French Protests Macron's Ghosts Return To Haunt Him

The protests by the yellow vests against French President Emmanuel Macron aren't showing any signs of letting up despite concessions made by the government. Where is this anger coming from?
Protests at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Protests at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Foto: COME SITTLER / REA / laif

A drama has been playing out in the streets of France in recent weeks, an intentionally theatrical rebellion against Emmanuel Macron, the man who has governed France for the past 19 months. Some of the very people who voted for Macron have now taken to the streets to demonstrate against him.

The gilets jaunes, or yellow vests, want to storm the Élysée Palace, and chase him out, like a 2018 version of the Paris Commune, spurred by their dissatisfaction with a fuel tax that was meant to be imposed in January. The tax increase has been called off, but that so far hasn't been sufficient to appease them.

For Macron, for his credibility and authority, which he has orchestrated publicly like few others before him, it is too much. If he ends up having to backtrack on his policies, it will represent a U-turn and a watershed moment for his presidency -- a point from which he will struggle to recover. Rather than playing the role of a Jupiter, he would be an Icarus; a man who wished to fly high, but fell. He would have to govern with clipped wings.

Almost everything he wanted to accomplish for his country is at stake. Up to this point, he and his government had abided by the principle that no matter what happens, they would stay the course. His aim was nothing less than the "transformation" of France. Everything was to become new, different.

But now it appears things could turn out very differently. Will this president, with his penchant for the theatrical and tendency to quote Molière ad lib, manage to calm his opponents, his own people?

On Dec. 1, France saw its most violent riots since the student uprising of May 1968, protests that resumed again over the past weekend. They took place not only in Paris, but all across the country. Countless cars were burned. An apartment building and a prefecture were set on fire in the protests. Restaurants were destroyed, boutiques looted.

'Resign, Macron!'

A week ago Saturday, Place de l'Étoile, the star-shaped roundabout at one end of the Champs Élysée dominated by the Arc de Triomphe, became the site of a fierce battle between the police and the yellow vests until late in the evening. By the end, the monument, which Napoleon had erected to celebrate himself and his victories, was sprayed with slogans, like "Resign, Macron!" and "The yellow vests will win."

The plaster bust exhibited in the center of the arc was bashed in, a grim omen for the country. The riots and blockades of the past few weeks have taken a gruesome toll: At least four dead, more than a thousand injured, including police officers, protestors and passersby. More than 1,000 people have been arrested so far, and millions of euros in damage has been caused.

People in France are no longer speaking of protests, but of a revolt. Will it become a revolution?

All this hate and violence has been set off by the very person who wanted to reconcile the French, as Emmanuel Macron promised the eve of his election. He said it would be a difficult task, but it's unlikely that even he knew just how hard it would be.

'We Will Grill You Like Chickens'

Yves Rousset, a 64-year-old official with the police prefecture in in Le Puy-en-Velay, a small town in the Auvergne region around 400 kilometers (250 miles) south of Paris, stands as he recalls recent events. Before his current job, he helped resocialize criminals, and he thought he was well-suited to extreme situations. But he has trouble putting what happened at his prefecture into words, even days later.

On the evening of Dec. 1, 150 angry people pushed their way to the prefecture. Rousset watched as they broke windows with heavy rocks. Molotov cocktails flew into the yard. Tractors were used to transport tires that were then set on fire. In one wing of the building, offices went up in flames. "We will grill you like chickens!" the protesters yelled. When his police officers tried to push them back, rioters poured flammable acetone on them. One of the demonstrators split open a helmet with a rock. Loud techno music played.

"I've never seen anything like that," Rousset says.

Le Puy is home to just under 20,000 inhabitants, its Old Town paved with cobblestones. At night, cats wander through the empty alleyways. The youth meet up at the celebrations for the fire department. It's the kind of place where people know each other. The people here are rooted in their town.

But since the police prefecture was set ablaze and videos of the violence began circulating on social networks, Le Puy has also become a symbol of France's new anger, and proof that it's not being expressed exclusively in the capital, but everywhere as well.

Anyone who spends a few days in Le Puy is left wondering what could have gone so wrong in this country that it could get to the point where a peaceful town like this could become a tinderbox.

Rousset pulls a list out of the drawer in his desk. It contains the demands of the yellow vests, which he has carefully written on four pieces of paper. They want to reinstate the wealth tax, they're angry about lawmakers in Paris who either don't go to parliamentary sessions or read newspapers when they do. Electric cars, they argue, are not a solution.

