The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In France, the pain behind the ‘yellow vest’ protests is felt mostly outside Paris

A demonstrator wearing a yellow jacket waves a French flag during a Dec. 1 demonstration in Paris. (Thibault Camus/AP)

BESANCON, France — The scenes from Paris have been arresting, as protesters marched down the Champs-Elysees, the grandest avenue in the city, hurling projectiles at police and being tear-gassed in return.

But it is in smaller French towns and cities such as this one, nestled in the foothills near the Swiss border, where the anger is most deeply felt.

People here are dependent on their cars, and so they are especially frustrated with rising diesel prices and a new gasoline tax — the issue at the core of the national “yellow vest” movement that has produced marches and roadblocks throughout France in recent weeks.

“Ask a Parisian — for him none of this is an issue, because he doesn’t need a car,” said Marco Pavan, 55, who said he has driven trucks and taxi cabs in and around Besancon for the better part of 30 years.

“We live on the side of a mountain,” Pavan said. “There’s no bus or train to take us anywhere. We have to have a car.”

Thousands of "yellow vest" protesters flooded Paris streets Dec. 1 to condemn higher fuel taxes and French President Emmanuel Macron's economic reforms. (Video: Reuters)

Many people here are also keenly frustrated with their president. They see Emmanuel Macron as part of an elitist coterie that neither understands nor cares how they live, or how the decline of traditional industry has hollowed out their city and limited their prospects.

“And then there’s the disdain — he openly mocks people,” said Yves Rollet, 67, a Besancon retiree who was passing the time on Wednesday listening to a Bach concerto in his parked car. A yellow vest was visible through the windshield.

Rollet said he participated in last weekend’s protest because he was fed up with how Macron governs monarchically and is dismissive of poor and working people.

Rollet recalled an incident in September when Macron told a young, unemployed landscaper it should be easy to find a job. “If you’re willing and motivated, in hotels, cafes and restaurants, construction, there’s not a single place I go where they don’t say they’re looking for people,” the French president, a former investment banker, said to the young man.

“We called him the ‘president of the rich’ from the beginning,” Rollet said. Noting how often Macron, who ran as a centrist, employs the phrase “at the same time” in his speeches, Rollet added, “Well, he’s ‘at the same time’ the president of the right and the president of the right.”

On Saturday, roughly 75,000 people took to the streets across the country in a third act of the protest. In Paris, yellow vest supporters torched cars, attacked shop windows and clashed with police. Local authorities announced that at least 92 people were injured in Paris, including 14 police officers.

In Buenos Aires for a Group of 20 summit, Macron vowed that violent protesters would be “held responsible for their acts.”

For his part, Macron last week sought to be empathetic, and more humble, while also insisting he will not cave to violent demands or revoke the gas tax — a product of the country’s climate change commitments. “One cannot be on Monday for the environment and on Tuesday against the increase of fuel prices,” he said in a long-planned speech on energy.

Macron acknowledged French policy has not done much to address the expense of living in big French cities other than to encourage people to live further out and buy cars.

“They are not the perpetuators of this situation, they are simply the first victims . . . ” he said. “We must, therefore, listen to the protests of social alarm, but we must not do so by renouncing our responsibilities for today and tomorrow, because there’s also an environmental alarm.”

Since his election in May 2017, Macron has been one of the world’s leading advocates for action to combat climate change. He tried, unsuccessfully, to convince President Trump to remain within the 2015 Paris climate accords, and he hosted a second major climate summit in Paris in December 2017.

France has more diesel cars than any other country in Europe. Higher taxes on diesel have been part of the climate bargain from the beginning and have also featured in global guidelines for years. Paris and the surrounding suburbs, meanwhile, have moved to ban older model diesel cars from their roads. And Macron’s government committed France to banning the sales of all gasoline-powered cars by 2040.

Macron, however, has been criticized for doing less on climate change than he promised. His environment minister quit in disappointment in August, saying he did not “want to give the illusion that my presence in the government signifies that we are answering these problems properly.”

Now, Macron’s opponents on both the far-left and the far-right have lent their support to the yellow vest movement, making the protests easier to dismiss as a politicized spectacle. Skeptics also highlight a perceived dominance of white men among the yellow vests, and the movement’s leaders refused to meet with France’s prime minister once they learned the meeting would not be filmed and broadcast live.

Although Macron’s approval rating has fallen to record lows, that can also be discounted by the historical trend of the French typically turning against their presidents by this point in the term.

As Macron put it in a Der Spiegel interview last year, “The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want. . . . You have to be prepared to be disparaged, insulted and mocked — that is in the French nature.”

But sociologists and anti-poverty advocates warn some of the frustration underlying the yellow vest protests is real — the ­inevitable result of decades of social fracture between rural France, increasingly devoid of resources, and France’s prosperous large­ cities.

“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,” said Niels Planel, a poverty reduction consultant who has done work in the region.

“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,’ ” Planel said. “Faced with austerity, city councilors must always do more with less and less, all while facing the growing discontent of their constituents.”

Although France has one of the most extensive railway networks in the world, the map looks somewhat like a wheel: All the spokes originate in midsize provincial cities and converge on Paris at the center. You can get to the capital from Besancon by fast train in about 2½ hours. But much of the surrounding area is relatively unserved by public transport. Without a car, a basic commute would take hours, often along a circuitous route.

“It’s important to understand that this movement of ‘yellow vests’ is not at all an opposition to the environment,” said Benoit Coquard, an expert at the National Institute for Agronomic Research in Dijon, which belongs to the same administrative region as Besancon.

The issue, Coquard said, is a perceived double standard. “What is disputed is that drivers from the middle and lower classes are made to pay, but that in their eyes we don’t ask enough of the big companies and the rich, who also pollute the most because they often take airplanes.”

A common refrain among protesters is fuel prices and other social charges have increased at the same time as Macron’s administration has axed France’s famous wealth tax.

Pavan, the driver, agreed: “France has to be conscious of the environment, yes, but it’s a change everybody has to make — not just working people.”

“Why do the little people have to pay, but the big dogs pay nothing? The people have a feeling of injustice, and I don’t know how this will end.”

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