The hard reality for Macron’s critics, however, is that little has been standing in his way. Given a strong majority in the National Assembly (a product of low voter turnout in the last election, unity against the far right, and France’s two-round voting system), only popular discontent expressed through collective action on the streets or at the workplace might have constrained the president’s actions. But for the first eighteen months of Macron’s presidency, even as his approval rating plummeted, the country saw little beyond the sporadic protest or strike, certainly nothing of the magnitude needed to bring the government to a halt and force him to back down.
It is safe to assume that the government thought this relative acquiescence would continue when Édouard Philippe, Macron’s prime minister, announced in September that there would be new tax increases on diesel and other gasoline products. These would fall primarily on working- and lower-middle-class citizens, reliant on their cars to get to work, living far from the fashionable urban areas of France well serviced by public transportation. There might be grumblings in response to the taxes, sure, characteristic of what Macron has diagnosed as the “refractory” nature of the French, along with a few more cries that Macron was the “president of the rich.” Nothing that couldn’t be fended off with the right dose of firm pédagogie. As Philippe maintained in early November, such a measure was necessary to “change the behavior” of gas-guzzling consumers, since “there is no magic solution to the problem of climate change.”
The protests that gripped France for much of late November and early December suggest that Macron’s draconian pro-business agenda has actually been running on borrowed time. Indeed, the emergence of the Gilet Jaune (Yellow Vest) movement has fundamentally shifted the country’s political climate, throwing the government into its first serious crisis, and also putting it in the embarrassing position of making its first significant retreat.
The Yellow Vests, named for the bright reflective vests that motorists are required to have in their cars, blocked roundabouts and critical road junctures across the country. In Paris and other major cities, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in marches that escalated into riots. These have been compared to the 2005 protests that saw major conflicts between police and non-white residents of Paris’s isolated and impoverished banlieues. On three consecutive Saturdays—November 24, December 1, and December 8—large sections of central Paris were boarded up, abandoning entire avenues to day-long clashes between protestors and riot police, a trail of burnt cars and smashed bank branches left in their wake. As many as 89,000 riot police, supported by armored vehicles, were mobilized on the last of these three weekends, a remarkable show of force that resulted in more than 1,700 arrests.
Much of the roiling debate in the French press has focused on dissecting the Yellow Vest movement’s political identity. The usual suspects have been pointed to, especially those taken to be the authors of the most significant displays of violence: a motley assortment of anarchist and far-right neo-fascist groups. But in the face of what was undeniably a mass protest movement, this has largely been a form of evasion, a way to ignore the deeper causes of the protests.
What really animates the Yellow Vests is a broad-based recognition of the injustice at the heart of Macron’s economic program. His decision to drastically reduce the estate-tax burden on the country’s largest fortunes, for example, left a hole in state revenues that many see as the real reason for the new gasoline tax. What this whole fiasco stands for is a massive redistribution of wealth, despite its “green” window-dressing and Philippe’s pédagogie on the tough choices needed to change “consumer behavior.” To be sure, this popular anger gets articulated in divergent ways. I’ve spoken with people who’ve vented fears that Macron will use the gas-tax revenues to subsidize welfare for refugees and migrants, just as I’ve heard people decry taxing cars but not the private jets of the billionaire class. If the Yellow Vest movement began as a tax revolt, it has now swelled into a more sweeping rejection of Macron’s agenda.
Making matters more difficult for the government, the emergence of the Yellow Vests has fanned other sources of discontent, as the anger over economic injustice coincides with a renewal of student agitation across the county. Students occupied hundreds of high schools from December 3 to December 8, protesting reforms to the public school curriculum and the public university admissions system. The viral footage of dozens of detained students at a suburban high school west of Paris, kneeling with their hands over their heads at the feet of riot police, symbolized the increasingly brutal government intolerance toward opposition and discontent. Likewise, several universities are again facing the prospect of protracted occupations after the government announced large increases in tuition fees for non-European citizens, which many see as a natural prelude to the end of free university education for French students.
By the end of the first week of December, the situation seemed to be sliding out of the government’s control. The Yellow Vest movement, which a December 7 poll showed to be enjoying a strong level of support throughout the country, had boiled over and was beginning to draw on multiple sectors of French society. Indeed, fear seemed to overtake many in the president’s inner circle. Discipline at the highest level gave way to a series of contradictory messages and announcements, during which it became unclear just who in the government was setting the agenda. On December 8, no fewer than five hundred soldiers of the elite Republican Guard were assigned to protect the presidential palace in central Paris.
To avoid the abyss, Macron finally changed course—or at least made significant concessions. In a televised speech on December 10, two days after the fourth Saturday of protests, he announced a series of measures designed to quell the revolt. Adding to the cancellation of the gasoline tax increases announced a few days earlier, Macron promised to forgo planned fee increases for low-income retirees, to exempt overtime work from taxation and social charges, and to increase the minimum wage. And yet, he repeated his determination not to go back on cuts to the estate tax and the new flat tax on investment income.
The most telling element of Macron’s December 10 address is the one least related to the actual demands that have driven the Yellow Vest movement. In his speech, Macron declared his intention to reconcile France with its “profound identity,” reiterating the need to “address the question of immigration.” Building on the asylum and immigration law enacted this past spring, which strengthened a series of administrative hurdles to refugees and asylum seekers, Macron confirmed his government’s increasing flirtation with the right-wing anxieties redefining European politics.
Unwilling to fully acknowledge the injustice at the heart of his economic agenda, Macron is doubling down on the French elite’s habit of deflecting, repackaging all anger as an expression of cultural anxiety. Yet as a major sociological study commissioned by Le Monde concluded on December 11: “the two main motivations of the gilets jaunes therefore appear to be greater social justice…and the demand to be heard by the government. Nationalist demands, on the contrary, such as those emphasizing identity or immigration, were very marginal, contradicting the idea of a movement infused by supporters or activists of the Rassemblement National [formerly National Front]…. In short, this is indeed a revolt of the ‘people.’”
By the middle of December, the largest and most intense protests seemed, for the moment, to have subsided—though not before leaving the Macron government weakened on all fronts. What will happen in the weeks ahead remains uncertain. So let’s return to the original source of the crisis. And for the purpose of a thought experiment, let’s grant Macron the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that the carbon tax was indeed motivated by the earnest desire to reduce carbon-fuel emissions, bring “consumer behavior” more in line with the constraints of the environment, and, as Macron has said, “make our planet great again.” If the first test of Macron’s environmentalism has been a resounding failure, what went wrong?
Macron would have us believe that the advanced-industrial economies of the Western world, and the social hierarchies on which they rest, can remain largely intact. While we ought to see the ecological crisis as structural, marked by vastly different degrees of culpability across different regions of the world and between different classes within those regions, Macron tears the crisis from its social context and renders it amorphous: we're all to blame. With this kind of logic, it's easy to place the brunt of the much-needed changes in "consumer behavior" on the least well-off, and not on the super-rich—whose yachts off St. Barts, Chalets in the Alps, and private jets that shuttle them between the two disproportionately account for human waste and global fossil-fuel emissions.