José Edouard is standing in the middle of a roundabout at the edge of a small Norman town. He is the leader, or coordinator, of the local “gilets jaunes” – yellow vests – France’s rural and outer-suburban revolutionaries.
But what exactly do the gilets jaunes want? The rebellion began last month as a protest against high fuel taxes and petrol pump prices. Pump prices have since plunged with the global oil price. President Emmanuel Macron has promised to moderate fuel taxes if oil prices surge again.
End of the rebellion? Not at all, say the yellow vests. This is about much more than fuel prices. It’s about the cost of living. It’s about the collapse of rural economies. It’s about high taxation. It’s about the failure of successive French leaders to connect the booming economy of French cities to the large spaces between them and the new bungalow estates on their fringes.
But don’t listen to me, listen to Monsieur Edouard, who is standing with 30 other people blocking traffic (briefly) at the edge of his home town. He is 61 years old. He is a retired building contractor, and he has never been involved in any political movement before. He describes himself as a “humanist”. He lives in Thury Harcourt, a town of 2,000 people 20 miles south of Caen in the beautiful Calvados hills.
“We want Macron to go because he is an illegitimate President, elected by default. But it’s not just about him. We’ve been betrayed by every President and Prime Minister for 40 years. Everything has been for big finance, for the banks, for the wealthy and nothing for the people in the middle or at the bottom.”
“Every local source of wealth in France, every local economy (bassin d’emploi) has been drained. People can no longer live on what they earn. After the tenth month, they rely on loans to get them through the eleventh month and the twelfth. A young man entering the building industry today gets 1,000 euros a month – the same as 30 years ago. Do you know how much everything has gone up in 30 years, not just pump prices, but food, heating, rent, clothes? People just can’t live any more. They are crushed.”
“At the same time you see that the rich are getting away with lower taxes or not paying tax at all. Look at [Carlos] Gohn, [head of Renault and Nissan] with his multi-million euro houses bought for him by Nissan. Public services are being massacred because of people like him. There is now a ‘medical desert’ in many country places. Post offices are closing. Public transport is being ripped apart. But we could afford those things if everyone paid their fair shares into the state.”
I point at the illuminated sign just beside him advertising diesel at the Super U supermarket for 1.39 euros a litre. When the protests began it was 1.51 euros a litre. The number of people who are blocking roads all over France is shrinking day by day. The violence in Paris last weekend, mostly the work of fringe extremists, has alienated some supporters.
Is the yellow vest movement not bound to fade away as petrol prices fall; as the government offers a series of regional conferences on local grievances; and as the weather grows colder?
“That’s what the media says and that’s what the government may hope. But it’s not going to happen,” Mr Edouard replied. “This is a revolution not a protest. It’s a peaceful revolution and will remain peaceful for a while. But not peaceful forever if we don’t get what we want. This is not just about pump prices. This is about people having a decent life in return for a day’s work. It’s about respect. It’s about justice. It’s about democracy.”
“We demand a referendum so that we can get rid of Macron but we don’t want just to replace him with another Macron. Hollande was just as bad. And Sarkozy. And Chirac. We don’t have any trust in any of the mainstream political parties. And we have no time for Le Pen or Mélenchon either. I cannot abide Le Pen’s values. I am a humanist.”
“What we want is to sweep away all the political structures of the Fifth Republic. We want direct democracy. We want politicians who come from the people. We want political institutions which are controlled directly by the people. We want people to be able to say directly whether they accept a law or not.”
I know Thury Harcourt well. I live mostly in a hamlet 10 kilometres away. I have no doubt about José Edouard’s sincerity or his genuine anger or his claim that he has never been involved in politics before.
But the depth of the anger can be difficult to understand for an outsider – even an outsider who has lived in the area for two decades like me. Thury Harcourt is a sad little town in some ways. It was partly destroyed by the RAF in June 1944 and the remains burned down by the SS two months later. It has never fully recovered.
But, compared to many similar small towns in Britain or the United States, it is thriving. It has a full array of local shops. It has a brand-new medical centre, with three resident doctors, four nurses and other medical practitioners.
