While Europe and France have a long history of popular manifestations, something feels different about the gilet jaunes movement, which has not only remained a persistent weekend phenomenon in France for the last four weeks, it has also spread to other countries in Europe. The movement has become France’s worst mass protest in over 50 years, resulting in at least 2 deaths, over 500 injuries, thousands of arrests and billions in economic damage and, critically, economic paralysis in Paris, Marseille and other large cities. While the movement has held its numbers over the last month, the lack of clear leadership and abatement, even when President Emmanuel Macron’s government has made concessions, shows that there is something more dangerous afoot than garden-variety French labor unrest. Indeed, unchecked, the gilet jaunes movement risks metastasizing into a European intifada or an uprising about issues greater than fuel taxes.
The original casus belli giving rise to the gilets jaunes movement – so named after the ubiquitous high-visibility yellow vests France’s drivers must carry in their cars – was Macron’s proposed tax hike on diesel fuel. Diesel is the most widely used fuel source in Europe and while Parisians have ample urban transport options, especially in Europe’s most visited and walkable city, the countryside enjoys no such luxuries. At issue, beyond the myopic tax hikes that struck the French nation as one-sided, is the natural spillover into other domains of French and by extension European economic life, which is looking increasingly fragmented and bleak. Since the beginning of the movement on November 17, 2018, more than 720,000 people have cumulatively taken to the streets to make their voices heard, many of them die-hard repeat “offenders” since the protests started. Even now, as the movement crosses its first month with persistently high national approval ratings of 77%, French people are showing their frustration in divergent polls, where President Macron’s approval rating is at 23%. The President of France will take to the airwaves in what will surely be an expression of contrition and an appeal to calm.
For a man largely viewed as the last bastion of antipopulist leaders in the West, Macron seems enfeebled at home, in no small measure for his grandstanding abroad about the very real threats of climate change, economic nationalism and other global issues for which he has been a welcome voice. Translating this international posturing into domestic policies, however, is proving to be much more dangerous to the Élysée Palace and to the French Republic. This is where the comparison to an intifada begins. The gilets jaunes movement has taken on a life of its own. Traditional labor or economic protests in France tended to dial down the revolt when concessions where made. The Macron government was quick with its about-face. First announcing a six-month moratorium on fuel and energy tax increases, later suspending them altogether and adding in the extra concession of freezing energy costs in 2019. Ironically, Macron stirred up a hornet’s nest of yellow jackets, if you will, by announcing the diesel increases altogether. This may prove to be Macron’s Brexit moment, as it bears echoes of Prime Minister David Cameron’s miscalculation of popular sentiments in the U.K. when he called for a Brexit referendum.
While the motives are undeniably important as the world must urgently untangle the financial double jeopardy of climate change, seeking renewable energy rents from France’s strained working class was liable to produce a backlash. Putting this genie back in the bottle will prove difficult, since the movement does not appear to have a leadership structure, it is spreading to other countries, such as Belgium, and quickly enveloping other causes. In effect, the gilets jaunes movement, like an intifada, is becoming decentralized, angry and hard to quell. As it subsumes more pet causes and grievances, Macron’s beleaguered government and his highly restrained security apparatus will have to speak softly while carrying a big stick. It will be harder still for the government to corral protesters, especially since the desecration of the Arc de Triomphe was largely due to security forces ensnaring them around the national monument while firing tear gas and water cannons. France does not broach abuses of police or security power and is no stranger to mass revolt following extra judicial uses of force.
Recall the 2005 riots following the death of two teenagers who hid in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois after being chased by the police? These riots resulted in over 8,000 cars burned largely in the banlieues of Paris and took several weeks to quell. Any trespass on the use of force against the gilets jaunes will be much harder to suppress. France’s riot police are walking a particularly fine line, especially as swaths of the gilet jaunes protestors are being overrun by more radical anarchist groups who are seizing the opportunity to sow maximum havoc. In responding to these tensions, especially since the protesters are all sporting the ubiquitous yellow vest, it will be impossible for security services to discriminate between friend, albeit with legitimate grievances, or foe. The spike in arrests, which jumped nearly 100% this weekend with 1,220 people detained as the protests drag on, certainly bears this out and will only serve to exacerbate the situation.
France is facing a unique economic, political and social dilemma. Meanwhile, like past manifestations in the country, the gilets jaunes are putting an effective chokehold on the economy. This chokehold is already turning the Parisian economy and in particular the retail, restaurant and tourism sectors blue, as it starves the city of oxygen due in no small measure to the abundance of chaos at the hands of protesters and the abundance of caution at the hands of the government. In a highly unusual move, the major monuments and museums in Paris were closed this weekend, including the Eiffel Tower, which is already barricaded due to the threat of terrorism, the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, among others. While it is a cynical observation, this capitulation along with rapid concessions will likely embolden the gilet jaunes, especially the more extreme and violent elements, to demand more from Macron’s beleaguered government.
Was a run-of-the-mill French protest hijacked by antiestablishment anarchists or has a larger cross section of French and European society tired of the yoke of pseudo-solidarité, which has been foisted upon them by the 25-year old EU experiment. If it is the latter, the gilet jaunes movement poses a graver threat to France than the economy missing a retail beat during the holiday shopping season. Indeed, the City of Lights is now the latest battleground in the global struggle between populism, pluralism and urbanism. How President Macron contends with this balancing act will prove to be the test of his presidency, which is looking to be a turbulent five-year term, especially if he cannot reverse his fortunes at home and quell the ire of the gilet jaunes.