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Illustration by Roberto Parada

The People’s Emergency

France’s gilets jaunes protests are the latest Western uprising against rule by technocratic insiders.

In France, the neon-yellow vests known as gilets jaunes are like proverbial opinions: Everyone has one, or at least every motorist does. In case of a breakdown, drivers are supposed to don these reflective garments and lay a high-visibility “warning triangle” (also provided in one’s kit de sécurité) on the road in front of their vehicles. When men and women wearing yellow vests began slowing down traffic at hundreds of ronds-points (traffic circles) throughout the countryside last November, and then massing by the thousands on Saturdays in Paris, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, it was hard to dismiss them as a bunch of radical-fringe demonstrators. They were wearing the uniform the government itself had asked good citizens to wear to make themselves visible in an emergency.

This, however, was a different kind of emergency. What set the movement off was a number of inegalitarian regulations and taxes passed at the urging of Emmanuel Macron, France’s unpopular president. There was a carbon tax (not initiated by Macron but steadily rising), a special tax on diesel (which most French cars still use), and a reduction of the speed limit to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph). Other grievances had been simmering below the surface for a long time: widening inequality, stalled economic growth, shifting demography, threatened identity.

Yellow vests were rich in symbolism, intended or not. They were the uniform of Everyman, the invisible made visible. They were what Romans 13:12 calls “the armor of light.” The movement called to mind others that had mixed protest and a kind of pageantry: the masked Zapatistas of Chiapas in the early 1990s, or those Thai supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra who, a decade ago, were pouring blood on everything. In its lack of leaders, it was like Occupy Wall Street, or the initial stirrings of the Tea Party. In its use of the internet to organize and incite, it took a page from Black Lives Matter.

The participants were not so numerous: Fewer than two million belong to the most popular of its Facebook groups, and protesters peaked at under 300,000 nationwide last November 17. By mid-March, their Saturday demonstrations were barely drawing 10,000 people nationwide. But the gilets jaunes movement has enjoyed an astonishing resonance. Until the turn of the year, most polls showed about three-quarters of the French population backing the protests.

These numbers are especially strong in light of the abiding cynicism of the French public. As the protests began, the 30 percent approval rating of the nationalist Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally party, made her the most popular politician in the country, while Macron stood at half of Le Pen’s polled support—15 percent. By March, the polls told a more ambiguous story: a recovery for Macron, a wish among most people that the gilets jaunes stop their antics, but still a solid majority (54 percent to 30) in sympathy with them. Broadly speaking, there were two interpretations of the protesters: Either they were the country’s perennial protagonists, those whom French history is supposed to be of, by, and for—le peuple. Or they were a mob, a bunch of unproductive agitators against whom the state had to take strong measures—la foule. Macron is trying to win a skeptical public over to the latter understanding. When protests in mid-March grew unruly, and culminated in smashed businesses on the Champs-Elysées, Macron mobilized the army, as if the gilets jaunes had themselves become an emergency.

All of European politics is today about demographics—if not directly, then at one or two removes. Last winter, the demographer Hervé Le Bras explained to the news site Konbini that the map of the gilets jaunes movement is a map of the parts of France that are losing population. This is France’s version of Trump country: A lot of it lies in a rough diagonal running northeast to southwest from the border with Belgium and Luxembourg down to the Massif Central. A word one hears again and again in France is désertification. Except for a few vacation-home and high-tech outposts, the country’s smaller cities are losing people, shedding businesses, and taking on the appearance of ghost towns. One sees it in Cherbourg, the setting for romantic movies a few decades ago, where today the sound of your footsteps echoes off the plate-glass windows with “For Rent” signs taped behind them.

Partly to blame is what Americans call the Walmart problem. All-purpose big-box stores, of which Carrefour is the best known, are a thriving sector of the French economy. Where they exist, they’ve sucked the life out of city after city. One French friend mentions a sister who retired to the village they grew up in, to find all its establishments shuttering around her—the cafés, the post office, two butchers’ shops. Her parents retired to the small city of Vierzon, where the downtown emptied of shops and a highway cut them off from familiar woods. After a while, they no longer had any logical place to go on a Sunday walk. They contented themselves with going to a Carrefour on the outskirts of town to drink a hot chocolate. Every non-Parisian in France has stories like this.

