In Soviet times, Russia’s Jews told a joke about a man named Rabinovitch who was distributing pamphlets in Red Square. In a matter of minutes, the KGB had found him and taken him to headquarters. Only there did the agents realize that the sheets of paper were completely blank. “But there’s nothing written here,” one of them said. Rabinovitch said: “They know quite well what I mean.”
For two months, the French government has been unable to make head or tail of the blank sheets of paper handed out by the gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vests, this decentralized, leaderless movement that has no explicit agenda or demand apart from the abolition of a fuel tax. While Emmanuel Macron’s government has blindly concluded that this sudden, violent movement bereft of any clearly articulated purpose has no other goals, movements don’t block major intersections just to protest hikes in gas costs.
In the time since he’s taken up the presidency, Macron has won out over far more dramatic uprisings with far more clearly defined aims. First, there was the union outcry against the law reforms that enabled labor market deregulation. Then, there was the rail workers’ strike to guarantee new hires the same generous employment benefits staff had enjoyed since World War II. Macron surely wagered that the Yellow Vests would crumble even more quickly than their predecessor protests, each of which had surrendered in the end. Macron’s earlier successes, however, seem to have led to his downfall here.
He and his ministers failed to read what France’s citizens “know quite well”. From the outset, a clear majority of the French supported the Yellow Vests. In Revolution, the plainly titled book he published during his 2016 campaign, Macron announced a set of radical reforms that would pull the country out of the stagnation from which it has suffered for the last thirty-five years. Yet Macron’s actions upon moving into the Élysée Palace have shown his government to be nothing more than a continuation, by more brutal means, of the politics of deregulation and austerity that his predecessors had championed. As it grew clearer that the Macron presidency would not break with the past, the people who found their daily lives worsening, who could no longer count on climbing a social ladder to greater prosperity and who saw no glimmer of hope for themselves or their children, were primed for a movement of opposition. The fuel tax was the final straw that led them to declare “no more”.
Taxation has often been the primary catalyst for social revolt in the history of modern France, and this time is no exception—although, in this case, its significance is far more ambiguous. As Gérard Noiriel, the esteemed historian of French social struggle, has noted, this rejection of the fuel tax has united two dissimilar groups: those who “reject the tax” in a general sense and those who specifically “reject the injustice of the tax”. What made this coalition possible was both Macron’s actions and his way of imposing them, which has shaped public opinion dramatically. On the one hand, in 2017 he abolished the “wealth tax” known as the ISF, which was levied on only the top 0.9 percent of French society, and even lowered taxes on France’s richest companies and richest individuals. On the other hand, he has rejected every increase, no matter how small, of the minimum wage, and he has practically frozen retirement benefits (nearly half of retirees live on less than €1200 per month, or $1,360, and one quarter of those on less than €800, or about $900), as well as social security benefits. At protests and road blockades, these two themes—frozen wages and diminished retirement benefits—have recurred again and again.
Macron seems to be reaping what he has sown. He coasted to electoral victory thanks to the breakdown of the institutions that had mediated the people’s relationship with government. The first collapse had been that of the traditional political parties of left and right; after thirty-five years of nearly continuous economic crisis, they still hadn’t found a long-lasting solution. The crisis had been most evident in the unemployment rate, which had held steady between 8 percent and 11 percent for three decades, while income inequality had only worsened.
As the head of the government, Macron said he favored “consultation”, but he refused any negotiation—most notably with the unions, which themselves had been severely weakened. His proposals had been take-it-or-leave-it—and he seemed to weather every storm more or less unscathed. The result, though, has been that when people realized that his “revolution” merely accelerated financial capitalism’s reign—more insecurity, less collective solidarity, each man for himself—the revolt, similarly, sidestepped all intermediary bodies. Political parties have played almost no role in the Yellow Vests’ marches; the movement’s members, in fact, have resisted attempts at political co-optation.
