The “Yellow Vests” movement in France was unexpected. It began as a spontaneous discontent triggered by a new tax on fuel. Various fears and resentments suddenly converged on a series of disparate social demands, cemented by distrust of Emmanuel Macron, perceived as the president of the wealthy. At first glance, it looked like French politics as usual. Since 1995, all French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande) endured a dramatic drop in popularity within six months of their election. Their much-anticipated reforms were wrecked by leftist social movements, divisions within their majority in Parliament, and finally bad luck, meaning depressed economic conditions.
After his unexpected election, Macron seemed in a good position to avoid the fate of his predecessors. Had he not put an end to the rise of populism in Europe? Had he not a clear mandate and the means and personal energy to implement his program of ambitious reforms? It seemed that not only France but also the EU had found a strong new leader. Despite the sophistry of his adversaries about low turnout, Macron’s election victory in 2017 was as impressive, if not more, than the mandates won by his predecessors: Polls showed that he would have won against all his challengers at the second turn, and the victory of his party in Parliament confirmed his high popularity.
Yet, 18 months later, Macron faces not only a violent rejection of his policies, but an even more violent rejection of his person. “Macron get out!” was the main slogan of the Yellow Vests. Despite the weakening of the movement and 10.3 billion euros worth of new welfare expenditures—jeopardizing the economic recovery of France and of the eurozone—disorders and urban violence are persisting. Macron and, beyond him, every politician and any mode of political representation, are now being targeted ever more aggressively.
The Yellow Vests claim to be the people; they express the popular will directly. For them, only a filterless expression is legitimate. Their anger is so deep that it is not negotiable and it needs no further justification. Repeated declarations by Macron and his ministers acknowledging that “your anger is right” have no effect, except to further discredit the political class as a whole.
Before the violent demonstration of Dec. 1, 2018, on the Champs Elysées, one could wonder about the nature of the Yellow Vests movement, given its spontaneous and “apolitical” appearance. The media were complacent, intellectuals divided: Was it a democratic insurrection against oligarchy or a populist revolt seeking some new form of authoritarianism? Was it a protest of the poorest people against growing inequalities, or of the lower middle class of neglected rural territories against “wired” cities? The last battle of endangered professions and regions unable to find their place in the new digital-robotic economy? An expression of concern about painful economic reforms to come, notably on pensions? Such social and political factors may be at play, but there is more and, unfortunately, it is not reassuring.
First, the urban violence, insults, and vandalism that characterized the Yellow Vests demonstrations are not the collateral damage of a peaceful mobilization. Yellow Vests leaders cynically admit this fact in their oft-repeated media slogans: “We firmly condemn violence, but we have to admit that it is efficient.” Indeed, their violence was instrumental in the retreat of the government.
Instead of organizing and channelling their demonstrations, Yellow Vests stick to a strategy of unpredictable gatherings and do nothing to help the police in preventing vandalism and violence. This guerrilla strategy is by no means spontaneous. It requires careful organization. After six weeks, the spontaneity of the movement, maybe genuine at the beginning, has become a myth: Leaders and spokesmen have emerged on Facebook, all sticking to the same talking points, including the insistence on the “horizontality” of a movement without leaders, and the denial of their own accountability: “I speak only for myself, others may think differently, and I will follow them.” “I am satisfied with the measures announced by the government, but since my fellow men aren’t,” etc. etc.
Second, anger against Macron has evolved into a watchword that overshadows all other demands: the “Citizen’s Initiative Referendum.” It sounds like participatory democracy, but it is not. The main point of these referendums, it has emerged, is not to decide policy questions but to nullify elected representatives. Yellow Vests want the referendum to be free from any legal or constitutional checks (for instance if it contradicts human rights or international obligations). It is not meant to empower civil society, but to give unlimited force to individual resentments, and to surmount the political process in its entirety. While Yellow Vests stay programmatically “apolitical,” in Facebook groups they endlessly repeat their hostility to the EU, even promoting a “Frexit,” and vent the most extreme clichés against Jews, migrants, George Soros, Freemasons, homosexuals, etc. Behind their “righteous anger,” fake news and conspiracy theories flourish, spread by overheated social networks.
The populism of this new movement goes along with distrust of media and elites (“them”) and credulity to any hoax circulating on Facebook (“we”). Before the Yellow Vests, belief in conspiracy theories was already high in France, like everywhere else in the Western world. According to a national poll in December 2017, 35 percent of respondents believe that the American government took part in the Sept. 11 attacks, a statement that attracted 47 percent belief among young people (ages 18-34). Twenty-two percent of respondents suspected or are sure that the Islamist attacks in Paris in January 2015 (17 killed: satirical journalists, policemen, customers of a kosher grocery store) were in fact planned or manipulated by the French secret service. This last figure jumps to 34 percent among the 18-24 age group. Fifty-five percent of respondents believe that the Department of Health conspires with drug companies to hide to the public the harmfulness of vaccines.
