened French government announced that it was temporarily suspending the measure in a bid to diffuse the crisis.
“No tax is worth putting in danger the unity of the nation,” said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe as he announced the suspension.
But the protests sparked by the carbon tax have tapped into much deeper frustrations among a segment of the French public. They have prompted calls for a greater social safety net at a time when France still finds itself in a rut of sluggish growth and high unemployment. And the passions unleashed by the demonstrations may prove difficult to tamp down.
The roots of the protests lie well outside France’s wealthy urban centers. James McAuley, The Washington Post’s Paris correspondent, went to the town of Besancon in the rural foothills along the Swiss border. Locals saw the new tax as a particularly harsh blow to their livelihoods. “We live on the side of a mountain,” said one. “There’s no bus or train to take us anywhere. We have to have a car.”
“In these territories marked by the absence of a tomorrow, there’s a form of postindustrial despair that’s now gnawing at the middle and working classes who suffered the brunt of the brutal crisis [of] 2008 and the ensuing budget cuts,” Niels Planel, a poverty-reduction consultant, told McAuley. “To give one example, a young student who just finished her bachelor’s told me that she couldn’t stay in her home region because, in her city, ‘there is nothing.’ Faced with austerity, city councilors must always do more with less and less, all while facing the growing discontent of their constituents.”
The cracks that are widening in France — and the postindustrial despair entrenched in the provinces — would seem familiar to Americans, Britons and others in Western democracies. So, too, would the inability of politicians to bridge the divides. Beyond the gasoline tax, Macron has struggled to push through an ambitious slate of reforms he claims will unshackle the French economy. There is widespread resentment about his highhanded governing style and the lingering impression that he is running the country in the interests of a comfortable metropolitan elite.
Macron’s political enemies have seized on the disturbances. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the French far left, likened the atmosphere in France to the heady days of leftist protest half a century ago. “We are in a situation that is almost insurrectional,” Mélenchon said in an interview with a local network. “These are pages in the history of France comparable to 1968. Everything must be dealt with by having a larger perspective.”
The republic isn’t about to fall, but the protests seem to highlight how Macron is being overtaken by the same anti-establishment frustrations that brought him to power as a political outsider. “Macron’s own political party, La République En Marche, also started out as an anti-party party, a haven for people who no longer identified with the traditional political parties. But it was conceived in a political context, and its members took part in elections,” wrote Post columnist Anne Applebaum.
“As a result, En Marche, which didn’t exist three years ago, is now perceived as part of the establishment it was formed to defeat,” she continued. “French history is full of revolutions overtaken by even-more-radical revolutions, but the speed with which these changes happen now is breathtaking.”
For Macron’s defenders, including foreign observers, these are worrying times. Many hoped his victory last year might be a turning point, an unmistakable rebuke to the ascendancy of right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic. But he has failed to head off the far right, which cares little for his worthy internationalism, or persuade those on the left who see him as an agent of the rich.
“Macron has sought to find that space between technocrat and monarch; one can only observe that so far, the French have not been persuaded by the technocrat or seduced by the monarch,” James Traub wrote in Foreign Policy. “The French regard him as an elitist who carries out policies that benefit the elite at the expense of the squeezed middle class.”
The case in point seems to be the friction over Macron’s climate agenda. Macron sought to be a global leader — perhaps the global leader — on the subject, taking on President Trump and other politicians trying to discard collective efforts to curb emissions. But his focus on global warming has also fueled the rage of some yellow vest protesters.