18 November 2019

Macron’s France

On the barricades

The Gilets Jaunes thought they were leading a new French Revolution. They had another think coming

By John Lichfield

A year ago, a very French revolution came from nowhere and forced a determined, cocksure young president to change direction.

Alternatively: a year ago, a confused and rather unFrench revolution tried to overturn the country’s democratic institutions, failed and mutated into something banal and anti-capitalist.

Both versions are true. Other versions are available. Everyone can see what they want to see in the Gilets Jaunes.

The violence in Paris this past weekend marked the first anniversary of the movement and points mostly to the second interpretation of events – long ignored or obscured by French media. The Gilets Jaunes, once provincial and anti-political, have been hijacked by the metropolitan hard left.

The relatively weak mobilisation in the provinces on Saturday – 28,000 in the whole country, less than a tenth of the turn-out a year ago – suggests that the Gilets Jaunes version originale are much reduced or moribund if not quite dead.

The new, urban guerrilla Gilets Jaunes may remain troublesome for some time. Their behaviour – such as smashing up a war memorial to manufacture missiles to attack police and fire-fighters – will demolish much of the Yellow Vests’ remaining hold on French public opinion.

On 17 November last year, almost 300,00 people, young, old, male, female, working class, middle class, mostly provincial, mostly white, many of them previously politically unengaged, poured onto streets and roundabouts all over France. In a brilliant PR stroke, they adopted as their uniform the yellow, hi-vis bibs which French motorists are obliged by law to carry in their cars.

The protesters were saying, in effect: “We have been forgotten or ignored by the insolent, thriving France of the big cities. From now on, we will be highly visible.”

The Gilets Jaunes have now reached Acte 53 of their rebellion – 53 weekend putsches or would-be Saturdays Only revolutions. Even in the early, exuberant weeks, they never came remotely near the popular support they needed to tear down the institutions of the Fifth Republic. But they did force President Emmanuel Macron into U-turns including 17 billion euros in tax cuts and other concessions.

The numbers involved have fallen dramatically since March. By the government’s estimation, 282,000 people joined the first weekend of blockages and demonstrations. The true, nationwide total was almost certainly greater – more like 400,000 or 500,000.

People march during a Gilet Jaunes anti-government demonstration in the French northern city of Lille on 29 December 2018

Since the summer, the count of those taking part in the Saturday “actes” has shrunk to the low thousands. Many of those who turn out now are, by my observation, very different people from those who flooded onto the streets and commandeered roundabouts all over France almost a year ago.

Their profile has changed, physically as well as demographically. Broad-bodied provincials – left-behinds with big behinds – are now in the minority. Many – not all – of the remaining protesters in Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux or Montpellier are slender, urban people in their 20s, 30s and 40s – and some in their 50s and 60s.

They are Metropolitan rather than provincial. Their chants are not just anti-Macron but anti-capitalist. A typical banner at a recent Paris march read: “Capitalism is organised crime.”

This change of cast in the weekly GJ soap opera was seldom mentioned in the French media, until last weekend. Something about the Yellow Vest movement spawns fantasies that die hard.

Within France, the Gilet Jaunes were initially tarred by some as racists. They were glorified by others as a popular revolt against a self-satisfied, metropolitan elite. They were described by Le Figaro as a “digital jaquerie” – a Facebook-inspired version of the leaderless peasants’ rebellions of the middle ages.

Gendarmes face protestors on Caen's circular road in northwestern France in November last year

Abroad, they are claimed by the Eurosceptic right as French Brexiteers or Gallic Trump supporters. They are portrayed by commentators on the left as a working-class revolt against globalism, forcibly suppressed by “Macron’s militias”. They are dismissed by the pro-European, liberal centre as Putin’s poodles, manipulated by lies online.

All those versions are misleading. All contain a strand of the truth.

On Twitter or Facebook, the steep decline of the movement has been countered by a campaign of fake news in which Russian media outlets such as Sputnik and RT are complicit. Months-old footage and misleadingly edited snatches of burning dustbins are posted as evidence that the Yellow Vest movement is as powerful as ever.

In the UK, an absurd lie is promoted on the hard left and hard right that the British government has deployed “D notices” (a media security blackout) to prevent tidings of the new French Revolution from crossing the Channel.