Gilet Jaune protesters gather in front of the Sacre Coeur Basilica at Montmartre in Paris on March 23, 2019.
Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty

Christophe Guilluy, the geographer whose books La France périphérique and Fractures françaises first drew wide attention to the problem of desertification, believes there is something more general at work than a revolution in retail. Over lunch in Paris in early winter, he described his visits to Scandinavia (where the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats took 18 percent of the vote in last September’s elections) and Quebec (where the anti-immigration Coalition for Quebec’s Future toppled the province’s older liberal and separatist parties). When it comes to the economic and political effect of globalization on rural areas, Guilluy says, “Western societies are living under the same dynamic. The sociology, whether Italian, American, or Swedish, is exactly the same.”

To take the TER train in Burgundy, along the meandering Yonne between Auxerre and Clamecy, is to travel through the ageless mystery of rural France: the strangely tilted farmland, the canals and barges, the herons, the bursts of mistletoe in the trees, the exotically named towns (St-Bris-le-Vineux, Vincelles, Mailly-la-Ville, Coulanges-sur-Yonne) and their little stone train stations shaped like monopoly houses. Clamecy itself had 5,900 people in the mid-1970s, when it also had factories, notably for making charcoal, but that business stopped in 1981. It only has 3,900 people now. It remains a pretty place, with a church dating from the thirteenth century and a museum dedicated to novelist Romain Rolland, the 1915 Nobel Prize winner, who was born there. It has a sophisticated used-book store, beloved of Parisians who come on weekends. But the only activity in the center of town on a weekday is in the bar Mon Oncle Benjamin, where locals rub scratch-off tickets while horse races run on the flat-screen TV. The mayor, Claudine Boisorieux, who represents the non-Socialist left, was born there. “When I walk around,” she said in December, “I think ‘This was the house of a lawyer,’ ‘This was the house of a doctor’ ... and they’re just not there anymore.”

Whether as cause or effect, the lights are going out on public services in Clamecy. The train-station ticket window is open only a half-day a week. The maternity hospital closed a decade ago. Keeping the emergency clinic open 24 hours a day is an ongoing battle. But in recent years such battles have moved onto different terrain. Now when the government looks for “savings” in a place like Clamecy, it can no longer cut services, because there are almost none left to cut. It must levy new taxes.

It is not easy to understand the gilets jaunes without considering the personality and professional trajectory of Emmanuel Macron. A product of France’s elite École Nationale d’Administration, he worked as an investment banker, earning about $1.5 million a year until shortly before becoming minister of the economy under his Socialist predecessor, François Hollande, in 2014. He was 36 then. Macron put together a law that bore his name, aimed at “unlocking” the entrepreneurial dynamism of the French economy—in part by permitting shopping on Sundays, in part by cutting regulation, in part by making it easier to lay people off. To an American, this rhetoric and these justifications will sound like a rehash of the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, Reaganomics, and the long reign of the supply-siders. Hollande, though, had come to power saying, “My real adversary ... is the world of finance.” To his supporters, the Macron law was a shock.

Macron bet that taking the side of the economy’s winners was something Socialist voters were ready to do. His bet appeared stupid to many, but the subsequent rupture showed it to have been savvy and bold. In recent years, France’s Socialist Party has had a coalition resembling that of the U.S. Democrats: a wobbly three-legged stool of various human rights movements, many of them race- and gender-based, a shrinking traditional working class, and the crème de la crème of the new economy. Macron’s competitiveness law strained the alliance, and Hollande needed parliamentary legerdemain to get it passed.

