The gilet jaune movement seemed to come out of nowhere, shook the very foundations of the French Fifth Republic, but now seems trapped in a dance of death, unable to free itself from its own contradictions. It began by calling attention to the forgotten men and women of la France profonde; it is ending with a display of its sad permeability to conspiratorial thinking, hate, and anti-Semitism. It remains to be seen if the crisis will have an impact on French President Emmanuel Macron’s presumed leadership of the forces defending European integration over the forces of continental fragmentation.
The gilets jaunes demonstrations constituted an unprecedented social revolt for France. It was an anti-system action of “the people” with no organization and leadership, based on a rural and small town population. As the noted historian Pierre Rosenvallon put it, it’s a social revolt but not a social movement, it’s essentially a moral reaction against the feeling that they no longer count for anything, that no one pays attention to them. The great revolutionary movements in French history were all urban revolts (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, and May 1968). They were instigated by radicalized lower classes, workers, or students in Paris and major cities which either ignited the rest of the county or, as in June 1848 and 1870, were put down by the more conservative countryside. This time, it was ordinary folk from the heartland investing the cities, the centers of wealth and the new economic order.
This crisis was a product of the age of the internet. Discontented people found each other on line. The internet served as an echo chamber for their feelings; they also shared disinformation and conspiratorial theories. They bonded in demonstrations and especially in encampments on roundabouts. The gilets jaunes represent a culture of individualism; they were not politically active--they had no leadership and were proud of it.
What made them powerful was that they enjoyed enormous public support, as high as 72%. For many weeks they were able to mobilize large demonstrations in Paris and other cities—demonstrations which stretched thin the forces of order. The great fear of the State was a convergence of different movements: gilets jaunes, students, unions, and the banlieues (a little like May 68). This convergence did not take place because no other group identified with them.
The gilets jaunes were a reaction against Macron’s policies and his personality. Macron’s idea was to modernize the French economy, increase incentives for investment and bring back investors, take advantage of Brexit to encourage banks to relocate to France and liberalize the labor market. A more dynamic private sector could create a virtuous circle and push down France’s stubbornly high unemployment rate. The problem was that Macron began by abolishing most of the provisions of the tax on the super- rich that had been instituted four decades ago by President François Mitterrand and increased some taxes on ordinary people. In the name of environmentalism, he also raised the gas tax, which hurt poor people who commuted long distances to work. Gentrified cities had become too expensive for the average citizen. Early on, Macron became known as the “president of the rich,” a dangerous epithet in a country strongly committed to equality.
Perhaps Macron’s greater sin was his style of governance. He had exhibited real tactical genius in gaining the presidency. He must have felt nearly invincible. With an absolute majority in the National Assembly, he thought he had a free hand to make France a more modern economy and restore its leadership role in Europe. For decades, French governments had attempted to modify the labor code, which provided almost lifetime employment for established workers while contributing to mass unemployment of younger workers, women, and minorities. Each time, they backed down after demonstrations. Macron succeeded in enacting his labor reform. He adopted a “Jupiterian” political style. There were few experienced politicians around him and his party had little real presence in the country. His lack of empathy for the common man seemed palpable. Several unfortunate comments he made insulted a large part of the population and the Benalla scandal (in which one of his security aides assaulted some peaceful demonstrators and his actions were covered up) damaged his reputation. Part of the gilets jaunes crisis was based on how many ordinary people came to hate a President whom they felt had betrayed them. To make it worse, the fact that Macron had once worked for the Rothschild bank energized anti-Semites. For them, that connection “explained” everything; Macron was an agent of international Jewry. And anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in France: 74% greater in 2018 than 2017.
One reason for the success of the gilets jaunes was the weakness of the opposition, and the lack of intermediary institutions between the President and the people to channel dissent. The French party system had virtually collapsed, the trade unions were weak, municipal government was in crisis (many mayors of small towns were resigning in frustration at declining funding levels). The hegemony of the President was only apparent; isolation marked the fragility of his power. This is an endemic problem of the Fifth Republic; even Charles de Gaulle had been undone in 1968-9, and de Gaulle was the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century.
After a long period of silence, Macron finally spoke out in a 13 minute speech on the evening of December 10. Although this was not a remarkably strong speech, Macron gave evidence that he had understood the feelings of the gilets jaunes and took some concrete measures in response. He also began a process of a national consultation – a great national debate - which has gained traction. The gilet jaune movement has become the victim of its own contradictions; above all its lack of leadership and inability to redefine its purpose and exclude those whose ideas are beyond the pale. The Saturday demonstrations go on, but for what purpose? As of late February, the number of demonstrators has declined, and the strident voices of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism have gained prominence, helping to discredit the movement. In the words of an old French communist leader, you have to know how to end a strike.
The gilet jaune crisis was a close call for the government. It should serve as a warning to all Western democracies about the need to come to terms with the frustrations and desires for equality of that part of the population not benefiting from the growth of post-industrial sectors of the economy but instead suffering from economic marginalization and declining social status. The movement has certainly weakened Macron and thereby France’s weight in Europe and internationally. How much has Macron learned from this historic experience? Can he restore his prestige and efficacy in France? Can he overcome the damage caused by the gilets jaunes to his once-clear leadership of the forces resisting the march of anti-integration and hyper-nationalism across the continent? Can Macron’s brand recover in time for what promises to be another very tough summer for the cohesion of the European Union?
Dr. Steven Philip Kramer is a Professor of National Security at the National Defense University. The views expressed in this op-ed are the authors' own and do not reflect the official policy or position of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.