Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced the government will cancel plans to increase fuel taxes—but the energy powering the protests likely won’t disappear.
After last weekend’s ”Yellow Vest” demonstrations in Paris left cars burned, shops gutted, and more than 100 people injured, the French government says it will concede on the key issue that sparked the nationwide protest movement.
On Tuesday, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced that he will suspend plans to raise taxes on gasoline and diesel, which were scheduled to increase next month. The government will also immediately freeze prices on electricity and home heating fuel. This marks a major reversal for President Emmanuel Macron, who last year rejected the idea of ever conceding to protests by noting that “democracy is not the street.” Now the question remains: Will these concessions be enough to appease the anger of the movement?
Fuel taxes were the spark that created the movement, called Gilet Jaune in French, after the high-visibility vests that French drivers are required to keep on hand in case of emergency. But the issue has acted like a lancet on a much larger boil, releasing anger and embitterment over a range of issues that has been festering in France for some time.
The Gilets Jaunes have grown as a popular movement filled with many groups who feel they have been overlooked and stigmatized by Parisian elites. To understand where the movement will go next—or whether it will disappear—it’s worth understanding a bit more about where it came from and the structural issues in France that helped to spark its rise.
A presidency gone sour
The frustrations powering the Gilets Jaunes are clear enough. As in all Western countries, France’s inequality gap has widened, leaving many people struggling, including groups such as the lower middle class, who previously enjoyed far more secure prosperity. Many have seen their living standards fall or stagnate, including people with jobs who now find that their wages barely stretch to cover necessities. While an American looking in on France might see a relatively strong welfare safety net intended to protect such struggling citizens, French people accustomed to it are more likely to see, and experience, the growing size of the net’s holes.
Into this situation has walked President Macron, a figure whose social media-fueled rise to power as the leader of new party La République En Marche had a populist flush to it, but has quickly come to be seen as an enforcer for big capital, with a tax agenda that favors the wealthy. Macron’s reforms of the labor market, for example, might ultimately be intended to make France more competitive by making contracts more flexible, but have already led to large-scale redundancies. Meanwhile, many have been rankled by what they perceive as the president’s high-handed attitude. He was caught, for example, last July hypothetically describing the Parisian crowd as divided between “people who succeed and people who are nothing”—a quote that’s worse out of context, but sounds bad even in its most generous interpretation. The image of Macron as a supercilious, disconnected leader has grown, and stuck. The issue of fuel taxes has thus been a catalyst for the expression of a slow-building resentment.
The fuel taxes were thus the glove that fit the shape of popular resentment. Outside Paris, cars are far less dispensable, and people whose wages are already stretched felt the new taxes would penalize them just for needing to get around. The new taxes weren’t the highest in Europe, but that fact did nothing to alter this perception, and the issue swiftly created a broad, amorphous coalition of France’s discontents.
Beyond urban vs. rural
The Gilets Jaunes have presented themselves as the voice of France’s neglected regions. American media outlets have thus presented the crisis as an urban-rural standoff—a framing that is partly right, but still somewhat off the mark.
A look at exactly where the protests are taking place shows that it has a rural leaning, without being rural per se. Certainly, the largest number of protests per capita have taken place in rural regions, as the map below shows. When divided by the number of inhabitants, the most concentrated activity is in fact in the largely rural Haute Marne Department, a quiet if not exactly remote backwater.
Look at the total number of demonstrations, however, as shown in the map below, and we see that the majority are actually in the regions surrounding major cities: the industrial belt surrounding northern Lille and the cities of Bordeaux and Marseilles. These places are far from exclusively rural, and certainly no one’s idea of the boondocks. They are nonetheless places that are figuratively (and literally, by French standards) far from the Parisian powerhouse. And the frustration felt by many living in these areas is not accidental but structural.
That’s because the way power is organized in France contributes specifically to the debate. The country’s political system is a heavily centralized one, with the regions maintaining some tax-raising and spending powers, but no U.S.-style legislative autonomy. The days have passed in which France’s Departments (the next territorial unit down from the regions) were largely governed by a Paris-appointed Prefect, but the sense of a remote, resented controlling force whose levels are pulled in the metropolis has never fully dissipated.
This concentration of power continues within the national government. France’s presidents are unusually strong, because the country’s national assembly is relatively weak, with fewer powers to censure or change the direction of the executive than its counterparts in the U.S. or U.K. Thus, when French people protest that a president is not listening to their concerns—that he “governs monarchically”—they are doing so in a system which, some argue, gives its executive heads greater scope for such behavior. This structural imbalance adds heft to the Gilets Jaunes’ grievances—and may even be a contributing factor to the somewhat insurrectionary nature of French protest culture.
A historical precedent?
The rapid escalation of the Gilets Jaunes movement may be remarkable, but in some ways France has been here before. Most frequently invoked as an antecedent to the movement is the phenomenon of Poujadism, so named after Pierre Poujade, a political activist who headed self-styled anti-elite campaigns in the 1950s—an effort that has proven an uncanny harbinger of contemporary populism.
A book and stationery store owner in small-town southwest France, Poujade formed a trade association, the UDCA, in 1953 to protest higher taxes and more stringent implementation for small businesses. Styling itself as a defender of the common will against Parisian elites, Poujade’s association ultimately grew to 450,000 members, and weighed in on such issues as the decolonization of Algeria, to which it was strongly opposed.
Despite some odious anti-semitic comments from Poujade himself, the movement never explicitly swung to the extreme right before dissolving in 1962. Later in life, Poujade criticized Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, which might seem to be his movement’s natural successor. Poujadist-style protest has nonetheless survived as a feature of French public life, and Poujadism as a template used to understand predominantly lower middle class protest movement—and not just in France. In the beginnings of the U.S. Tea Party, with its attacks on taxes, bureaucrats and questions about Barack Obama’s birth, some have seen a parallel with Poujadism, which had a similar thrust and also questioned the origins of France’s Jewish Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France.
The Gilets Jaunes movement has clear parallels with the Poujadists. An anti-elite identitarian campaign based initially around tax issues, it is partly formed of people who might normally feel themselves to have conservative leanings. It doesn’t have a unified political agenda—demands circulating among the Gilets Jaunes have ranged from impeaching Macron to staging referendums for all law changes. What is less clear is whether the Gilets Jaunes will follow the Poujadists’ lead and disperse.
The Poujadists, after all, formed during France’s Trente Glorieuses, the three decades from the Second World War to the mid 1970s when the country made leaps in living standards. The Gilets Jaunes, by contrast, have emerged in an age of acute international anxiety, where populist movements continue to reverberate and tap into frustrations that governments struggle to confront. The car burnings and roadblocks may be over for today, but the energy and anger behind the Gilets Jaunes are likely not going anywhere.