“I am not made to lead in calm weather,” Emmanuel Macron told a French novelist a year ago. “I’m made for storms…If you want to take a country somewhere, you have to advance at all costs. You can’t give in, you can’t fall into a routine. But at the same time, you have to be willing to listen. Listening to people means recognising their share of anger and suffering.”
On December 4th the leader who vowed not to yield to the street, and has used this resolve to push through reforms over the past 18 months, backed down over a planned increase to the green tax on fuel. An initial decision to “suspend” the tax increase, due in January, was announced by Edouard Philippe, the prime minister, after crisis meetings at the Elysée palace. This was then changed to an outright cancellation. A broad fiscal consultation will be held. “No tax”, Mr Philippe said, “is worth endangering the unity of the country.”
The government argues that it had no alternative, given the scale and violence of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests, which motorists are obliged to carry) movement. What began as a protest against higher taxes on diesel has turned into a revolt against the president.
On December 1st rioting broke out on the tree-lined boulevards of central Paris, including Avenue Kléber and the Place de l’Etoile. Cars were torched and overturned. “Macron resign” was sprayed on the Arc de Triomphe. The police struggled, despite their tear-gas and water cannons, to control a mob. Over 400 people were arrested, and 249 cases of arson were recorded. The Paris region had seen nothing like it since the riots of 2005, which touched the city’s outer banlieues and ended with the imposition of a state of emergency.
France is no stranger to street rebellion. The building of barricades, and the digging up and hurling of cobblestones, are part of the country’s iconography, celebrated in black-and-white photos of the uprising of May 1968 on display in Paris this year, half a century on. When in doubt, analysts evoke les évènements of 1968, or the revolution of 1789, or even the Jacquerie peasant revolt of 1358. Union-led street protests are part of the theatre of French life. Jacques Chirac, a previous president, shelved pension reform in 1995 when strikes paralysed the roads and railways.
This time, however, is different. The gilets jaunes emerged from nowhere via social media. They are not the product of organised unions or political parties. Their structureless and leaderless nature makes them potent, volatile, and difficult for the police and government to handle. They do not follow the codified rules of protest. Their diverse demands range from an end to the eco-tax to the resignation of Mr Macron—and even his replacement with a military general. And the government cannot find leaders willing to attend meetings. “The movement can’t have representatives,” said Eric Drouet, one founder. “It’s the whole movement that has to speak.”
Some 75% of the French back the gilets jaunes. And this support has held up despite the violence. Casseurs (troublemakers), from both the ultra-left and the far right, infiltrated the weekend protests. But a minority of the (mostly peaceful) gilets jaunes themselves also took part in the destruction. The strength of public support seems to stem from sympathy for those manning the roundabouts, struggling to make ends meet, and feeling that the president does not care.
The highest concentration of gilets jaunes as a share of the population, according to Hervé Le Bras, a geographer, falls in a diagonale du vide (empty diagonal), running from the Ardennes in the north-east to the remoter parts of Nouvelle-Aquitaine in the south-west. These areas share not so much a vote for political extremes as depopulation, and a remoteness from public services. This is “in-between France”, in the words of Raymond Depardon, a photographer whose stills depict derelict high streets and empty roundabouts—the very places now occupied by gilets jaunes.
This is also France’s squeezed middle: those on average incomes, who drive to work, live on tight budgets and did not vote for Mr Macron at the first round in 2017. They are enraged by his tax policy, and not only on fuel. The decision last year to abolish the wealth tax, along with tax cuts for companies and on investment income, was designed to show that France was no longer hostile to wealth creation, though a new property tax partially offset the wealth tax elimination. A cut in payroll charges was delayed until this autumn, and the tag of “president of the rich” has stuck. The top 1% of households have indeed gained much more, percentage-wise, in overall disposable income than the broad middle (see chart).
“He lost his battle on the fairness of tax reform and didn’t make a strong enough case for his social-empowerment agenda,” says Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist and formerly the director of the team that wrote Mr Macron’s election manifesto. The government has invested heavily in individual training accounts, apprenticeships and early schooling. Yet the core ambition of the campaign—unblocking France to build opportunities for all—has somehow seemed to get lost. “He wanted to prove to outsiders that the system could still help them,” says Guillaume Liegey of Liegey Muller Pons, a tech firm involved in the launch of En Marche. “But the fact that people still talk about him as an investment banker reflects his failure to establish that other narrative.”
France’s Fifth Republic vests huge powers in its president, who embodies both excessive hopes and disappointments. Like his two immediate predecessors at this point, Mr Macron’s poll ratings have collapsed (see chart). But he has helped to accelerate this decline with an imperious style and unfortunate ability to cause offence. Mr Macron once spoke of railway stations as places where you find “people who are nothing”. A sense of wounded pride runs deep. “Macron has a rapport with the people that is contemptuous and disdainful,” said one gilet jaune, stationed on a rural roundabout.
By blasting open the party system, and imposing lrem in the vacuum he created, Mr Macron also crushed many of the links between Paris and the regions. lrem has almost no mayors in the country’s 35,000 communes to defend his policies or let the boss know about grassroots anger. His movement thrived on declining trust in old-style politics. But this has continued to erode on his watch, undermining faith in institutions themselves. “Parliament does not represent the people,” is a common gilet jaune complaint. Even the political extremes—Jean-Luc Mélenchon (on the far left) and Marine Le Pen (on the nationalist right)—have struggled to piggyback on the protest movement. Those populists are felt to be part of the system.
The gilets jaunes plan to return to the streets of Paris on December 8th, a date the government awaits with horror. Mr Philippe’s measures have been broadly dismissed as too little, too late. Some fuel depots remain blocked. High-school pupils and ambulance drivers have launched their own protests. If Mr Macron is to regain political control, his promised consultation will need to be seen as more than a token affair, and involve a thorough review of both public spending and tax policy. Olivier Blanchard, former chief economist at the imf, says it was right to halt the fuel-tax rise. “But if tax reform stops there, that won’t be enough.”