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How the gilets jaunes could save Macron’s skin

Credit Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

January 24, 2019   7 mins

France’s gilets jaunes rebellion goes on – and on. It is receding, certainly. It is splitting. It is changing. It has taken worrying directions. It is as hard to define as ever. It is fading in its heartlands. But it is not collapsing.

The movement began two months ago as an apparently leaderless grassroots and social media rebellion in peripheral and struggling France. It continues to prosper online, where a thousand conspiracy theories thrive.

It still generates sizeable, but less than overwhelming, demonstrations in French cities every Saturday. The protests in some cities – Bordeaux, Toulouse, Caen – are often violent. Other protests, including those in Paris last weekend, show signs of becoming more disciplined and peaceful.

President Emmanuel Macron, stunned at first by the vehement hatred of the gilets jaunes, is fighting back. He is rising in the opinion polls for the first time in nine months (although his popularity remains at historically low levels). His performances at a series of marathon debates with small town mayors have been impressive. A man who glided serenely to the highest position in the nation before the age of 40 might yet survive, even learn from, his first great ordeal by public loathing.

Faced with competition from Macron’s Great National Debate, the yellow vests are dividing. Part of the movement is tempted to enter traditional politics. Another part talks of “intensifying” or “hardening” its tactics. There are plans for a series of night-time protests. There is talk of a general strike from early next month.

What is evident, driving around France in recent days, is that the movement has wilted in its rural and outer-suburban heartlands. In mid-November, 40% of the cars in my part of Normandy displayed yellow high-vis vests on their dashboards. My own unscientific poll of the yellow splodges in car windscreens in rural Calvados now averages 14 per cent.

I have also talked to local people who support the gilets jaunes and some who do not. There remains great sympathy for the yellow vests but also growing exasperation.

Henriette, a retired cleaner in her early seventies, said:

“Yes, they had a good point about high fuel taxes and about pensions and about the cost of living. It’s true that our taxes go up and the local services don’t get better. And like them, I can’t stand Macron. He is arrogant and he is cold.

“But the protests have been going on too long. I don’t like the violence. I don’t like the violent language. Macron has made some concessions. Fuel prices are down. It’s time for them to stop. They are damaging the country. Who will benefit from that?”

In November, my “local” gilets jaunes, 80-strong, joyously annexed the roundabout at the edge of Thury-Harcourt (Pop 2,000). Their self-proclaimed leader, José, 61, gave me a passionate explanation of the yellow vest movement, which was then just beginning.

“We’ve been betrayed by every President and Prime Minister for 40 years, he said at that time. “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 has been drained. People can no longer live on what they earn…”

I have been back a couple of times in the past few days. A dozen remain, determined but more subdued. They no longer block the roundabout. They stand beside it with a brazier and a small tent.

“José? He is no longer here. We have split in two,” one of the remaining yellow vests told me. “He and the others went off with our money, €500 that we collected from motorists.”

The others chorused unflattering comments about their former, self-appointed leader. They are gentle, reasonable people – a home-carer, a warehouse worker, an unemployed father of two, a grandmother who says that she is “comfortably off” but worried about the prospects for her grandchildren. They have food and drink on a trestle table. The gathering resembles a social club more than a social movement.

They are first-time, rural revolutionaries. They have no ideology. Some would say that they have no clearly formed political ideas. “We’re against all politicians and we are anti-politics,” said Annie, a home carer in her fifties. “We want a new system in which decisions are made at the base and for the base.”

On the past two weekends of protest in French cities, fellow journalists were disgracefully assaulted by a violent fringe of gilets jaunes as “collaborationists”. My locals offer me a coffee. They are happy to chat.

They insist that they are peaceful but they refuse to condemn the violence at the weekend protests in Paris and other cities. Like the more militant yellow vests, they see the movement not as a protest but as an uprising that will end when they have overturned existing democratic institutions.

The political class, starting with Macron, should be swept away. All decisions should be taken by popular vote or Référenda d’Initiative Citoyenne (citizens’ initiative referenda). There must be higher pensions, lower taxes, better services and better welfare payments. All should be financed from the billions saved when the glittering salaries and expenses of politicians are abolished.

I point out that only a small percentage of French state spending goes into the pocket of politicians. The great bulk of taxpayers’ money already goes to healthcare, education, defence and welfare. It may be true that local services have declined, and wages, pensions and welfare payments have not kept pace with inflation. It is not true – as their social media presence proclaims – that the poor in France subsidise the rich or that the struggling periphery underwrites the success of booming cities.

We discuss these things, without reaching any common ground. The name of Brigitte Macron comes up often. She has become an object of lurid and malign fantasy, a Queen Marie-Antoinette de nos jours. They tell me that they read on Facebook that the Premiere Dame’s “salary” and expenses have been raised to €550,000 a year. How can that be justified?

It doesn’t need to be justified, I say. Because it’s not true. France has no official First Lady. Madame Macron’s earnings and personal expenses from the state are zero. They refuse to accept this. We part amicably.