It's a wish list from the citizens, the little people, who no longer believe the government is doing things as they want it to. Rousset discussed these points with the yellow vests, and he tried to convince them that it's OK if the Macrons order new dishes for the Élysée Palace, that former presidents should still get salaries and perks. But Rousset doesn't know if they understood him or if they even wanted to understand him.

Forgotten France

Many are now talking about the forgotten France, about the rural areas, largely disconnected from public life, where people eke out a grim marginal existence. They say that in places like Le Puy, the anger is building among people who only want to see everything burn.

French President Emmanuel Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron

Foto: imago / Starface

When Macron traveled through France during his election campaign, he often spoke of the "feeling of degradation" he witnessed in some places. He wanted to fight against it, he said. But perhaps he should have done more to heed his own advice. When people picture him, they don't exactly conjure up images of him visiting remote villages. The yellow vests' revolt is also one of the rural areas against Paris, led by French people who, contrary to what is often said about them, do not belong to the middle class. It is the little people, the "class populaire," or working class -- those to whom Macron promised social advancement and who voted for him instead of the Socialists in response and helped secure his win.

These people feel degraded, even if that is more of a sentiment than reality. Le Puy is a good example. The city and the department in which it is located are neither rich nor poor. The region is structurally weak, but unemployment is below the national average.

'Our Anger Is Legitimate'

Marine stands at one of the traffic circles that has been occupied by the yellow vests in Le Puy. Until recently, she made 1,400 euros per month working in a tobacco shop. She says she is opposed to violence, but that they could no longer put up with what is happening. "Our anger is legitimate," she says. "We want to eat organic vegetables sometimes, too, not just noodles."

The people with the raging mob who demolished their own prefecture presumably had a job, a small house, a car, and could feed their families. They are radicalized by their fear of decline, which is stronger in France than it is elsewhere in Europe, even though the poverty level in the country has been stable for over 20 years, and even though France has the most generous welfare state in Western Europe.

If you were to try to sum up the yellow vests, as varied as they may be, one would describe them as pessimists and people who trust nothing, especially not things that take a long time. And democracy takes time. These days, they only rely on themselves -- and, if necessary, on their own capacity for violence. They have also registered that this can be effective given the zig-zagging by a government that appears to be increasingly unstable. It might also be that people in France feel particularly neglected because inequalities seem even crueler in a country that constantly invokes the noble virtue of equality.

In his 2014 book "La France périphérique (Peripheral France)," Christophe Guilluy describes how geographic segregation leads to social fault lines. These days, Guilluy's ideas are being widely discussed. The day after Macron's election victory in May 2017, he was sitting in a café on Place de la République, an angular man in his early fifties. He said, unmoved, "This time, Macron won, but the next time it could be Le Pen or another populist." He explained that it was as if the French were on tectonic plates and the weight of their society was constantly shifting from one side to the other. "Everything could capsize at any time." He said Macron's challenge was to see to it that the weak can also benefit from the country's prosperity. But it was also apparent that he didn't believe Macron would succeed in doing that.

At the moment, it looks as though Macron didn't pass the test. The president, for whom everything seemed to be so easy, is suddenly having a tough time. He's silent when he should be talking, and when he does speak, he is no longer striking the right note. Macron, of all people, is becoming the target of an anger that has been growing for years, and even decades. He is paying for others' mistakes, which is, on the one hand, unfair, but, on the other, understandable.

Little 'Backing Among the Populace'

On the Left Bank of the Seine, in a stately villa that looks like the one set on fire by yellow vests on Dec. 1, political researcher Luc Rouban is sitting in a small, cramped office. Rouban is friendly and atypically down-to-earth for this part of France. He gets right to the point: "Macron never impressed me," he says. In the summer, he published a book called "Le paradoxe du Macronisme" (The Paradox of Macronism) in which he analyzed why he believes Macronism will be little more than a chimera, an illusion.

Rouban had started the book in early summer, before one of Macron's bodyguards assaulted a protester and set off the government's first true crisis. Rouban spent months researching the composition of the National Assembly and determined that the new lawmakers might be younger and there might be more women than before, but that there probably had never been so many people with similar backgrounds in the French parliament. He said they are educated and wealthy to an above-average degree, making them representative of only a tiny part of France.

"Macron doesn't have any backing among the populace. Those who want what he wants are very few," Rouban says. Macron's political base of people who really share his opinion, he adds, is only 6 percent.

