Macron and the Gilets Jaunes
I don’t live in the Elysée Palace, nor do I shop on the Champs-Elysées, which left me relatively unaffected by the manifestations of the last few weeks. I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was on a once-in-a-lifetime tour and Saturday was my day for the Louvre and the Lido, but I live here now and I’m learning to shrug like a Parisian.
Last Saturday evening, a Métro ride that should have been 30 minutes took 90, but the restaurant held my table and my friends were still on their first bottle of wine when I finally arrived. This week I shopped around the corner and went home to roast a chicken and dine with Netflix.
The election of Emmanuel Macron wiped out France’s traditional ruling parties—the Republicans on the right and the Socialists on the left—leaving voters with a choice between Macron’s new baby, République En Marche and Marine LePen’s Front Nationale, which has been rechristened the Rassemblement National. So, of course, the left put all their hopes and votes on Macron and the first thing he does is lower taxes on the wealthy.
To be fair, he did say he would do this as part of a plan to reform the French economy and bring it into the 21st century. He also pledged to modernize labor laws and reduce carbon emissions. What many didn’t realize was that all these reforms would hit hardest on the working class, increase the income gap, despair, and anger of people who were already struggling with 10% unemployment and high taxes. Then came the fuel tax hike.
Macron sold it as an environmental issue—and certainly it is—France has to end its dependence on fossil fuels, but this is a tax that punishes the wrong people.
The gilets jaunes began as a grassroots, leaderless effort in rural France where people are dependent on cars to get to work, take their kids to school, and shop for groceries. Public transportation outside the big cities is inadequate or non-existent. The people who can least afford it were asked to shoulder the cost of cleaner air and that was the trigger to get them in the streets, because when the fear of going hungry is real, cleaning the air is an abstract concept that doesn’t seem to have very much to do with day-to-day survival.
Now I have to tell you that I don’t know how real and widespread the fears of the working class are. Taxes here seem high to an American but they are far from the highest in Europe and they do fund a remarkably comprehensive social safety net including a very effective health care program.
Many thought the protests would die out when Macron agreed to delay the gas tax rise, but it has spread in two ways: it’s become a general protest against Macron personally, the president of the rich; and it has been joined by extremists from both ends of the political spectrum who saw an opportunity to exercise their right to vandalism. Protests were smaller throughout the country this week, but this movement is not dead despite the lack of leaders. No one has yet taken credit, but the adoption of yellow vests as a symbol was a brilliant political move. They are ubiquitous because all French drivers are required to carry them in their cars in case of breakdown on the road, and I’m certain news photographers and videographers are extremely grateful for the high visibility.
These are perilous times throughout the world. Authoritarian figures are popping up everywhere to take advantage of widespread discontent and the inequality spawned by dishonest and immoral politicians. In France, Marine Le Pen lurks in the wings.