There is a cheap, though infrequent, bus service to Caen. A new 30-mile cycle and foot path on the trackbed of an abandoned railway line has brought in hundreds of new visitors. Wages in France stagnated in the early 2000s but they are now rising again, on average. Why all the anger?
There are genuine grievances, locally and nationally. In Thury Harcourt, an electronics factory with 52 jobs is about to close. Many of the town’s residents live in small bungalow estates. They have emigrated from Caen for cheaper homes and now resent the cost of petrol and diesel for their commute to work. They are also furious that the speed limit on two-lane roads in France was reduced from 90kph to 80kph in July. They are convinced this is just another trick to siphon cash, in the form of speeding fines, from rural areas to subsidise the booming cities.
But there is also something existential about the rural and outer suburban anguish which feeds the yellow vest movement. Thury Harcourt, like many small towns, used to have its own local seams of prosperity – iron ore, small-scale farming, linen. All are gone. Light industry now comes and goes.
Similar problems exist in Britain or other countries but it is important to remember the relative vastness and emptiness of rural France. Hundreds of small towns, like Thury Harcourt, stand far outside the glow of prosperity from big metropolitan areas like Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon or Grenoble. It is difficult to imagine any government programme which could replace the local sources of energy, pride and prosperity that have vanished and will not come back.
The movement is also fed by outer-suburban anger at high pump prices, low-paid jobs and relatively poor public transport. For decades people in these areas have felt powerless or frustrated. A series of governments of centre-Left and centre-Right have come and gone without addressing their problems. The traditional structures of Left-Right politics in France collapsed at last year’s election. President Emmanuel Macron, not yet 40 years old, surfed to the Elysée Palace partly on a series of strokes of good luck, partly because people already wanted a ‘new politics’.
In rural and suburban France, Macron was never popular. He is now regarded – partly fairly, partly unfairly – as a President who cares only for the cities and the rich.
Most French political commentators have been taken by surprise by the yellow vest movement. They patronise or mock it: “The country is demanding more services and lower taxes…We elected a president but we need a magician.”
Others, more wisely, point out that this is a rebellion by people who have never rebelled before. It should not be dismissed as a plot by the far-Right or far-Left (although both have infiltrated the movement at its fringes).
In recent days, I have made several journeys across one of the the heartlands of yellow vest protests in western France. It is clear that the gilets jaunes are enjoying themselves. After years of feeling powerless, their yellow vests (which French motorists have to carry by law) have given them a uniform to be proud of. To stand beside a local roundabout blocking cars gives them a sense of power – a sense of striking back at the amorphous forces of official and metropolitan France.
The fact that you only have to walk or drive a short distance to be part of a nationwide rebellion is also a source of joy and pride. The movement reminds me of that great French institution, the Tour de France. The two week cycle race is popular because it is national and global but also comes ‘down your way’.
And yet, the gilets jaunes movement worries me. The demands range from the sensible to the demagogic and dangerous. No two groups of yellow vests seem to say the same thing. They ‘elected’ eight national spokespeople this week, but their legitimacy was immediately challenged by other gilets jaunes.
I put my worries to José Edouard on Thury Harcourt’s only roundabout. Is it not dangerous to demand the overturn of all democratic institutions? Is ‘people’s democracy’ not an invitation to chaos?
“Why? Do you think the people are stupid?” he replied. “No. There are many very able and honest people who have never been politicians and never been active in any party. That’s who we need to turn to now, people who understand the lives of ordinary people in places like this.”
Idealism; rejection of all politics and the institutions of the state; no clear programme. The gilets jaunes may be destroyed by its own contradictions. It may morph into a permanent and healthy new force in French politics.
Or, it could degenerate into a kind of nihilism. Lets smash everything down and rebuild it. The great bulk of the movement is sincere and well-intentioned and angry. But the danger is that it will tip into something disorderly and finally anti-democratic.
Politics is unsatisfactory precisely because the people’s demands are complicated and contradictory. Representative democracy, cumbersome though it is, tries to balance competing demands. ‘Popular democracy’ is an easy phrase but a naïve one.
I have much sympathy for the gilets jaunes. But a movement presented as People v the Elites could easily transform into people against democracy.
To read more of John Lichfield’s reporting on the gilets jaunes, click here