The president, Rouban says, is a liberal in two senses. Macron isn't just an economic liberal, but also a person who wants a liberal society, and Rouban argues that this doesn't jibe with France's traditional political fault lines. If a person is economically liberal in France, he says, then they belong to the right. But if a person is in favor of an open society and voted for gay marriage, for a tolerant immigration policy, they see the economy as, at most, a necessary evil that needs to be kept on the shortest possible leash by the government. Rouban argues that Macron's philosophy is based on a false notion that the traditional ways of thinking, the division between left and right, are outmoded.

"The French don't want any Hartz IV reforms," says Rouban, referring to the slashing of the German welfare system carried out by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the center-left Social Democrats. "We are not as emancipated as the Germans or the Danes. We believe in the government and in public service."

'Politics ... Has To Be Learned'

He says the French don't like being led by a man who talks like a business executive and acts like a monarch. Now, the fact that Macron destroyed the French political landscape without giving enough regard to what might be lost in the process is coming back to haunt him. The result of that being that the anger is now being focused on him. There are no intermediaries and no buffer between Macron and the anger on the streets. Previously, the established parties could, to a certain degree, contain people's unhappiness and resentment. They knew how to make promises and to comfort people. Their lawmakers had local roots and reported about dissatisfaction in the rural areas. "Politics is a profession, after all, and it has to be learned," Rouban says. Now novices are sitting in parliament, most of whom, like Macron himself, have never held seats in the legislative body before.

Macron has also steamrolled other societal actors with his authoritarian style of governing and the unions are weaker than ever. As such, Rouban sees quite a bit of irony in the yellow vest rebellion. "They're the genies that Emmanuel Macron let out of the bottle himself."

The weariness over the so-called system, which Macron himself has stoked, is now robbing him of his ability to shape policy -- and of his credibility. If you force others to choose between all or nothing, you may end up with nothing yourself.

The Street Always Prevails

That, too, helps explain why the score currently stands at 1:0 for La Rue, the street. And violence has also proven successful. Once again, as the legend of French politics goes: The street always prevails in the end.

Yellow vests in provincial France: "You can't govern against the people."

Yellow vests in provincial France: "You can't govern against the people."

Foto: Hugo Ribes / DER SPIEGEL

To find evidence for that maxim, it isn't necessary to go back as far as Charles de Gaulles being driven from office in 1968-1969. Recent history suffices. In 1995, it was pension reform. A decade later, it was highly unpopular contracts for young workers. The Socialist government even withdrew an environtmental tax in 2014. On that occasion, the mere threat by truck drivers to block the motorways proved sufficient. And this time, too, Macron's supposedly new world looks quite a bit like the old one. On Wednesday, France's prime minister announced that the planned tax increase would likely be scrapped altogether. "If we do not find good solutions, we will not levy this tax," said Édouard Philippe. But he remained mum about what a good solution might look like.

Was it retreat? Or capitulation?

The protests have now been joined by thousands of high school students, and farmers have also announced they will strike this week. Yet despite all of the inconveniences the strikes have caused, seven out of 10 French continue to support the yellow vests.

In a normal situation, the opposition would be seeking to take advantage. But Macron's election destroyed them and they are far away from getting back on their feet.

Just as dangerous, though, is the fact that even some of Macron's allies have been drifting across the lines. Among them is the economist who once help design Macron's policies and who is now calling for the reintroduction of the wealth tax. Repealing it was one of the president's first official acts. Some are also suggesting that the EU's three-percent budget deficit rule be ignored in favor of new borrowing. None of this, however, is consistent with the platform on which Macron campaigned. And then there's the old ally whose support made Macron's election victory possible in the first place. Now he's telling the president: "You can't govern against the people."

One last question for Monsieur Rouban. If the situation was so poor for Macron, then why did he win the election?

'An Excellent Poker Player with a Lousy Hand'

Rouban's answer comes quickly. "He only won this election because there was no alternative." His victory, the political scientist says, was fragile from the very beginning. "Macron," says Rouban, "is an excellent poker player, but he has been dealt a terrible hand."


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2018 (December 8th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

A few hours after the prefect has placed the list of yellow-vest demands back in his drawer, a helicopter lands in Le Puy. Emmanuel Macron has arrived for an unannounced visit. He looks at the destroyed prefecture and shakes hands with members of the police. The news of his visit spreads like wildfire in the city and dozens of protesters suddenly converge and stand in front of his car, which is standing by to take him back to the helicopter. "Resign Macron!" they shout.

Someone screams: "We are nothing, but neither are you!" It appears as though Macron briefly shakes his head before climbing back into his sedan.

Only days later, Macron will meet with 37 political and business leaders to discuss how the yellow vest protests are affecting the country. And on Monday, Dec. 10, he plans to address the country in a speech in which he is expected to announce political initiatives in response to the protests.

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