The Yellow Vests have brought this conspiratorial mania to truly Russian heights in explaining the apparent actions of its own movement. The rioters who trashed the Arc de Triomphe and plundered luxury boutiques were in fact agitators hired by Macron, they claim. Some of them were even policemen. Immediately after the terrorist attack in Strasbourg on Dec. 11, Yellow Vests leaders declared that it was in fact a plot staged by Macron to weaken the movement. Even after it was established that it was an Islamist attack that killed five people, many Yellow Vests stuck to some version of this conspiracy theory (“a highly suspicious coincidence”).
“Anger” was from the start the key word of the movement, but “fury” is more adequate. Anger is an articulate motive against something, calling for compensation, or some other redress of grievances. Fury is a blind emotion, a calling for revenge or scapegoating.
“Civil war is inevitable,” declared Christophe Chalençon, supposedly a moderate leader of Yellow Vests, on Christmas Eve. How did Macron come to raise such hatred? The wunderkind president made mistakes, he was sometimes arrogant or casual, but far less so than his predecessors. He pushed for reforms at high speed, at the risk of frightening the people, but scrupulously followed the program on which he was elected. Admittedly, this program revealed inconsistencies, reducing fiscal pressure on wages and business on one hand, creating new taxes on the other. All this can explain unpopularity, but not hatred. On Dec. 22, some Yellow Vests staged a fake public trial of Macron in a stadium, ending with the decapitation amid applause of a dummy made up to look like the president.
The explanation for this phenomenon, which appeals overtly to the irrational, lies in French politics, but also in global trends. Macron attracts criticism because there is no political alternative to him in France. The French political system collapsed in 2017, and no recomposition has followed. Rather the two government parties have declined even further. Once dominant, the center-right Les Républicains would be at 11 percent in a general election, and its candidate at 10-13 percent at a presidential election. The PS (Socialist Party), which had been the majority in Parliament for 20 years since 1981, has crashed to 4.5 percent, Meanwhile, the neo-communist party La France Insoumise (LFI) failed to become the main opposition force, despite (or because of) the ambition of its charismatic leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Even Macron’s new-born party does not exist on its own, neither in Parliament nor in public debate. Therefore, the president is personally responsible for everything.
The far right is the only political force that survives on the ruins of the party system, and therefore the only one benefiting from the Yellow Vests movement. Far right voting intentions (including Rassemblement National, the former National Front led by Marine Le Pen and Debout la France) at the European elections (in May 2019) had already reached 26 percent in September (against 20 percent for Macron’s party, LREM). In December, thanks to the movement, far right jumps to 32 percent, while LREM is now at 19 percent. But the far right is not credible beyond its narrow base because it has nothing to offer except leaving EU and the eurozone, a perspective rejected even by those who are mad at Brussels. Marine Le Pen has gained some support among Yellow Vests without saying much, just 18 months after her pathetic performance at the presidential election. To be back in the political game, it seems she just has to whisper the magic words: The Yellow Vests are “the Forgotten.”
Meanwhile the vocal support of LFI for the Yellow Vests brings it nothing, despite the inflammatory declaration of its leaders. It is worth quoting François Ruffin, an LFI MP who declared: “The president and no one else is slashing and burning our country, tearing apart our republic, he might end like J.F. Kennedy. M. Macron must go now, either by car, helicopter, or scooter, he must go before our people become mad with rage.”
Once seen as a line of defense against the dismantling of liberal democracy by Trump and Putin, Macron’s presidency has instead ushered in the Trumpization of French society and politics. The constitution gives him time and stability until 2022, and he may have the historical imagination and courage required to bounce back.
Except that the politics of fury Macron is facing is not only French. From Washington to Warsaw, from Rome to Prague and Budapest, liberal democracy is threatened with death from the inside. It is properly a tragedy: The politics of fury pretends to give power back to the nations, but its success would leave them powerless and precipitate what it fears most: the wrecking of globalization, uncontrolled migration, and submissiveness to undemocratic empires.
However weak and clumsy it is, the EU remains the only shield for the political freedom and safety of the European nations against adversaries that look increasingly threatening and seem to act with impunity. But unlike the French presidency, the EU seems increasingly vulnerable to a populist wave in the coming elections. The outcome of a populist anti-European majority in the European Parliament could be a partial or larger collapse of the EU, which would usher in a new and terrifying form of chaos that most Europeans have not experienced in their lifetimes. I can only find a twisted and tiny hope in the possibility that Macron might get through distress and emergency in 2019 the authority in Europe he did not get in 2017 through his ambitious proposals and bold posturing. But the evidence would suggest that my hope is nothing more than a wish.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ukrainski Tyzhden/Ukrainian Week.