How did three weeks of protests over a gas tax culminate in the once-in-a-generation riot that engulfed central Paris on Saturday, leaving hundreds injured, more than 400 arrested, and the capital’s central business district a mess of smoke, broken glass, and burned-out cars? Even the French are feeling a little confused.
On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced that the diesel fuel tax that kicked off the Yellow Vest movement would be suspended—a sign of how seriously the escalating unrest has rattled the administration of President Emmanuel Macron.
Don’t expect the Yellow Vests to stand down now. What began as an automobile-focused, cost-of-living protest undertaken by a coalition of the white, rural working-class and petite bourgeoisie has evolved into a Hydra-headed autumn of discontent, with many objectives, no leaders, and a base that encompasses a cross-section of French life from engineers to paramedics to Parisian high school students. International coverage has focused on the movement’s opposition to a proposed fuel tax increase that was part of Macron’s plan to combat climate change. But that was only the spark. Spurred by everybody’s favorite anti-governmental social network, Facebook, the gilet jaunes crisis is best understood as a revolt against all things Macron.
Elected a few months after Donald Trump took office and just before the U.K. embarked on the geopolitical somersault down the stairs that is Brexit, the fresh-faced young president was supposed to re-ignite French pride and prosperity after the dismal tenure of his socialist predecessor, François Hollande, which was marred by terrorist attacks that plunged the nation into a long state of emergency. Macron’s victory broke the French political system, long dominated by the center left and center right. He created a new centrist party, En Marche (On the Move), and then lead it to a huge majority in the French National Assembly.
But Macron’s mandate was weaker than it looked: The legislative elections that En Marche dominated featured the lowest turnout in 50 years. The presidential election, in which Macron thumped the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate Marine Le Pen, had the lowest turnout in 40 years—and many voters who didn’t like Macron voted for him only to stop the unthinkable ascendance of Le Pen. In the contested April first-round, Macron took just 24 percent of the vote. So far, he has managed to overcome street protests against his reforms, but his popularity was down to 23 percent after the fracas in Paris this weekend. He is no longer seen as a reformer, but as a distant imperial figure working on behalf of the rich.
On Saturday, tens of thousands of demonstrators faced off against tear gas–happy police on the Champs-Elysées, and for a while, at least, had the run of the place. Yellow-vested protesters took over the Arc de Triomphe, looted stores, and set fire to hundreds of cars in the neighborhood. The confrontations sent French politics and media into a frenzy.
To make a direct comparison, what happened Saturday was as if marchers and cops had fought a pitched battle that combined widespread vandalism on Fifth Avenue with graffiti on the Washington Monument. But that is not an instructive parallel. French presidents are always unpopular, French people love to protest, and French cops love to beat people up. So in some ways Saturday’s events were well within the traditions of French democracy, and you better believe the gilets jaunes saw it that way—and themselves in the tradition of 1968.
“They say we’re attacking the symbols of the Republic,” one protester told Le Monde after slogans were scrawled on the Arc de Triomphe in black spray paint. “But the Republic is the people in the streets, not a statue!” “Many regret the violence, few condemn it, and everyone can explain it,” the paper concluded. (Others, including Le Pen, accused the police of letting events spiral out of control to discredit the movement.)
The Macron administration had an explanation too: that the well-meaning gilet jaunes had been joined by riotous elements looking to make trouble. What is certainly true is that the gilet jaunes were only one element of the unlikely weekend coalition that included (among many other groups) ambulance crews, activists protesting the death of Adama Traoré, antifa, and the anti-immigrant far right. Unlike the capital’s frequent labor-organized marches, Saturday’s events had few experienced marchers and little internal organization.
If you’re tired of the anecdote-based reporting that has characterized American media coverage of Trump supporters, you’ll hate reading about the gilet jaunes. There’s nothing to do but interview them. Whatever Trumpian currents have flowed through their movement—the whiteness, the claim to working-class status, violence against journalists, hatred of the urban elite—this movement has no Trump, and they assign blame for their struggles up the economic ladder, toward Parisian bankers and bureaucrats, rather than down it, toward the country’s impoverished immigrant neighborhoods.
Thanks to a vague, crowdsourced set of complaints about Macron’s administration, the movement has widespread support: both Le Pen and left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon (the French Bernie Sanders, basically) have tried to position themselves as fellow travelers and called for new legislative elections. The movement has generated lots of sympathy from Le Pen and Mélenchon voters, as well as the center-left socialists, according to a Dec.
2 Harris poll. Even members of the Republicans—the right-wing party of the Catholic bourgeoisie—are narrowly in favor.
The diffuse, leaderless nature of the movement has made it difficult for the government to respond. On Friday, while Macron was in Argentina for the G-20 meeting, Philippe tried to meet with a group of self-appointed gilets jaunes leaders. Only two showed up. On Sunday, members of the group outlined a series of structural demands in a weekly paper, including regular referendums on big issues and proportional representation in legislative elections. They also asked for an immediate annulation of the new diesel tax and a halt to new auto regulations. But another planned meeting with Philippe, set for Tuesday, was canceled after those members said they had been “threatened” by their peers in the movement.
They got the diesel tax suspended. But other Yellow Vests say they won’t stop short of Macron’s resignation. There’s a burgeoning sense among political leaders that Macron’s original sin was reducing taxes on France’s richest citizens by some $3 billion. The unemployment rate remains high. There’s a lot to complain about—and a feeling that now is a time to air your grievances, whatever they are.
Parisian high schoolers, for example, couldn’t care less about a tax on diesel fuel. But on Monday, at the Maurice-Ravel High School in Paris’ 20th arrondissement, police used tear gas to disperse a student protest. A 16-year-old named Nathan summed it up to a reporter from Le Parisien: “We want to profit from the chaos to make ourselves heard. People are fed up, it’s the time for all the struggles to converge. If we stay inactive, looking at the situation right now, we haven’t understood anything and we’ll get nothing. We know we have a way to put pressure on the government.”
For now, it’s working.