The first time that I caught a glimpse of the anger that has convulsed France in recent months was during a street demonstration in the 14th arrondissement of Paris at the end of October. I wasn’t there to demonstrate myself, but simply to cross the road to reach my office. Nor was I expecting any trouble from the demonstrators, who were mainly middle-aged or older and protesting over pension reforms. I was about halfway through the crowd, however, when I noticed gangs of masked youths, snaking their way through the demonstration; they were well-organised and obviously primed for a fight with the police.
As I made my way to the crossroads at Denfert-Rochereau, I was alarmed to find the road blocked by armed police with riot shields who refused to let me pass. I was then suddenly trapped by a hail of rocks launched at the officers, who immediately responded with tear gas. As I retreated, coughing and spluttering, the image that struck me most powerfully was not the youths attacking the law, but the sight of a respectable-looking, middle-aged man throwing rocks at the police. He was not alone; other people of roughly the same generation and social class were also hurling stones and insults. The protesters – their faces contorted in anger – were intent on inflicting real damage.
I can’t remember whether I saw any of the now-renowned gilets jaunes (yellow vests) at this demonstration. But what I did see were the fierce emotions that would trigger a nationwide revolt and shake the confidence of President Emmanuel Macron.
The protests originated in opposition to a planned fuel tax rise (“make our planet great again”, Macron has declared). Protesters showed their solidarity by wearing the gilet jaune that every French motorist must carry in their car by law. The suspension of the tax rise, and a freeze in energy prices, did not placate the 300,000 protesters, who coalesced into a more unified movement and began demanding higher wages, lower direct taxes and public spending increases. The result is a stand-off between the movement and the government; Macron’s approval rating has reached a new nadir of 18 per cent.
On 10 December, the French president delivered a televised address (watched by 23 million people – more than last year’s World Cup final triumph against Croatia), in which he announced a series of measures designed to regain political credibility and raise living standards. These included a €100 increase in the minimum wage, the abolition of tax and social charges on employee overtime, the exemption of pensioners earning less than €2,000 a month from a new surcharge, and a request for all companies “that can” to award workers a tax-free bonus at the end of 2019.
The response to these concessions was derisive. The gilets jaunes dismissed them as “crumbs”, with some joking on Facebook: “Macron is offering us cent balles et un Mars” (100 quid and a Mars bar). Macron’s measures represent high-handed gestures from the rich to the poor, rather than a genuine anti-austerity programme.
The French president has underestimated how profoundly disliked he is by large parts of the electorate. During his national address he appeared nervous at times but also patronising and schoolmasterly. He toyed with – but ultimately resisted – an apology for recent insensitive and careless remarks (such as telling a young unemployed gardener: “I can find you a job just by crossing the road”). It did not help that he delivered his address from the Salon Doré in the Élysée Palace, an opulent gilded chamber that would not have looked out of place in Louis XIV’s court of Versailles.
Most dangerously, though Macron is now listening to the protesters, he has shown no sign of retreating from his fundamental economic policy – often likened to Thatcherism – which aspires to a less regulated and more globalised French state. He refused to reinstate the impôt de solidarité sur la fortune (solidarity tax on wealth), which he abolished in 2017. It is this vision which offends the French street.
Macron, who founded his own centrist party, La République En Marche in 2016, is making a direct challenge to “le social” – a phrase that is harder to translate than it appears, but refers to the whole nexus of financial and social relationships which every citizen expects as part of their contract with the Republic.
From outside France, this can look like obstinacy and retrograde statism. It is, however, a core element of French identity, which is why so many gilets jaunes have been waving Tricolore flags and singing “La Marseillaise”. At this symbolic level, the battle is between those who perceive themselves to be properly “French” – the gilets jaunes who are upholding and defending the values of the Republic – and the “Macronites”, a globalised, English-speaking elite, who know New York and London better than they know the people and places of their own country.
These divisions have recently been defined in a recent book by the French academic and geographer Christophe Guilluy entitled No Society (a deliberate allusion to Margaret Thatcher) in which he argues that there is no longer a left-right split in France but rather a kind of “American society”, divided between winners and losers. He calls the losers “La France Péripherique” (“Peripheral France”), a new social class that is cut off from the benefits of 21st-century globalisation but which seethes with the resentments and humiliations of older, more violent forms of class struggle.
This may well be mere hyperbole – French intellectuals are hardly known for their restraint in discussing such issues. But there are, as Guilluy and other commentators have observed, deep structural problems in France, which this crisis has brought to the surface. Consequently, the greatest challenge now facing Macron is not to fight his own people, but to try to understand them.
Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada: the Long War Between France and its Arabs”
This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions