French President Emmanuel Macron isn’t a fan of protests. He has mocked union demonstrators in the past for being “lazy” and “cynical” and criticized his predecessors in the Élysée Palace for too easily succumbing to the demands of their critics. His presidency, Macron promised, would stick to its business-friendly reform agenda—even when unpopular. As the former investment banker put it bluntly last fall, “democracy is not in the street.”
This is what makes Macron’s decision to cancel an increase in the fuel tax all the more extraordinary. After weeks of protests that have grown violent—with at least four deaths so far and more than 3,000 arrests—Macron has finally conceded to the central demand of the so-called gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vests. He has also proposed a modest state-funded pay hike for minimum-wage workers and a reduction in the social charges paid by pensioners. Those hoping for the protests to fade away, however, could be in for a disappointment. The government’s concessions don’t address deeper problems at the heart of the grassroots uprising—which, in the end, was never just about the fuel tax.
Outside of the major cities, most people in France drive cars. It’s a necessity that consumes a major chunk of their income—in general, much more so than in the United States, where gross pay is higher and state governments maintain astonishingly low tax rates on gasoline. In France, the monthly median income is ¤1,700, according to the state statistical agency, or about $1,900. Meanwhile, diesel fuel, which most drivers use, costs more than ¤1.50 a liter—equivalent to $6.47 a gallon. Diesel prices have spiked by about 25 percent over the past year.
Frustrations with fuel prices began building last summer. But they reached a new level in September, when the government announced that it would hike taxes at the pump by as much as 25 cents a gallon in 2019. The next month, truck driver Eric Drouet created a vaguely worded Facebook page calling for a “national movement against tax increases” to start on November 17.
In the end, more than 282,000 people responded to Drouet’s call. While the number of weekly demonstrators has actually declined since then, the Yellow Vests have nevertheless managed to seize the national spotlight, instilling a deep sense of fear in the political establishment. That’s partly due to the violence, embodied by the internationally circulated images of cars burning in central Paris. Still, an even greater factor is the movement’s seemingly spontaneous origin story: a haphazard discussion on social media that took off without the support of political parties or unions. While Marine Le Pen on the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left have both endorsed the Yellow Vest movement and clearly hope to capitalize on its success, their respective parties have played a minimal role in planning the hundreds of nationwide protests.
Further contributing to the cloud of dread now enveloping the Élysée is the fact that the gilets jaunes have broad public approval. Not a single leading party in France enjoys close to majority support, according to opinion polls. And yet the polls show that 60–70 percent have backed the Yellow Vests, with working-class respondents expressing the most sympathy.
The movement has managed to win such wide support because it clearly has tapped into a deeper sense of social injustice. While that sentiment is shared nationwide to varying degrees, the protests themselves sprang up largely in rural areas and in le périurbain: the sparsely populated outer bands of the suburbs and metropolitan areas. These are parts of the country that suffer from high jobless rates and rely heavily on state investment to keep their communities afloat, from unemployment benefits to the public rail network that connects them to larger cities.
High expectations for the state also come with close scrutiny over its actions. This can be misinterpreted as hostility toward the very idea of state intervention in the economy. But the fact remains that most gilets jaunes supporters are not opposed to the state’s role in the economy; they simply want it to act more fairly. Over the past decade, they’ve witnessed hospital closures, postal-service cuts, and rail reforms that have laid the groundwork for privatization and higher ticket prices. Much like spiraling fuel costs, these are not the sorts of things that keep wealthy people up at night.
Meanwhile, since taking office a year and a half ago, Macron has mandated further belt-tightening for the working class in the name of fighting the budget deficit. Local governments have seen subsidies for part-time jobs slashed, and low-income people have suffered cuts to their housing aid. Yet the rich receive a very different sort of treatment: Overseeing his first budget as president, Macron rushed to slash France’s wealth tax, which covers those with over ¤1.3 million in assets, so that it applies only to real-estate taxes. This is why the notion of justice fiscale, or “tax justice,” figures so prominently among Yellow Vest sympathizers: Why should ordinary people be forced to fork over another couple hundred euros each month while the super-rich are rewarded simply for being super rich?
At the same time, a non-negligible share of the gilets jaunes’ appeal flows precisely from their lack of clarity. One prominent list of demands is fraught with inconsistency: It calls on the government to both cut payroll taxes for employers and increase the minimum wage; it demands that immigrants better “integrate” into French society, but also that the government improve its treatment of asylum seekers. Other demands take aim at political institutions: abolishing the Senate, which is not directly elected by voters, and authorizing national referendums on questions that earn above a certain number of signatures.
With the government acceding to the protesters’ clearest demand—and throwing in some additional concessions—the movement’s next phase is shrouded in doubt. While the gilets jaunes enjoy momentum and show a willingness to keep protesting, it’s not exactly clear what else they seek.
In this vacuum, the more traditional pillars of the French left have sensed an opportunity. With the backing of student unions, middle- and high-school students have led walkouts to protest the country’s new higher-education admissions procedures. Some of their university counterparts have done the same, criticizing a hike in tuition fees charged to students from outside the European Union. A prominent anti-racist group, meanwhile, is backing the Yellow Vests while calling for justice in the banlieues, the urbanized suburbs inhabited by many immigrants and French citizens of Arab and African descent.
Clearly caught off guard by the movement’s initial appeal, left-wing trade unions are seeking to turn out their members and sympathizers, too. While it hasn’t fully endorsed the Yellow Vests, the heavyweight General Confederation of Labor finally called for a nationwide “day of action” on December 14. The move is part of an attempt to turn France’s unexpected wave of contestation in a more progressive direction, to shift the conversation from tax relief to hikes in direct compensation.
There is a kind of magical formula often invoked in French activist circles: the necessity for a convergence des luttes, or “convergence of struggles.” To people who don’t spend much time thinking about politics, the term can come across as hackneyed and utopian—the mark of a seasoned trade unionist out of sync with the general public. Yet with the former now taking the latter’s lead, the idea actually doesn’t sound so far-fetched today.