In France, President Macron faces new furies with few structures to protect him

Outmanoeuvered by a "yellow vest" movement with no leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron faces political danger in the provinces, where the anger welled up, where the movement began and where the fury is focused.

Macron has been accused of using power arrogantly, reforming by decree

French President Emmanuel Macron chairs a meeting at the Elysee Palace Monday to deal with violent clashes between police and yellow vest protesters in Paris Sunday. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

After the stunning scenes and pitched battles around the Arc de Triomphe, wreathed in smoke and tear gas, here are some startling statistics:

  • 412 people arrested.
  • 3,827 tear gas canisters fired at demonstrators.
  • 133 people injured, including 23 police.
  • 249 fires.
  • 112 cars torched.
  • Glittering department stores attacked and evacuated in the chic shopping district.

This was Paris last weekend in confrontations that showed the French government and police completely outmanoeuvered by a people's movement with no leaders, by thousands of people wearing "gilets jaunes," the yellow vests that all motorists must carry in their cars in case of accident or breakdown.

Paris was what the world saw, but for France's 40-year-old president, Emmanuel Macron, the provinces are where the danger is. They are where the anger welled up, where the movement began, and where the fury is focused.

"All the violence, it's Macron's fault. People are desperate!" This was Raymonde, an 87-year-old woman, part of a yellow vests brigade stopping traffic at a roundabout near the city of Rouen, in the north, the same weekend.

Protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel taxes, gather at the Place de l'Etoile near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris Sunday (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

"This is revolution!" shouted her sister Annette.

Perhaps not, but it is certainly a revolt on a national scale. The trigger was the announcement of an increase in January 2019 of the tax on diesel. On social media, people expressed their anger at yet another tax increase. Then the demonstrations began.

On Nov. 17, almost 300,000 people demonstrated in their vests around the country, according to the ministry of the interior.

On succeeding weekends the number of demonstrators has shrunk, but the number of "casseurs" — extremists of the left and right bent on smash-and-grab tactics and battles with cops — has grown. There were thousands on Dec. 1, according to police. They call them the "black bloc."

If the anger was triggered by the fuel tax rise, it has spread to cover fury at government indifference to the plight of a rural and semi-urban underclass in the poorer regions of the country.

Cleanup operations continue under the message 'The Yellow Vests will Triumph' written on the Arc de Triomphe the morning after clashes with protesters in Paris Sunday. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Half of French workers earn less than $2,400 Cdn a month before taxes. In the depressed regions of the south and north, people earn much less and need cars fuelled by diesel to get around. For decades, diesel was much cheaper than regular gas. Now it sells for about the same price.

Add to that an unemployment rate at over 9.5 per cent (and well over 25 per cent for young people in poorer regions), and you have a recipe for revolt.

"At the end of the month, I've got nothing left," said Fabrice Girardin in Creuse in central France. It was a common cry of the protesters as they continued to man barricades on roads. The barricades and demonstrations have led to four accidental deaths.

The revolt has begun to spread. On Dec. 3, high school students shut 100 schools to protest changes to school-leaving exams. Paramedics and ambulance drivers demonstrated against their low wages in front of France's parliament, the National Assembly. Ministers complained that, facing a movement without leaders, they didn't know whom to talk to.

Bruno Dollen wears a pointed helmet and a yellow vest (gilet jaune) during a protest in November against rising fuel taxes Strasbourg, eastern France. He joined the yellow vests movement because 'we are not respected as retirees, bikers, motorists, or taxpayers.' (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

The fear of a nationwide tide of protests so rattled Macron's government that on Tuesday it announced its planned fuel tax and utility price hikes set for January would be postponed until summer.

It was a stunning turnaround for Macron. Just 10 days earlier, on Nov. 24, he had told a meeting of French mayors: "It's characteristic of me to say things that annoy people; it's also characteristic of me that what I say, I do."

Not this time.

To a great extent, Macron is now the emperor — not without clothes, but without structures to protect him.

A firefighter walks among extinguished burning materials near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Nov. 24 after a rally by yellow vest protestors against rising oil prices and living costs. (Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

He came to power at the head of a political movement — En Marche! — that he created himself. His victory in May 2017 left the traditional parties of the left and right as little more than husks. But his movement and his MPs still seem little more than straw men and women themselves.

Power is exercised by one man, with help from a small group of trusted, technocratic advisers who helped him get to power.

And he has been accused of exercising his power arrogantly, pushing through a transformation of the labour code and the national railways by decree. His first decision was to abolish the French tax on capital, known as the "tax on big fortunes."

He said it scared off potential investors. He was quickly dubbed "the president of the rich." He didn't help himself in September, when he brushed off one unemployed man by saying, "If I cross the road, I can find you a job."

A demonstrators holds a flare during a demonstration of yellow vests on Nov. 17 in Vendenheim, eastern France. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

He acquired the sour nickname of "Jupiter." His poll numbers dropped dangerously. Only about 30 per cent of voters say they're satisfied with him. That's considerably lower than U.S. President Donald Trump's approval numbers.

When the wave of anger washed over France, Macron had no functioning political network to warn or protect him.

Nor was he helped by the police and security services. Like the generals of the First World War, they were busy polishing their tactics for the previous war. In the case of the security services, these were the devastating terror attacks in 2015 and 2016 that killed 229 people.

The attackers had come from the "banlieues," the poor suburbs ringing Paris filled with young, radicalized Muslim men. Security resources were poured into the "banlieues." No one was looking to the small, poor cities and regions far from the capital.

Kings and presidents

And Macron, flush with his recent remarkable victory, forgot the key teaching of French politics — in a crisis, power is in the streets, not in parliament.

This is a country that celebrates not just one, but three revolutions that have reversed kings — in 1789, 1830, and 1848. Another mass revolt in 1968 almost reversed the government of President Charles de Gaulle.

The last three presidents of France — Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande — can testify ruefully to the power of the street. Huge demonstrations forced each of them to drop announced major reforms.

Now Macron has joined them. And unlike his predecessors, he has far fewer political clothes to protect him from the cold winds of revolt.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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