Macron bolted the government soon thereafter, and in 2016 launched a movement and a presidential candidacy. His rapid rise made it apparent he had understood his adopted Socialist family better than politicians born into it. The ethnic-minority groups and intellectuals in the Socialist coalition had parties on the left to go to. The old working class had Le Pen. The real heart of the Socialist Party turned out to be its progressive urban rich—les bobos, as they are called, after a coinage of David Brooks’s. Macron managed to woo them all away. Under France’s multi-candidate, two-round system, he advanced to the runoff in 2017 with 24 percent of the vote, with the other three main candidates right on his tail. He was lucky to draw Le Pen in the runoff, and drubbed her (as any of the others would have) by a 2-to-1 margin. His new party—scrambled together out of Socialists, defectors from the right, and previously apolitical people excited about Macron personally—triumphed in the legislative elections that followed.

The point of this thumbnail account of recent French campaign history is to identify the tinder for last winter’s political wildfire: A lot of French people believe Macron is indifferent to the problems of those who have not found their footing in the feverishly globalizing cyber-economy. Macron has the habit, bizarre for a democratic politician, of talking about (and to) the non-rich as if they were losers. At the launch of a center for internet startups, he contrasted people who had succeeded at business with other people—“people who are nothing.” He did this so often that it began to seem possible that his haughtiness was not a mistake but a conviction.

Or perhaps, again, it was a matter of strategy, the result of a worldview formed in a more stable and deferential time—say, 20 years ago, when the average citizen respected the meritocracy and trusted the judgment of its beneficiaries about what was acceptable and what beyond the pale. Surely that is what Hillary Clinton was thinking when she made her “basket of deplorables” remark at a fundraiser that was open to the press. It cannot have been a slip; it had to have been a strategic miscalculation.

Before 2017 was over, Macron abolished the impôt sur la fortune, a wealth tax of around 1 percent paid by the 340,000 richest French families. Rarely will you talk to a gilet jaune for more than 15 minutes who does not mention it. And Macron announced another priority that year: a rise in the tax on diesel of just under 34 cents a gallon. But where he had correctly anticipated the softness in Socialists’ views about business regulation, he was blindsided by the public’s resistance to gas taxes. It is not surprising. A large part of Macron’s coalition could ride the Paris Metro, and many took a dim view of the automobile to begin with.

It became common to speak of the gilets jaunes as spoiled brats, living above their means. But the means of rural people had steadily been reduced as a matter of government policy. As the monthly magazine Capital noted, the average earner with the average car commute already paid more in fuel tax than he did in income tax. When you had to drive 30 miles to see your obstetrician or your ophthalmologist or to shop for clothes, you were robbed of time—and time, as they say, is money. The new, eco-friendly 50-mile-an-hour speed limit didn’t help.

People had reason to feel duped. For decades, when diesel was thought a cleaner fuel than gasoline, the French government taxed it at a lower rate, incentivizing drivers to buy diesel cars. But in the intervening years, the various nitrogen compounds known as NOx (NO, NO2, N2O), which diesel produces in profusion, had come to worry environmentalists as much as gasoline’s carbon dioxide. In late 2014, France reversed course. Since the new tax was being launched as part of a plan to phase out diesel, these cars’ resale value would likely drop dramatically.

Last November 27, in a speech meant to show resolve against the protests that were only then beginning, Macron uttered a bon mot that had been making the rounds among Paris journalists and politicians: He described the argument over the diesel tax as a clash between those who cared about saving the planet (la fin du monde) and those who worried about making it to payday (la fin du mois). Viewed this way, the battle was between rich people’s idealism and poor people’s selfishness.

That was a collective slander. There are American parallels to almost everything that has gone on in the gilets jaunes drama, but there are differences, too. One is that there is no significant constituency in French public opinion, including in the gilets jaunes, that would quarrel with Macron on the nature and extent of climate change. What was at issue in the November protests was not global warming but who would be asked to pay for it. Macron’s answer seemed to be: everyone who couldn’t afford to live in Paris.

