For the past three weeks, France has been experiencing one of the most significant social mobilisations in its recent history, which laid bare the country’s social ills, anti-elite sentiment, growing inequalities and thirst for social justice.
It all started on November 17 when tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest against rising fuel prices.
The protesters, dubbed “Les gilets jaunes” (the yellow vests) after the high-visibility jackets they adopted as a symbol of their complaint, blocked roundabouts, burned effigies and clashed with the police. They were angry about the almost 20 percent increase in the price of diesel since the start of the year, as well as the planned fuel tax hike President Emmanuel Macron had recently announced.
While Macron said the tax was necessary to “protect the environment” and “combat climate change”, protesters claimed the decision was yet another sign that the “arrogant” and “privileged” president is out of touch with regular folk struggling to make ends meet.
The intensity of the protests quickly forced the government to make a U-turn and first suspend and later permanently shelve its plans for fuel tax increases. However, the protest movement was not only about fuel prices. It encompassed wider anger and frustration against the political establishment in general and President Macron in particular. As a result, the government’s decision to abandon fuel tax hikes failed to calm tensions.
The “yellow vests” want further concessions from the government. Their demands include a redistribution of wealth as well as the increase of salaries, pensions, social security payments and the minimum wage. Some say they will not settle for anything less than the president’s resignation.
So how did day-to-day frustrations about fuel prices and “green taxes” transform into a nation-wide protest movement attracting hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks?
It all comes down to Macron’s apparent failure to connect with the people, understand their concerns and steer France away from destructive neoliberal policies.
40-year-old Macron was elected last year on pledges to change the face of French politics, create more jobs and improve lives.
On the eve of the 2017 presidential election, French voters were tired of career politicians. They wanted a different kind of leader, someone who can understand their long-rooted social and economic concerns and deliver real, practical solutions.
For the past four decades, French people have been worried about the erosion of social protections in their country. Since Francois Mitterrand’s socialist government controversially decided to impose austerity policies in 1983, successive governments have taken slow but consistent steps to dismantle the French welfare state.
All this gradually accentuated the economic concerns of the French middle and working classes and led them to be more and more suspicious of all mainstream politicians on the right and the left. They came to believe that the political elite protects the interests of the wealthy and does not care about the wellbeing of ordinary citizens.
Successfully diagnosing the public’s frustration with the political class, Macron worked hard to differentiate himself from the establishment in Paris and act as the representative of a “new world order” throughout his election campaign.
He had the youth, the energy, the positive message. He was the leader of a brand-new political party, aligned neither with the right nor the left. He appeared to be carrying no political baggage. Many viewed him as a possible saviour and did not hesitate to give him their vote.
Moreover, he was running against National Front leader Marine Le Pen. This also made him look like a “progressive saviour”. A significant portion of the French electorate was ready to vote for any moderate candidate who could stop the far right from taking power. So, they voted for Macron, even though many of them did not support his agenda completely or have faith in his ability to respond to their concerns.
As a result, Macron was elected by a landslide. However, it didn’t take long for his supporters to realise that his “reformist”, “new world” image was nothing more than an illusion.
Macron’s failure to bring about change should not have surprised anyone. Even though he seemed “young and new”, he was part of the establishment.
He had served as the minister of the economy, industry and digital affairs from 2014 to 2016 under Francois Hollande – he was in charge of implementing the former president’s infamous Labour Law reform, which caused widespread protests across the country. Before that he was a Rothschild investment banker.
Once elected, Macron showed his true colours almost immediately. He decided to amend the wealth tax – known in France as “ISF” – by narrowing it to a tax on real estate assets, rather than covering all worldwide assets over the value of 1.3m euros. This led to him being swiftly labelled the “president of the rich”.
On top of making controversial policy decisions that favoured powerful corporations and rich individuals, Macron also repeatedly demonstrated his unfamiliarity with – and at times disdain for – ordinary people struggling to survive in the country’s increasingly harsh economic environment.
In 2016 while he was the minister of economy, for example, Macron was confronted by angry trade unionists and was recorded telling one young man: “You don’t scare me with your T-shirt. The best way of paying for a suit is to work.”
In a July 2017 speech Macron said train stations were wonderful places, for there you can cross paths with both “people who succeed” (people like him) and “people who are nothing” (presumably ordinary French citizens like the rest of us).
In October of the same year he was filmed accusing disgruntled workers of preferring to stir up “chaos” rather than find jobs. “Instead of kicking up bloody chaos, some of them would be better off going to see if they can get a job over there,” he said, alluding to an aluminium factory in Ussel, a region in which employers were struggling to hire new workers.
More recently, in September this year, Macron told an unemployed man he could easily find work if only “he crossed the street”. “Everywhere I go people say to me that they are looking for staff,” the president said.
This lack of empathy coupled with business-friendly policies helped shape the French public’s perception of Macron as an arrogant, privileged politician who is a friend of the rich and the powerful.
The fuel tax that he tried to impose on people that are already feeling their economic concerns are being ignored was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
This is why the yellow vest movement is not only about fuel prices but about social justice. There is a profound discontent among ordinary people in France who see themselves as the losers in a world dominated by international elites who don’t seem to care or understand what they are going through. Macron is pursuing the exact same neoliberal agenda his predecessors pursued in the 1980’s. And just like the policies of his predecessors, his policies are hurting the poorest and helping the rich get even richer.
The yellow vest movement should not be seen as the public’s rejection of the green transition. The French state indeed has a responsibility to take action to combat climate change and protect the environment. But powerful companies that are primarily responsible for the pollution, and not regular citizens, should bear the brunt of this necessary revolution.
The yellow vest movement is, of course, not perfect. Some protesters were responsible for outrageous racial and homophobic attacks. Some also damaged national monuments and were violent towards police officers.
While we should not turn a blind eye to any of this, we should remember that the yellow vests movement is a reflection of the ongoing tensions in France. Almost 11 million people voted for the far right only a year ago in this country. There are some extremist elements in the French society and they were inevitably some among the protesters.
But we should not dismiss the entire movement as “extremist” because of this. The yellow vests are the French people who we never see on TV. Their despair can at times appear offensive because anger is neither polite nor sophisticated. It is disorganised, shocking and comes with emotion, which can translate into violence. The point is not to defend any of the violence that has tragically occurred, but to remember that the unrest France is currently facing came in response to other forms of violence, much more insidious and harmful: social exclusion and injustice.
Unemployment, discrimination and poverty are at the root of the daily humiliation French people feel which has now transformed into a general despondency. The French political elites will find it hard to pacify this public anger unless they commit to introducing radical changes to the way this country is governed.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.