Because we’ve been too mesmerized by our dumpster-fire White House to pay much attention to the rest of the planet lately, Americans only see French president Emmanuel Macron at his misleading best. Blue-state MAGA-phobes dote on how crisply he copes with Donald Trump’s yahoo routines at international summit meetings. Then again, just about any European with a decent tailor and a mild knack for formulating two coherent sentences in a row would be guaranteed to look like civilization’s champion fencer in Trump’s wild-boar company. You’d never guess that Macron probably envies Trump’s domestic approval ratings, which are sky-high compared to his own.
Not unlike Trump, the untested Macron won office in 2017 thanks to a widespread disgust with conventional politics. (He formed his own ideologically vague political party from scratch, which is a lot easier to do there than it is here.) But it didn’t take long for the remedy to look worse than the disease. High-handed, narcissistic—three months into his five-year term, he’d spent 26,000 euros on makeup artists alone—and tone-deaf to the average French wage-earner’s concerns, Macron wasted no time channeling Marie Antoinette’s political savvy, combined with Michael Scott’s self-knowledge and Jared Kushner’s folksy charm.
He swiftly got branded “the president of the rich,” thanks in large part to his abolition of a special tax on France’s millionaires that had been in place since Francois Mitterand’s Socialist regime put it through in 1981. Some of his other reforms proved to be nearly as unpopular once they also turned out to be ineffectual, especially when it came to significantly ameliorating France’s unemployment problem. He got snippy about being called by his nickname by some uppity kid and told one earnest petitioner who couldn’t find work as a gardener to look for a job as a busboy instead.
For U.S. liberals, the conundrum is that the tax is part of Macron’s plan to hasten the country’s shift to clean energy, which feeds our yen to see him as Trump’s enlightened opposite.
By early fall of this year, his approval rating with the French public was an abysmal 29 percent. And that was before the eruption of the Yellow Vests protests that have had Paris, along with the rest of the country, in an uproar since mid-November.
Named for the high-visibility emergency garb that French drivers are required by law to keep handy in case of roadside trouble, the movement originated on social media as a protest against high fuel taxes, which disproportionately affect lower-middle-class and working people outside France’s major urban centers. For U.S. liberals, the conundrum is that the tax is part of Macron’s plan to hasten the country’s shift to clean energy, which feeds our yen to see him as Trump’s enlightened opposite. To the Yellow Vests, he’s no such thing—or rather, they wouldn’t give a damn if he was, not so long as their pocketbooks are on the chopping block.
Grudgingly, the government first announced a six-month suspension of its latest fuel-tax increase, which was scheduled to kick in come January 2019. Then it rescinded the increase outright. By then, however, the Yellow Vests’ demands had expanded to restoring the tax on the wealthy, better pension protections for those at the pale end of the lollipop, a minimum-wage hike, and—let’s not forget this one—Macron’s exit from office.
As of last weekend, at least four people had been killed, hundreds more injured and several thousand arrested in demonstrations in Paris and elsewhere. Even as the number of people involved has dwindled, they’ve turned more violent, inviting increasingly harsh police crackdowns in response. France’s capital hasn’t seen this much tear gas in literally 50 years: not since the May 1968 student demonstrations that mushroomed until they virtually paralyzed the country. Cars have been torched, store windows smashed, and even the sacred Arc de Triomphe wasn’t exempt from statue-smashing acts of vandalism. Because saving his own well-tended skin is Macron’s top priority, he may have been especially unnerved by graffiti reading “Burn the Elysee,” i.e., France’s presidential palace.
Too haughty to recognize right off the bat he was dealing with a major political crisis, he stayed mostly out of public view for weeks. His ministers got stuck instead issuing the predictably stern warnings about mob rule and financial calamity. Then Macron finally went on TV on Monday to—just as predictably—cave in to the Yellow Vests’ demands on pensions and a boost in the minimum wage. But not to the reinstatement of the wealth tax, which was probably the only magic bullet with a reasonable chance of quelling the unrest. Even with “Burn the Elysee” on the menu, the “president of the rich” wasn’t about to alienate the only people in France who still think he’s just swell.
If nobody seems to know what will happen next, that’s partly because no two political commentators have been able to agree on the meaning of what’s happened so far. Among other novelties, the street insurrections Paris has been famous for since the Bastille’s fall have nearly always been instigated by Parisians themselves. The Yellow Vests drove in from the provinces to get in the government’s face, which is the main reason the action has been confined to weekends. (Many more of them staged demonstrations in cities nearer home.) Besides being overwhelmingly white, they aren’t particularly youthful. Nor are they indigent, which would qualify them for government benefits. By and large, they belong to a lower middle class that no longer knows how to make ends meet.
Macron epitomizes the technocratic elite whose disregard for provincial concerns has triggered populist resentments for decades not only in France but throughout the European Union.
They aren’t augmenting their yellow vests with “Make France Great Again” ball caps, at least not yet. But many people, including Trump himself, jumped to compare them to his alienated red-state base, even though POTUS’s claim that the demonstrators were chanting “We want Trump!” was (what a shock) pure hooey. Nonetheless, the protesters have so far stayed hostile to being assigned any place at all on France’s existing political spectrum, which is why other observers equate the Yellow Vests with Occupy Wall Street instead.
Marine le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (the former National Front), was rebuffed when she tried to enlist them to her xenophobic cause. Jean-Luc Melanchon’s far-left France Unbowed party had no better luck when Melanchon tried the same gambit. Stubborn about remaining leaderless as well as unaffiliated, they’re intolerant of anyone in their own ranks who starts to act like a politician or even proposes negotiating with the government. People who suggest the latter have supposedly gotten death threats, which could augur an ugly future for the movement or could just be a hint of its imminent dissipation.
At least from our relatively safe distance, it’s perfectly possible that there’s no one at all to root for in this brawl. Macron epitomizes the technocratic elite whose disregard for provincial concerns has triggered populist resentments for decades not only in France but throughout the European Union, not to mention right here in the USA. On the other hand, movements as amorphous and truculent as the Yellow Vests often end up as a form of mass venting at best, and potential vehicles for incipient fascism at worst. Good luck spotting a humane voice of reason anywhere in the mix, from the Elysee palace to the streets of Nantes.