The following weekend, tens of thousands of people descended on Paris, and battled the police at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe. The more zealous among them ripped up everything that was not nailed down across several blocks of the 8th and 16th arrondissements. A few days later, it would be reported that 1,700 of the 3,200 speed-radar cameras in France had been stolen, vandalized, or otherwise rendered inoperative.

In the first days of December, Macron cancelled the diesel tax. Then, in a prerecorded television address on December 10, he promised a higher minimum wage and a tax exemption for overtime. True, he did nothing about the speed limit decreases. But the concession was historic. The government needed those taxes that its suburbanites and country folk had been due to cough up. Doing without them would knock a great hole in the budget. In fact, it threatens the whole project around which Macron had hoped to build his presidency.

In Paris in January 2019, a gilets jaunes protester walks past a mural on Rue d’Aubervilliers, painted by the street artist Pascal Boyart. The mural presents a contemporary version of the iconic work Liberty Leading the People, by Eugène Delacroix.
Kiran Ridley/Getty

That project is to rescue the European Union from the fecklessness and the sense of its own illegitimacy that arose in the wake of Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, and the consolidation of conservative, nationalist, and Euroskeptic governments in Hungary and Poland, and later in Italy, Austria, and the Spanish region of Andalucía. The key is to rebuild France’s postwar alliance with Germany, an alliance that has weakened along with France’s economy and influence. Germany is Europe’s banker, its creditor. Indebted Southern European countries trapped inside the euro (the EU’s shared currency) are condemned to a regime of austerity until they can replicate Germany’s fiscal habits. And that cannot happen anytime soon, since doing as Germany does would require capital investments that an indebted country cannot afford. The whole arrangement therefore looks untenable, especially in Italy, with its $2.6 trillion in national debt.

Macron’s hope seemed to be that France could show itself fiscally responsible enough to coax German Chancellor Angela Merkel into easing the pressure on France and its southern neighbors. That in turn might slow the Europe-wide drift to nationalist parties. Merkel was the only German leader with whom such an arrangement would be conceivable. But she hemorrhaged votes to a new nationalist party, Alternative for Germany, in a national election on September 24, 2017, and Macron suffered a drubbing in Senate elections the same day. At a long-planned speech two days later, he offered only the dimmest outline of a program.

Getting France on an even footing with Germany was a delicate operation to begin with. Macron had to show that France is “open for business” (to use the term of art for cutting rich people’s taxes) while running a tight ship (to use the term for raising taxes on somebody else).

The announcement that the diesel tax would be withdrawn came shortly after the EU economic commissioner, Macron’s onetime Socialist colleague Pierre Moscovici, had declared Italy’s proposed budget deficit of 2.4 percent excessive, and liable to disciplinary action. Now Macron’s concessions broke the bank, pointing to a likely French deficit of 3.4 percent. Was France disciplined as Italy had been? No. But its deficits placed a heavy lien on Macron’s political authority that did not go unremarked in Berlin and Frankfurt.

The day after Macron’s February speech, a dozen gilets jaunes were canvassing motorists at a traffic circle outside of Clamecy. Jérôme, a 41-year-old ambulance driver, said Macron was taking them for imbeciles. He complained about professional athletes dodging their taxes. One of his neighbors at the roundabout, a 66-year-old retiree, joked about decreasing purchasing power (pouvoir d’achat) and about the power of Muslim immigrants (pouvoir d’Aïcha, Aïcha, or Aisha, being the Prophet Muhammad’s third wife, after whom many French girls are now named). Even if not many people understood what he was talking about, they groaned at his puns in a friendly way. It seemed like a moment of old-fashioned neighborly coming-together.

The striking thing about this gathering was its conviviality. The protesters waved and smiled. They were polite to the motorists, and almost all the motorists honked back in solidarity. Alain de Benoist, the sage of the late-1970s “New Right,” was correct to say, in an interview with Sputnik France, that these gilets jaunes protests had reacquainted people with an idea of the “common good” that can be found in the works of Livy, Machiavelli, and James Harrington. They were discovering, de Benoist said, that the abstract solitary individual—all decked out with rights and choices, as envisioned by free-market liberals—doesn’t really exist. It was not surprising that such people were clashing with Macron, whose movement was built on uniting free-market liberals of all parties.