There is gulf in attitude between such grassroots gilets and the militant crowds – mobs in some cases – who invade French cities on Saturday. Many of the weekend protesters are peaceful but there is a large minority that seeks confrontation with the police, and smashes and burns when it has the chance. Some of this violent fringe are “genuine”, rural protesters. Others are young, urban political extremists.

A French police source told Le Figaro: “This is no longer an amateur movement. Its apparent disorganisation is deliberate, intended to defy the rules, destabilise the Republic and create the conditions for an insurrection.”

Is the gilets jaunes movement still leaderless and non-ideological? Some French commentators insist that it never was.

There is an undoubted influence from the far-Right: several prominent gilets jaunes “spokespeople” have connections or sympathies. Absurd anti-semitic and alt-right conspiracy theories proliferate on gilets jaunes social media. France has been “sold” to the United Nations. Alsace and Lorraine have been ceded to Germany. The Russian economy boomed after Vladimir Putin threw out the Rothschild banks.

There is also an attempted hijacking by the ultra-Left. Some gilets jaunes leaders speak of the movement as a “class war”. The most violent of the “weekends only” protesters are bourgeois, metropolitan youths who belong to antifascist, anticapitalist militias.

And yet there are also signs that the movement is becoming more structured in traditional ways. One tribe of “yellow vests” has announced plans  to run candidates in the European elections in May. Another tribe, under one of the founders of the movement, Jaclin Mouraud, has started a political party under the name “Les Emergents”.

But there are also the first signs of a public backlash. This weekend a coalition of three anti-gilets jaunes movements will hold a rally for “Republican liberties” in Paris. They hope that at least 10,000 people will join the march. One of the organisers, Laurent Segnis, a 36-year-old lawyer from the outer Paris suburbs, told me:

“The gilets jaunes have legitimate grievances. This is not a pro-Macron march. It is a cry of anger at the gilets jaunes pretence that they are ‘the people’. It is a rejection of their increasingly fascistic demands to pull down the democratic institutions of the Republic.”

Where is it all going? The gilets jaunes movement is like no other protest that I have seen in 22 years of covering France. After two months, it defies all categorisation.

You can portray it as a legitimate cry of anger against the neglect of peripheral France – wealthy cities pushing young families into the suburbs, poor public transport, reduced public services, high taxes, low wages and pensions. A report on BBC Radio Four this week on the yellow vest protests in Bordeaux made these points well.

It failed to report that the city has suffered violent rioting and arson on successive Saturdays by a fringe of militant gilets jaunes and ultra-Left or anarchist allies. It failed to point out that, for many of the remaining gilets jaunes, this is no longer a social protest with specific demands. It is an insurrection, a Saturdays-only putsch.

Alternatively, you can, like some commentators, dismiss the movement as a disguised manifestation of the far Right, manipulated by the American alt-right or Russian websites. There would be some truth in that also. It would not explain the distress and first-time militancy of the well-meaning people on the roundabout at Thury-Harcourt.

President Macron has already made substantial concessions on the de facto minimum wage, fuel prices and taxes on overtime. He has launched a nationwide debate that will, among other things, look at the byzantine French tax system and ways of introducing a dose of direct democracy into the centralised, top-down tradition of the Fifth Republic.

He cannot “answer” all the demands of the remaining gilets jaunes because their demands – his resignation 20 months after his election and the abolition of representative democracy – are ill-conceived and anti-democratic. The protesters, for all their pretension to be “the people”, are too weak to impose their vision of an egalitarian France governed by popular vote. Result: deadlock.

The protests are likely to continue for many weeks, even months. Macron’s great hope – not far-fetched – is that the bulk of the French people, tolerant and even sympathetic until now, will grow angry with the protesters’ absolutism and “jusqu’au-boutisme” (bitter-endism).

France dislikes politicians on principle, and especially those it has just elected. If it must have politicians, it likes them to be marinated in failure and proven in adversity. Macron has a chance to emerge as a wiser and less self-regarding Macron II.

The latest polls show his party jumping ahead by five points to recapture the lead in the European elections in May from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. If part of the gilets movement does run candidates of its own, they will take votes away from the far Right and the far Left. The great beneficiary would, paradoxically, be Emmanuel Macron. In other words, the French part of the EU-wide poll in May will be the most interesting European elections in European history.

There is, however, another, darker possible outcome. After 10 successive weekends of protest, French police are exhausted. Allegations of systematic police brutality carried on social media and magnified by Russian-controlled news sites are, by my own observation, mendacious. Most of the violence has been initiated by a fringe of gilets jaunes and their allies.

But there have been worrying of incidents of police violence, including the aggressive rather than defensive use of rubber bullets and stun grenades. The longer the protests continue, the greater the chance of a truly nasty incident – or series of incidents, which could tip the yellow rebellion into a calamitous new phase.


To read more of John Lichfield’s reporting on the gilets jaunes, click here

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.


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