The demographics of the Yellow Vests are broad. The movement is rooted mainly in small provincial towns and is chiefly composed of the lower middle class. Shop owners and craftsmen are heavily represented, but there are also laborers and their children. Notably, women make a far higher proportion of the protesters than usual—and they often seem to be the most driven ones. And it is little surprise that retirees have come out in high numbers, because they have the time to do so and because Macron has been especially hard on them. The Yellow Vests movement is also markedly white, a significant detail in an increasingly diverse France. The heavily black and Muslim population from the outer urban banlieues, home to recent immigrants and where high youth unemployment rates set off the 2005 riots, are severely underrepresented among the Yellow Vests, at least for the present moment given that the movement may well expand and encompass other social groups. At the margins, it is already starting to do so, in fact, as high-school and college students have begun rallying, as have farmers and workers in other industries.
It is a surprise that the Yellow Vests’ attacks have not for the most part been the work of casseurs, a term that refers to essentially anarchist subgroups, as well as to far-right provocateurs. Given the characteristics of the nearly 2,000 people arrested thus far, most are older than typical casseurs, and many of them had, in fact, come out to protest for the first time ever. This might be one explanation for why, despite all attempts to castigate “perpetrators of unacceptable violence”, the government’s ongoing rhetoric about security has been quite ineffective.
Had Macron simply taken some time to think once he was settled into the presidency, he would have recalled that he only received 24 percent of the vote in the first round of the May 2017 presidential election; taking abstentions into account, that was only 18 percent of the electorate. And while he did carry the second round with a comfortable margin, that was because he was running against the far-right candidate, the far worse of two evils. In other words, Macron should have realized that he was, in fact, elected with a weak mandate. But in his clashes over loosening labor-market regulations, with rail workers over their benefits, and with the public over other burning social issues such as deteriorating work conditions in public hospitals or diminishing purchasing power, Macron has opted for inflexibility: he says over and over that he is listening to the other side while showing that there is nothing to negotiate—what he decrees will go through no matter what.
And so he comes across as arrogant, as a man unconcerned about, perhaps even contemptuous of, the little people. When a trade unionist told Macron that he couldn’t afford nice suits like the president, Macron retorted that all the man had to do was work harder; to a young job-seeker, he shot back, “I can find you a job just by crossing the street,” as if France didn’t have 2.5 million unemployed citizens and as if those people were simply lazy. It is no accident, Noiriel noted, that “the working classes were practically nonexistent” in Macron’s book.
Preferring executive orders to laws, “consultations” to debates, and his hand-picked inner circle to France’s elected officials, Macron is proving to be a president who has scant regard for democratic norms. In July, Le Monde broke the news that a man named Alexandre Benalla, a “security adviser” at the Élysée, had been filmed among police officers attacking civilians during the May 1 demonstrations in Paris. By statute, Benalla should not have been there; it quickly became clear, however, that Benalla held a high-ranking position within the Élysée Palace’s staff, virtually outside the official hierarchy, and that he was very close to Macron, who tried repeatedly to shield Benalla as further details came to light.
This scandal is working its way through the court system, but it dealt a significant blow to the president’s public image, revealing him to be an isolated leader advised only by a narrow clique. “Combining the classism of France’s best-off with the elitism of France’s best-educated”, wrote Edwy Plenel, the director of the Mediapart news site, “his way of exercising power embodies a politics of inequality where there are haves and have-nots, winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, the lucky and the unlucky”. His assessment has mirrored that of the Yellow Vests.
A photo on the front page of Le Monde sums up their attitude: a group of protesters holding up a banner that reads “Down with Macron—Down with the Government—Down with the System”. Macron’s popularity ratings have been in free fall. In eighteen months, he has gone from the embodiment of a dynamic France benefiting from globalization to a tritely traditional France for the rich. It is no accident that, amid the violence, the most symbolic places to be attacked have been a provincial prefecture, officially representing the centralized state and, in Paris, various banks in more affluent neighborhoods, as well as the Fauchon gourmet food store, which symbolizes all that is fashionable and expensive in cuisine.
Numerous French historians have remarked upon the similarities between the Yellow Vests and earlier protests. For Sophie Wahnich, a specialist on the French Revolution, the organizational method of the Yellow Vests “corresponds to that of the sans culottes”, the commoners in the earliest moments of 1789, “only with more women”. She adds that, as during the revolution, the Yellow Vests have become radicalized because their various outstanding demands for greater social justice have gone unanswered. Mathilde Larrère, another historian of revolutionary periods, argues that the Yellow Vests are a “typical form of mobilization” in French history. That said, “this isn’t a working-class movement, but a consumer movement; these people share the experience of diminished purchase power and consequently hunger. Once, it was the price of bread; now, it’s the price of gas. This situation is far more explosive because it affects an entire category of people who work.” On the whole, historians agree on this point: the Yellow Vests embody a revolutionary gesture. The unspoken message that the Yellow Vests are relaying to the power elites is “No more” .
