But there’s a mounting toll: French President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has slid further amid the havoc, while tourism in the traditionally busy Christmas period has taken a hit. On Saturday, the Eiffel Tower and a number of major Paris museums kept their doors shut; government officials warned of the “severe impact” to the economy caused by the unrest.
The demonstrators don’t look like they’re going to stop anytime soon. “What began as opposition to a carbon tax designed to curb climate change has morphed into a working-class revolt against Macron,” explained my colleague James McAuley.
A chastened French government suspended the carbon tax last week, prompting President Trump to crow over Macron’s doomed commitment to a climate agenda. But that has not dimmed the rage of the protesters, who have expressed a broader anger at Macron’s supposedly highhanded governance and economic reforms widely viewed to benefit the rich and no one else. Macron is expected to address the nation on Monday evening as he attempts to formulate a substantive response to the greatest challenge to his political career so far.
Already, there are signs that the activists are inspiring similar demonstrations elsewhere. More than 400 people were arrested last weekend in anti-government protests in Belgium that took their inspiration from the “gilets jaunes.” In Britain, pro-Brexit campaigners donned yellow vests during a right-wing march over the government’s supposed “betrayal” of Brexiteers in their negotiations with the European Union.
In France, the movement, spawned largely through coordination on social media, doesn’t have a fixed structure, and its wide sweep of demands reflects a somewhat inchoate mix of ideologies. Polls show that a significant bloc of the French far right identifies with the protesters, but so do others from across the political spectrum, including the radical left and even supporters of Macron’s own centrist political project.
Race, too, appears to matter. “Most protesters tend to be white and many are from the provinces — sharing anxiety over dwindling purchasing power and what they see as Macron’s aloof style,” reported McAuley, who noted that protests have not flared in the marginalized suburbs of big cities, where many of the country’s poorer ethnic minorities and immigrants live.
The protests underscore the rift between France’s wealthy, dynamic metropolitan centers and the “other France” — postindustrial towns and rural villages hollowed out by lack of opportunity and a stagnating economy. “Rising rents, prices and taxes, high levels of unemployment in rural and peri-urban areas, generalized precarity, stagnant wages: the yellow vests movement has united people from all political fronts around common ground: the anger of all those who barely earn enough to live,” noted French journalist Pauline Bock.
This sense of economic insecurity in the hinterlands would be familiar to politics-watchers in Britain and the United States. It provided the kindling that sparked support for Trump in many Midwestern states, former industrial hotbeds hit by the steady disappearance of manufacturing jobs. As John Judis wrote in an essay for The Washington Post Magazine this weekend, voters who in a previous generation would have identified with their factory, or union or working-class community now find their factory jobs gone, their unions withered, their neighborhoods emptied.
In their despair and feelings of loss, Judis argued, they cling to “identities” that play into the hard-line, nativist pitch of Trumpism. “Interwoven among these identities,” wrote Judis, “are ones that are fundamentally rooted in resentment: toward undocumented immigrants whom they believe their taxes subsidize; toward both legal and undocumented immigrants who they see as upending the mores and language of their hometowns; toward those minorities who, in their minds, benefit unfairly from affirmative action; and toward distant elites in the cities who project disdain for them and their way of life.”
The 2016 vote for Brexit echoed a similar set of grievances and suspicions among Britons — in particular, resentment of the “distant elites” holding sway over their lives. Macron, now viewed by his critics as an aloof, technocratic would-be monarch, came to power as an outsider bent on shaking up France’s political establishment. But his efforts toward reform have mostly fanned the flames of public discontent.
Experts fear a similar backlash as Britain stumbles toward a potentially calamitous crisis over Brexit. “The 2016 Brexit vote, like the election of Macron and the protests against him now, represented a rejection of the established political order and a burbling dissatisfaction with the status quo,” wrote Bloomberg View’s Therese Raphael.
The unrest in France underscores an atmosphere of uncertainty and crisis looming over Western societies. Widening economic inequality and deepening political polarization are straining democracies built through decades of moderating, consensus politics. Though protests and mass strikes are in France’s DNA, wrote Benjamin Haddad in Politico Europe, “there is something different” about the vehemence and mobilization of the yellow vests, a movement that calls into question “the stability of democratic institutions” themselves.
“The terms of our social and republican compromise was generated throughout fifty years of our history,” Danielle Tartakowsky, a historian at Paris 8 University, told French daily Le Figaro. “But there is not much left of it now. A new social compromise remains to be born. In my opinion, the yellow vests are a serious symptom … of a problem whose outcome nobody seems to be able to control.”
Instead, as the leftist former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis recently put it, the West seems to be teetering into “a post-modern 1930s,” where right-wing populists stir a toxic cocktail of cultural fear and rage, while others seek the wholesale dismantling of the establishment. Critics fear they are circling the edge of a volcano.
“What unites Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon with France’s rioting gilets jaunes and the UK’s fiercest Brexiters is not just their will to upturn the existing order. It is their belief that transient economic strife is the worst that could possibly happen,” wrote Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times. “None of these people actively desires civilizational meltdown. They just under-rate the prospect of it happening as an inadvertent result of their actions.”
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