Gilets Jaunes: Danger for Macron's Presidency

January 16, 2019



As we are witnessing one of the biggest protests of modern France, the Minister of Internal Affairs warned that thousands of violent protesters could invade Paris and, possibly, stage a coup d’etat. Fortunately, the protests were under control, and the wave of violence was kept at the minimum level thanks to a massive formation of gendarmerie all across France. The number of the protest has dropped since the peak of 17 November (285,000 people demonstrated across France) but the violence in the streets did not mitigate as the number declined. In fact, during the manifestation of the 5th of January, a group of 15 people tried to break down the office of Macron’s spokesperson with an excavator.


“Macron démission”, this is the motto of the “Gilets Jaunes”, the protest symbol that has been enduring for almost three months with an increase rate of violence each weekend. But what are the origins and how is evolving this movement that is casting a long shadow over Macron’s presidency?


The Gilets Jaunes movement was born after the declaration of French Government to increase the prices of fuel (7,6 cents for diesel and 3,9 for gasoline). Mr. Macron wanted to start a Green revolution and the basic idea behind the new taxes was simply making using a car more difficult. He would induce to use public transports or eco-cars more often. However, the result was not the one hoped.  


The protests started from the countryside, in which using cars is more a need than a choice. Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to say that this was the only reason of the protests. In fact, it was only the fuse to start the fire that is now burning France.


The movement is composed by low middle-class exponents, the so called left-behind of globalisation. However, the Gilet Jaunes are really diversified and divided between groups with different reasons to complain against the Government. It is without neither leaders nor a formal structure. The effective weight of the protesters is surrounded by vague estimations and the appreciation of French for the movement is uncertain. One of the latest surveys affirmed that almost 76% of French support them or better they are not against their reasons.


The manifestations of their discontents are also different if we consider the protests in cities like the capital, Paris, or on the roads all over the Country. In the city, the demonstrators became more and more violent as the time passed, in the last three weekends Paris was offended by acts of vandalism such as burning cars and raids of shops. On the contrary, demonstrators on the high-roads were characterised by a more pacific approach: they would not let the drivers pay for the motorway tickets and distributed fliers to inform people of their reasons.  Moreover, more than one hundred high-schools were occupied by students to complain about the Educational Reform and some of them declared to support the Gilets Jaunes. 


From the protests against the rise of fuel price, their demand started to extend in other areas more related to the moods of middle class that felt abandoned by Macron’s presidency. It mutated into a dare against the government and its view of the world. However, it looks like their claims are not so clear even to themselves. In Paris, different groups were demonstrating at the same time for different motivations: for the independence of Brittany, against the globalization, against the limitations to the free movement of persons, for Marxist ideals; some were declaring the support for a “Frexit” and unfortunately some were only there to raid shops downtown. The only glue that keep all of them together seems to be the anger against the city, symbol of their missed possibility of richness. “No merry Christmas for the bourgeois” was the writing on a wall of the Ville Lumiere.


Even though the internal fragmentation, a sort of manifesto that tries to bridle the energy of the movement has recently showed up. The author(s) is(are) not known. The program does not cover anymore the price increases only, but it’s comprehensive of both radical left and right claims. Among the twenty-five points of the manifesto, some should ring a bell because they are common to many populist movements across Europe. For example at point nine, it is proposed to exit from the EU in order to restore the past sovereignty (political, monetary and fiscal); at point six the goal of erasing the public debt to contrast the financial slavery is stated. In other points of the program (5, 16 and 19) there are attacks against journalists and editors, against the State’s interference in the population’s health and against the influences of pharmaceutical firms over public opinions. In the meanwhile, a leader emerged: Eric Drouet, a self-proclaimed head, whose leadership and effective control over the protests are to be verified, that was arrested at the beginning of January because he was manifesting without the permission. Furthermore, Mr Drouet was arrested also because found in possession of unauthorized fire guns.


The movement has issues that are specific to France, but they could be examples of wider alienation from Europeans’ establishment and institutions. Other cases are the well-known Brexit and the rising consensus of the Eurosceptics (in Italy, in the block of Visegrad and also in Germany, Spain or Sweden). In fact, the movement even received the attempts to support by the Italian Five Star Movement (soon declined). Macron’s attitude didn’t help to lower the anger, many of his compatriots claim that he is the president of the well-being with a patrician attitude towards the oppositions. Of course, this behaviour provoked a sense of distance between the population and the establishment. Although, Mr. Macron tried to mitigate the protest conceding something to the people and admitting his responsibilities in the actual situation, the protest has not stopped yet. The plan of adding from 8 to 10 extra billions of euros to the 4 yet used for the previous reforms to: stopping the rise of fuel, gas and light’s prices, rising by 100 euros the minimum wage, fiscal exemption for the emergency works and interventions for the pensions under 2 thousand euros, have convinced many French but not enough to isolate the extremist faction of the movement.  


The populism nowadays could be described by two distinct elements: disaffection with mainstream parties and hostility towards institutions. The only real response that this feeling has obtained so far is the neglection by the “establishment’s champions”. Although it would be misleading to just sustain that the reasons of these feelings, concretized in the manifestation of the Gilets Jaunes, are unreasonable. In some cases, this disaffection is caused by policies that drive up inequalities and erode the purchasing power of the middle class. As a result, while Mr. Macron abolished the property tax over big capitals at first, he then had to publicly announce the increase of the levels of minimum wages to try to calm down the increasing protests.


This disillusion was generated by both economic and cultural causes, although, the focus has become more and more on economics. People are worried about the stagnating wages, the reduction of living standards, the cuts to public services. Nevertheless, they are also worried about the sensation that their voice is not important anymore in influencing policies. Hence, the possible responses to these issues are much more structural than it may sound.


The main question is now how to change this direction. European institutions should make deep considerations on whether they are implementing the right policies for people or not; they should wonder if they are still close to people’s real needs. Otherwise, these emotions could either explode in a violent way (such as the protests in Paris) or in a more structured manner through the growth of populist parties (the Italian case is a specimen). It is fundamental for the European institutions to re-connect with people, otherwise the nature of Europe as it is known today will be put on trial, and maybe the sentence will not be an absolution.


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