French President Emmanuel Macron likes to present himself to the world as the suave centrist who can hold the line against the anger of the fringes.
But at home, he’s a politician under siege, at risk of being overwhelmed by a growing rebellion.
Macron returned to France from this past weekend’s Group of 20 summit under duress. For the third weekend in a row, heated protests had taken place throughout the country, reaching a violent peak in Paris. Dozens of cars were burned; the debris of barricades lay strewn across famed avenues; clashes between police and protesters blanketed parts of the city with tear gas and broken windows. At least 260 people were wounded across France — 133 in Paris alone.
The unrest is linked to an inchoate movement known as the “gilets jaunes,” or “yellow vests,” after the reflective jackets French drivers must wear in case of roadside emergencies. The roots of their anger are rising diesel prices and a new gasoline tax, imposed by Macron as part of France’s climate change commitments.
But the protests are tapping into much deeper frustrations among a segment of the French public. They have prompted calls for a greater social safety net at a time when France still finds itself in a rut of sluggish growth and high unemployment.
The roots of the protests also lie well outside France’s wealthy urban centers. James McAuley, the Washington Post’s Paris correspondent, went to the town of Besancon in the rural foothills along the Swiss border. Locals saw the new tax as a particularly harsh blow to their livelihoods.
“We live on the side of a mountain,” one said. “There’s no bus or train to take us anywhere. We have to have a car.”
Adam Nossiter of the New York Times took a similar trip to Gueret, in south-central France, where he encountered the stagnation, neglect and disaffection that has come to characterize provincial life. “It is not deep poverty, but ever-present unease in the small cities, towns and villages over what is becoming known as ‘the other France,’ away from the glitzy Parisian boulevards that were the scene of rioting this weekend,” Nossiter wrote.
“In these territories marked by the absence of a tomorrow, there’s a form of postindustrial despair that’s now gnawing at the middle and working classes who suffered the brunt of the brutal crisis (of) 2008 and the ensuing budget cuts,” Niels Planel, a poverty-reduction consultant, told McAuley. “To give one example, a young student who just finished her bachelor’s told me that she couldn’t stay in her home region because, in her city, ‘there is nothing.’ Faced with austerity, city councilors must always do more with less and less, all while facing the growing discontent of their constituents.”
The cracks that are widening in France — and the postindustrial despair entrenched in the provinces — would seem familiar to Americans, Britons and others in Western democracies. So, too, would the inability of politicians to bridge the divides.
Beyond the gasoline tax, Macron has struggled to push through an ambitious slate of reforms he claims will unshackle the French economy. There is widespread resentment about his highhanded governing style and the lingering impression that he is running the country in the interests of a comfortable metropolitan elite.
Macron’s political enemies have seized on the disturbances. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the French far left, likened the atmosphere in France to the heady days of leftist protest half a century ago. “We are in a situation that is almost insurrectional,” Mélenchon said in an interview with a local network. “These are pages in the history of France comparable to 1968. Everything must be dealt with by having a larger perspective.”
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom the French interior minister blamed for inciting the violence in Paris, called for the dissolution of the National Assembly and new parliamentary elections. Another right-wing hard-liner associated with the protest movement provocatively urged Macron to resign in favor of a caretaker government led by a former general.
The republic isn’t about to fall, but the protests seem to highlight how Macron is being overtaken by the same anti-establishment frustrations that brought him to power as a political outsider.
“Macron’s own political party, La République En Marche, also started out as an anti-party party, a haven for people who no longer identified with the traditional political parties. But it was conceived in a political context, and its members took part in elections,” wrote Post columnist Anne Applebaum.
“As a result, En Marche, which didn’t exist three years ago, is now perceived as part of the establishment it was formed to defeat,” she continued. “French history is full of revolutions overtaken by even-more-radical revolutions, but the speed with which these changes happen now is breathtaking.”
For Macron’s defenders, including foreign observers, these are worrying times. Many hoped his victory last year might be a turning point, an unmistakable rebuke to the ascendancy of right-wing populists on both sides of the Atlantic. But he has failed to head off the far right, which cares little for his worthy internationalism, or persuade those on the left who see him as an agent of the rich.
The case in point seems to be the friction over Macron’s climate agenda. Macron sought to be a global leader — perhaps the global leader — on the subject, taking on President Donald Trump and other politicians trying to discard collective efforts to curb emissions. But his focus on global warming has also fueled the rage of some yellow vest protesters.
The president speaks “about the end of the world,” one demonstrator told Le Monde, “while we talk about the end of the month.”