Riot police clash with protestors near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

And what of the frequent allegation that the Gilets Jaunes – despite 53 successive weekends of protest – have been brutally suppressed? In my experience, the violence has almost always started with a fringe of the protesters or with their anarcho-leftist Black Bloc allies.

On Saturday, I was present at the Place d’Italie. The trouble began three hours before the official march was supposed to depart. About 300 to 400 young people, mostly men, hurled missiles at police, smashed windows and bus-shelters and burned cars and scooters.

Some were well-organised Black Bloc types – not all from France. Others seemed to me more amateurish hobby-revolutionaries from various fragments of the small and splintered French hard left. Very few wore yellow vests.

The police were blameless on this occasion – but it has not always been so. Police tactics in the last 12 months have veered between the disciplined, the heavy-handed and the clumsy.

Since last November 4,400 people have been injured during Gilets Jaunes Saturday putsches, slightly more than half of them protesters and the rest of them police officers. Among the demonstrators, 24 eyes and five hands have been lost to police plastic bullets and stun or tear-gas grenades (mostly in the early months). But reports that 12 people have been killed are misleading. All but one of the dead were victims of road accidents caused by Gilets Jaunes blockades. The exception is an elderly woman in Marseilles, killed by a police tear-gas grenade fragment which entered her own apartment.

A French riot police officer aims at protestors with a non-lethal handheld weapon during a demonstration on the Champs-Élysées in Paris

So who are, or were, the Gilets Jaunes? And does the movement have a future?

I have followed the GJs from the start, witnessing some of the most violent demonstrations in Paris and speaking over the course of the year to activists in the Gilets Jaunes heartland around my home in rural Normandy. Here’s my take.

In the beginning, it was about pump prices. In the summer of 2018 newish carbon taxes combined with high global oil prices to push petrol and diesel over 1.50 euros a litre.

High fuel prices set ablaze other provincial grievances: the erosion of public services; low wages; a high cost of living; a new tax on some pensions; the fact that Macron had partially abolished a tax on wealth.

Rural and outer-suburban anger was also stoked by a decision to reduce the speed limit on two-lane roads from 90kph to 80kph. Speeding fines, country people believe, are another sneaky way of taxing the “ploucs” or “péquenauds” – yokels or rednecks – to subsidise the cities.

Burning tyres at a road blockade during a protest in Aimargues, near Montpellier, in southern France

This is false. Overall, the French well-off subsidise the poor and lower middle class. Metropolitan areas subsidise the peripheries. In my local town, Thury Harcourt (population 2,000), 20 miles south of Caen, we have shops and services that similar places in Britain dream of, including a new medical centre with three resident doctors and four nurses.

All the same, it is undeniable that life, jobs and local sources of pride and wealth have drained from large tracts of provincial France in recent decades – as they have from equivalent parts of Britain or the United States.

Simultaneously, middle and lower income people have been squeezed out of the booming cities into unlovely, distant suburbs. They rely on cars to commute to work. Outer suburban public services are often, by French standards, poor.

These were the twin breeding grounds of the Gilets Jaunes movement: small towns far outside the glow of booming metro areas; or the hard-scrabble, outer ring of thriving conurbations (Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Montpellier) or large towns (Rouen, Caen, Rennes and Nantes).

A demonstrator clashes with riot police on the Champs-Élysées in Paris

Listen to José-Edouard, a 61-year-old retired building contractor whom I met in the centre of our local roundabout in rural Calvados on the second weekend of Gilets Jaunes protests, on 24 November last year. “We’ve been betrayed by every president and prime minister for 40 years,” he told me. “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 provincial France, every local economy (bassin d’emploi) has been drained. People can no longer live on what they earn… They are crushed.”

A mystery remains. The movement bounced in days from anger at petrol prices to an attempted revolution by very unlikely revolutionaries. Everyday grievances became a blazing determination to remove Macron from office; ditch all professional politicians; and impose a form of direct online democracy.

How did that happen?

A couple of online petitions, mostly spread on Facebook, accumulated hundreds of thousands of signatures. “Anger groups” sprang up with tens of thousands of followers. Allegations ranged from the reasonable to the lurid and absurd. France was being sold to the UN; taxes were almost all wasted on the gilded lifestyles of politicians (actually less than 0.1 per cent goes to them); Brigitte Macron had a de facto state salary of 500,000 euros a year (actually zero).

Gendarmes try to remove a blockade of protesters demonstrating in Aimargues, near Montpellier, in southern France

Three of the four people behind such groups had vague connections with far-right politics and themes. The fourth, a calm, intelligent young black businesswoman called Priscillia Ludosky, now 34, is an anti-tax centrist and ecologist.

I interviewed her on the day after Acte 1 on 17 November.

“We are a non-political movement that is sick of politics and politicians,” Ludosky said. “This is about a general, nationwide fury. New taxes and higher taxes in France always seem to land on the people in the middle or at the bottom… Emmanuel Macron promised to be a different kind of President but nothing has changed.”

The first two Saturday protests were marginally violent. The third on 1 December was very violent indeed. The Arc de Triomphe was stormed, vandalised and tagged. Buildings around the Étoile were set briefly alight. A mob surged down the Avenue Kléber, overturning and torching cars.

Tear gas surrounds riot police as they clash with protesters during a demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe on 1 December 2018

I was in the centre of the crowd for most of that day. The violence came from a large fringe of “ordinary Gilets Jaunes”, men and women in their 30s and 40s, from Normandy and northern France.

Some Gilets Jaunes criticised the violence, which continued the following weekend. Others praised it. Emmanuel Macron made the first of a series of concessions and announced (a masterstroke as it turned out) a Great National Debate with local meetings or “grievance books” in which people could express or write down their complaints.

The Gilets Jaunes movement, officially leaderless, but with several mutually-hating “figures” or spokespeople, began to splinter into factions. Any leader who came forward was insulted as a “traitor” or, worse, a “politician”. There were racist and anti-semitic incidents.

I revisited my local roundabout in January. It was, by then, a microcosm of the fragmented, internecine, yellow-clad anti-politics nationwide.

José Edouard, the man who spoke to me eloquently in November, had broken away with a group of followers. Those who remained – including a home carer, a warehouse worker, an unemployed father of two – made unflattering remarks about him. He wanted to impose his own political line; he had decamped with their 500 euros “cagnotte” (“kitty”) collected from motorists.

The Gilet Jaunes shout slogans as material burns during a protest near the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées in Paris

They remained as determined as ever. The movement was not just a protest, they said. It was an uprising. All government would be controlled in future by popular votes online or Référenda d’Initiative Citoyenne (RIC). There would be higher pensions, lower taxes, better services and better welfare payments. All would be financed from the billions saved when the salaries and expenses of politicians were abolished.

Annie, a home carer in her 50s, said: “We want a new system in which decisions are made at the base and for the base. We will stay here as long as it takes.”

In a few weeks they had cut back their roundabout picketing to Saturdays only. In a few more weeks they were all gone.

Here is the triple paradox at the heart of the original Gilets Jaunes movement.

Paradox one. It started and spread rapidly online but also rescued people from the isolation of their homes. It was a social club as well as a social movement. There was camaraderie. There was a uniform.

Paradox two. The absence of leaders attracted broad early support from people who despised and distrusted all leaders, parties, trades unions and ideologies. But lack of direction also allowed the movement to be hijacked by organised external forces, initially from the far right, finally by the left.

Protesters protect themselves from a water cannon during an anti-government demonstration in Bordeaux on 26 January 2019

There were street battles in Lyon, Paris and elsewhere in the New Year between hard-right and hard-left urban guerrillas, both groups wearing yellow vests. The left, partly in the nebulous shape of the Black Bloc movement, eventually won.

The third great paradox was that the movement, despite its grandiose threats, never had enough support or any remotely workable plan to bring down the French state. Each weekend there would be warnings of “revolution” or a “black Saturday for Macron”. The language implied violence but a majority of protesters remained peaceful. Any violence that did happen was blamed on the police.

Week by week the numbers declined. By mid-March the original movement – provincial, anti-ideological, broad-based – had melted to an angry core, supplemented by long-time activists of the urban hard left.

Macron, after a shaky, nervous early response, performed skilfully. His Great National Debate allowed people to express and relieve some of their anger. His U-turn – tax cuts for low and middle income-earners and a boost to the minimum wage – blunted the edge of fury in middle France.