Solidarity, it turned out, was not enough to keep the gilets going. After the winter holidays, most returned to their workaday routines. But the larger movement now had momentum, and started attracting a different, more politicized sort of adherent, even as those of middle France seemed to step back. Opinions began to differ about what those peaceful groups gathered at the traffic circles last winter (le peuple) had to do with the groups now fighting police in the cities (la foule). According to one theory, these were indeed not the same people. The Paris demonstrations were joined by opportunistic radicals of other tendencies, left and right, and by looters “from the projects” (des cités)—such descriptions being a common French bureaucratic code for ethnic minorities.

It grew confusing. On March 16, hardened protesters reemerged in Paris, after being quiescent for many weeks. Battling police once more in front of the Arc de Triomphe, they wore black clothes, and half of them also wore gilets jaunes. Protesters on the Champs-Élysées smashed Fouquet’s, the restaurant where conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated his 2007 election with campaign donors—and which thereafter came to symbolize, for both the press and the public, that he was the “president of the rich” (an epithet since applied to Macron). But there were also many gilets jaunes among the peaceful demonstrators at the climate march in the Place du Trocadéro a few blocks away.

Some months back, in December, Macron had made the inspired suggestion that the first weeks of this year be devoted to a “Great National Debate”—and took it upon himself to tell the public what its debates should cover: the “ecological transition,” taxation, democracy and citizenship, and the organization of public services. Of course, that left a lot of important stuff out. Yet the debates, which happened daily in dozens of school auditoriums and city-hall conference rooms across the nation, were solidly attended. Every week or so, Macron himself would travel to a debate in some remote corner of France and deliver a forensic ass-kicking to a few modestly educated private citizens, an exercise in democracy his Parisian supporters seemed to enjoy as much as he did.

Most of these debates, though, were modest, local affairs. One took place at the end of February in the municipality of Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, just south of Paris. (Although it has at times been a Communist stronghold, Le Kremlin-Bicêtre got the first half of its name from Napoleon’s veterans, not Stalin’s.) The meeting transpired in a low-ceilinged, linoleum-floored, fluorescent-lit room that looked like the basement of a down-at-the-heels American church. About 80 people were there, ten of whom were gilets jaunes. The gilets wandered between the four tables, insisting that the participants were sticking too obediently to the themes Macron had dictated, and complaining that no one would listen to grievances they had gathered from local residents. The gilets here were young, as racially diverse as metropolitan Paris, and mostly on the left. One of the women sitting with them had a beautiful lopsided pile of gray-dyed dreadlocks atop her head. Another wore a yellow vest of the CGT, the historically Communist-leaning trade union organization. Analogizing the gilets to the Tea Party and Trump will only take you so far.

Another, the most eloquent of the group, was a 25-year-old with slogans magic-markered all over his yellow vest, who gave his name only as Yannis. He worked in nearby Champigny-sur-Marne as a computer engineer. (“We’re not just a bunch of jobless,” he insisted.) Yannis wanted to talk about the number of people who had been wounded by police weapons-fire since the start of the protests, including 17, he said, wounded in the eyes. France, a rarity among countries in Europe, permits riot squads to fire LBD40 exploding “flashballs,” and in early March, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, called for an investigation of France’s crowd-control methods.

Yannis described himself as an ecological activist and a member of the extreme left. He talked about the role of violence in protests (“in every social struggle, there is a stigmatization of looting for the sake of discrediting the movement”) as one who had given it a great deal of thought. Looking at the people attending without yellow vests, Yannis said, “They still think this ‘debate’ is a debate.”

