The Yellow Jerseys and the Macron paradox

This is the first blog for a few months.  Not that there is any diminishing interest in French politics on my part, on the contrary. But the speed of events has proved somewhat overwhelming. Too much has been written about the gilets jaunes, referring to the yellow jerseys that drivers are obliged to carry in their cars and wear in the case of accidents. Too much fake news has circulated on the social networks, feeding the conspiracy theories that have reached the core of the gilets jaunes themselves. The normal mediators – journalists, politicians, academic commentators – have been contested to such an extent that mediation and authoritative interpretation have been challenged as core principles. The degree of routine violence in the streets of Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse and other French cities (and even small towns) leaves a bitter taste. The outbreak of open fighting between rival groups of ‘yellow jerseys’ in Lyon, my city for the past five years, demonstrates how the gilets jaunes movement  can be captured by ideologically charged groups of extreme left and extreme right protesters, with only the detestation of the orthodox centre in common. Attempts to force entry into the Elysée and – more recently – the Parliament bear worrying echoes of earlier periods in French history.

The French and foreign press has been replete with articles and special issues attempting to define historical precedents for the gilets jaunes movement and to set the events in historical context. The French weekly Le Point reminded readers, in its edition dated 13th December 2018, that most significant revolutionary events had been sparked by tax protests, including the most famous of them all, the French revolution of 1789. More recent explosions that came to mind were those of May ’68, or the protests of November – December 1995 that brought France to a standstill.  None of these comparisons were entirely satisfactory: for example, the 1968 movement had been one of students and workers,  while the gilet jaunes movement is better described, sociologically,  in terms of the mobilization of the lower middle classes haunted by the fear of downward social mobility, economic hardship and the descent into poverty. One general lesson of the gilets jaunes movement has been the need not to over-interpret the events in relation to past French events, or an ill-defined revolutionary tradition. But there are worrying precursors – and none of them bode well for democratic institutions.

The problem with over-interpreting the gilet jaunes movement lies in the changing and multiform nature of the movement itself. What started as a form of anti-fiscal protest has become a camouflage for the hard right and hard left and the nihilist designs of the casseurs, the specialists in urban disorder. To recall: on 17th November 2018, the gilets jaunes demonstrated for the first time in Paris (and certain cities), in the main peacefully. Successive weeks saw their numbers diminish, but the violence of the conflict increase. The protests spread from central Paris – the object of struggle in the French revolutionary tradition – to small towns and secondary cities.  Multiple interpretations of the gilets jaunes  are, of course, possible: for example, as an anti-fiscal protest, a concrete manifestation of territorial fracture, a quest for new forms of social relations in a world of anomie and alienation (the ‘roundabouts’ replacing the rural cafes), as a camouflage for social disorder and anti-parliamentary protest.

The gilets jaunes movement shook the presidency to its foundation. Many interpretations of the gilets jaunes movement have focussed on the challenge to Macron’s authority- and the fall from grace of an over-arrogant leader, caught up in hubris and undermined by demeaning one-liners. By mid-December 2018, Macron’s poll ratings seemed to be approaching the catastrophic levels of his predecessor Hollande after 18 months in office. But are these interpretations the right ones?  My argument is that the gilets jaunes movement is in the process of demonstrating that Macron is more resilient than recent French Presidents.   The anti-politics movement might have broken out under previous presidents. There are reminiscences of the period back in 1995, when President Chirac campaigned and was elected on the diagnosis of a ‘social fracture’ in France. Chirac set the standard for politicians saying one thing – and doing another. The former Gaullist President had u-turned by October 1995 and lost the election as a result in 1997.  Closer to the present day, Chirac was re-elected in 2002 only because he faced the far-right’s Le Pen on the second round. His successor Sarkozy was forced to change course to deal with the impact of the 2008 economic crisis. Though a highly active reformer, not much remained at the end of his presidency.  President Hollande (2012-2017) suffered almost from day one from his inability to narrate the sense of his presidency,  along with the sense of drift and decline.

In comparison Macron’s leadership has appeared as disruptive (breaking with norms and expectations), robust and, in some senses transformational.  A more modest President Macron might be emerging. Macron has no real choice, if he is to survive and eventually gain a second term. Macron’s reactions to the crisis have been moderate and tempered.  It is still too early to conclude definitively that this crisis is over. But Macron has ridden the wave of unpopularity and is starting to recover. He has demonstrated an astute capacity to respond. The major concessions made in December 2018 certainly had the ring of previous Presidents trying to buy off social discontent by reaching for the cheque book (President Macron announced 10 billion euros of new spending in his December 2018 address to the people). But he has also demonstrated the capacity to stand firm against popular pressure and continue his reform programme. Moreover, his launching of the Great National Debate is an astute move, renewing with the early innovation of the marcheurs, the supporters of Macron who knocked on doors across France to ask electors what their priorities were. The  Great National Debate is opposed by many yellow jerseys – but it is difficult to refuse to engage in public debate when the sense of exclusion was one of the main factors driving the movement in the first place.  Macron has personally demonstrated energy and commitment in animating debates across France: inter alia, with rural mayors in the Lot, with mayors from the Paris suburbs in Seine-St Denis; with young people in the Monts d’Or. Finally, though organised political parties have had great difficulty positioning themselves in relation to gilets jaunes, the two forces to emerge strengthened from the movement are, firstly, the National Rally of Marine Le Pen (former FN), who appears in pole position for the 2019 European election, and – rather paradoxically – Macron himself, as the seriously embittered President recovers from the ashes as a result of skilful manoeuvring and direct contact with the citizens.  The ultimate Macron paradox is that the gilets jaunes movement has undermined what remains of the ‘old’ world (the Republicans, the Socialists, even Mélenchon’s France Unbowed) except the privileged opponent, Marine Le Pen. The game is a dangerous one, but the calculation that a face to face clash between Macron and Marine Le Pen will, once again, turn in favour of the former is a hypothesis that rests on serious foundations.

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