There is a further paradox. Macron’s concessions boosted French growth by pouring more spending power directly into the economy. France is now growing faster than Germany, partly thanks to the Gilets Jaunes. As a result of Macron’s earlier labour law reforms, France is creating tens of thousands of new jobs. Macron’s popularity, in the mid-20s a year ago, has recovered to the high 30s or low 40s.

A few thousand Yellow Vests, or at least people dressed in yellow vests, still turn out every Saturday. Their perseverance is impressive. No previous French social movement has lasted so long. But is it the same movement? It seems evident to me that many of today’s “provisional” Gilets Jaunes are different from the “historic” GJs of last November.

Protesters let off flares near Les Halles during a demonstration in Paris

I am not the only person who thinks so. I finally tracked down José-Edouard, the building contractor, retired at 61, who explained the movement to me at our local roundabout on 24 November last year.

He has started his own Gilets Jaunes group which no longer turns out on Saturdays. He blames banks, globalism, the European Union and corrupt politicians for the ills of provincial France. He says that Macron controls the “black blocs” and uses them to discredit the Yellow Vests. He lives in a rather grand converted water mill.

“Those people you see on the streets in Paris and other towns now are, most of them, not true Gilets Jaunes,” José-Edouard told me. “They are government agents provocateurs or they have a rigid, left-wing ideology which is the opposite of what our movement was at the beginning.”

“But the true Gilets Jaunes have not gone away. The fury remains intact. We are like the Phoenix. We will rise from the ashes. One misstep by Macron and we will be out on the streets and roundabouts in huge numbers once again.”

José-Edouard denied that he had run away with the “kitty” of his original GJ friends. He said he had broken from them because some were making racist remarks. He gave the money to the benevolent fund for local firefighters.

José-Edouard is probably right. The true provincial Gilets Jaunes of Middle France are not dead but dormant. The modest success of the French economy under Macron has not yet reached my neighbours in Thury Harcourt.

“Yes, we are creating jobs in substantial numbers,” says one French minister. “But they are mostly being created in the thriving metropolitan areas. That has to change.”

The Gilets Jaunes began as a French crisis. They are best understood as part of a wider crisis of distrust, disinformation and dislocation which confronts all 21st century, representative democracies.

Some of the original GJ grievances were genuine. Others were exaggerated or fictitious or dependant on wild conspiracy theories, stoked by anger groups online.

Facebook and Putin did not invent the inchoate fury and sense of loss in peripheral France. They inflamed it. People have lost faith in the old mainstream parties of left and right – even, in many cases, Marine Le Pen’s far right. They no longer trust trades unions. They no longer go to church. They no longer read newspapers or believe what they see on the TV news.

A woman dressed as “Marianne”, the national symbol of the French Republic, stands in front of riot police on the Champs-Élysées in Paris

They want to take back control. They dream of governing the country from their kitchen tables. Their own confusions and internal hatreds are proof, if any proof was needed, that this is a dotty idea.

In the US, similar people have already found a champion in Donald Trump. In Britain, they have found their totem in Brexit.

The authentic Gilets Jaunes (not their urban imitators) say that they want to remain leaderless but they could yet be easy prey for a charismatic, populist leader – a French Matteo Salvini, say, rather than a French Trump.

Le Pen is not that leader; neither is Macron, though he may well win a new term in 2022. France’s rural and suburban anger has not gone away. It awaits, for good or more likely for ill, a plausible Messiah.

Further reading

Édouard Louis’ 2014 novel The End of Eddy is a bestselling, widely debated and unflinching account of the author’s impoverished upbringing in rural northern France.

As the Gilet Jaunes movement took hold in France, the New Yorker ran an interview with Louis, where he discussed the classism shown by the “bourgeoisie” towards the protestors. “People are trying to dismiss this movement by saying, ‘There’s some racism, there’s some homophobia.’ But this is precisely the reason why we have to be there, because we have to struggle in order to build another vocabulary.”

On 25 April 2019, in a widely anticipated speech postponed by the Notre Dame fire, President Emmanuel Macron made a raft of promises in response to the Gilet Jaunes movement, including tax cuts and higher pensions.

Will Wiles takes a fascinating dive into the symbolism of the hi-vis jacket within the Gilet Jaunes movement and elsewhere in society.

For a slightly opaque, but interesting, sociological analysis of the Yellow Vests, look no further than this essay translated from the French online platform lundimatin.