“At the same time”—a favorite phrase of Macron’s—what’s happening in France is inevitably linked to a growing phenomenon across Europe: the rise of movements that discount both institutions—the European Union as much as national governments—and the social and economic policies that have been in force for the last few decades. This phenomenon is already visible in Germany and Austria, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom, and is intertwined with the advent of political parties in the former Eastern Bloc that are championing authoritarian democracies. But there is a fundamental difference between the Yellow Vests and these European populist parties: the near-total lack of identitarian or xenophobic slogans in the new French movement. There are no placards calling for a “France for Frenchmen”, no cries against an “Islamic invasion” at their protests. Given that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) appears to be the most heavily represented political party within the purportedly apolitical Yellow Vests, there have been surprisingly few cases of racist statements against immigrants.
At this point, the concessions Macron’s government has granted to placate the Yellow Vests’ demands—a six-month moratorium on fuel-tax hikes, followed by its outright cancellation—seem too little, too late. “Doesn’t anybody up there get that we’re all on anxiety meds because we’re that miserable?” asked one protester. “We’re not asking for the moon, we just want to have decent lives.” The overwhelming majority of the Yellow Vests want, at a minimum, to bolster their purchasing power, to improve low wages, and increase retirement pensions and unemployment benefits.
The economist Philippe Aghion, a Harvard professor who became Macron’s adviser during his election campaign, has already proposed setting up “a Grenelle for taxes, social benefits, and energy transition”. The rue de Grenelle in Paris, where the Ministry of Social Affairs is headquartered, was where unions, management, and the government brokered a wide-ranging agreement to end the May ’68 strike (which, as many have forgotten, was not simply a student revolt). To evoke Grenelle is to call for a sweeping yet swiftly concluded deal that brings significant social progress. While growth was still steady in those days in France, the May ’68 protests had genuinely terrified employers; the minimum wage was increased by a full 35 percent. Today, though, public finances do not permit such rapidly granted largesse; the improvement in living standards that the Yellow Vests seek can come only by imposing a fairer tax system—and that will mean targeting the wealthy and profits from the financial markets. What a far cry that revolution would be from the original one that Macron, this former business banker, had originally promoted.
Finally, after almost six weeks of silence since the emergence of the Yellow Vests, Macron addressed the nation on Monday night. Describing a “state of economic and social emergency”, he announced various measures to remedy the situation, including a €100 per month increase of the monthly minimum wage (amounting to about €0.60 per hour, less than a dollar) and the cancellation of the tax increase for retirees who get less than €2,000 per month. For the rest, he promoted the idea of an extensive national consultation with the unions, employers and local mayors—the very “intermediary bodies” he had so neglected before. As for the wider question of taxation, the key driver for the mobilization of the Yellow Vests, Macron refused to reconsider his abolition of the “wealth tax”, while pledging that “the richest must help the nation”. How this would be done, he did not say.
This left most of the Yellow Vests who were questioned on French TV dissatisfied. Some allowed that the president had made an “opening”, but the vast majority rejected the speech as “disappointing”. As one protester told France 2, “No fiscal shock”—meaning that he saw no immediate progress toward tax justice, and no movement on ending the retirement pensions freeze, let alone their revaluation. “You have to stop believing that we do not understand anything,” said another Yellow Vest. Finally, a third argued, “If President Macron is confident in his proposals, he should submit them to a referendum. We’ll see the result.”
As the evening wore on, the idea of a referendum on Macron’s measures swelled, as if the word had gone out: direct democracy, that is all we will accept. The likelihood that the president in this situation will accept such a plebiscite is infinitesimally small. But with this new demand, the Yellow Vests have ratcheted up the pressure on Macron.
Sylvain Cupel is a writer for Le 1 and America and a former senior editor at Le Monde.
Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman.
First published in the New York Review of Books, 11 December 2018.