It would be wrong to think of the gilets jaunes as an element of instability within a mostly functional system. They are a sign that the system itself is churning. Macron, a product of the Socialist Party, has lately taken on more allies from the conservative establishment. Some of them are jovial, bipartisan figures from the early years of this century when, bonding around their horror at the American war in Iraq, the establishment wings of both the Socialist left and the Gaullist right found themselves in an unprecedented harmony. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, prime minister between 2002 and 2005, is almost the symbol of this period. He is backing Macron’s fledgling party in the run-up to May’s elections for the European Union parliament in Strasbourg. But others are throwbacks to a more polarized politics, like Alain Juppé, longtime mayor of Bordeaux, who was prime minister during France’s first attempt to reform its welfare state in 1995. The resulting strikes paralyzed France and helped drive Juppé from office two years later. Now that protests have wrecked the equanimity of the city Juppé spent nearly a quarter-century spiffing up, Macron has summoned him to Paris to take a seat on France’s mighty Constitutional Council, which vets new laws for their constitutionality.

Rather than a traditional French confrontation between the right and left, the rise of the gilets jaunes represents a conflict between insiders and outsiders. Under Macron’s leadership, the two historic major parties’ elites have met and merged, as has happened, in a way, in Germany’s grand coalition and in the British parliamentary coalition to stymie Brexit. All Western politics is realigning this way, and it may be a contingent matter that the United States began its realignment with Trump the outsider and France with Macron the insider. Had Hillary Clinton been elected, she would have shown Macron-like traits, and France has a half-dozen Trumps waiting in the wings.

From the beginning of his career in electoral politics, just three years ago, Macron has made himself a scourge of populists, describing the various European nationalist movements in a vocabulary so laced with contempt that the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano ran a recap of Macron’s rhetorical flourishes under the headline “From ‘Leprosy’ to ‘Vomit.’” Now he has his wish, for better or for worse. He is the standard-bearer for the European establishment and the European Union, and, as Angela Merkel’s career nears its end, the last best hope of both. The gilets jaunes are the French rallying point for those, left and right, old and young, peaceful and disruptive, who want to see this hope dashed. They are “everyone else,” just as they were at the beginning of Macron’s term.

The gilets jaunes, much written off, much misunderstood, have an appeal that is both mysterious and durable. If they have shown signs of degenerating into a mob, they have also shown signs of evolving into the voice of a people. When they appeared on the scene last fall, they fit the “populist” archetype through which we understand such movements in the Trump age. The grievances that gave rise to the movement resemble those you could hear in western Pennsylvania. But the movement’s culture is evolving into something that more resembles Occupy Wall Street, or French and Italian “anti-globalist” movements from the turn of this century. (François Ruffin, a street activist and Michael Moore–style filmmaker who became a member of the National Assembly in 2017, recently shot a film about the gilets, scheduled for release in April.)

This process occurred rapidly. You could see it in the polls early on. In late November, 42 percent of self-identified gilets told the pollster ELABE that they had supported Marine Le Pen in the first round of the 2017 elections—more than twice as many as the next nearest tendency, the leftist France Unbowed party (LFI), which attracts a lot of people who think like Yannis and accounted for 20 percent of the gilets. By early December, Le Pen’s share had fallen to 36 percent, and LFI’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s had risen to 28. Meanwhile, the old conservatives’ share in the movement roughly halved, and the old socialists’ share roughly doubled. The stable element was Macron, who had been backed by only 5 percent of gilets in both November and December.

This is not just a story of leftists “infiltrating” or “hijacking” a movement. It is more complicated. Until a few decades ago, we used to understand that a division of labor characterizes not just sophisticated economic systems but also the movements that arise to reform and combat them. When a system is in trouble, the people most able to diagnose the problem are not necessarily the ones most inclined to remedy it.

That is why France is so transfixed. A diagnosis was given last winter by a broad-based group of French people called gilets jaunes, who wave and smile at motorists in places like rural Burgundy. A forceful remedy is being proposed this spring by narrower groups of activists and ideologues, also called gilets jaunes, who are converging on the cities. Much rides on whether these two groups want the same things. Do they? “Vaste question,”
 Yannis replies.