La colère jaune
When I was learning to ride a bicycle at around age 5, I was stung by a yellow jacket, lost my balance, and fell to the ground. I have been afraid of yellow jackets ever since. Emmanuel Macron would do well to be afraid of them now. Their swarm is too large to be ignored, and even if no clear message has yet emerged from their indecipherable buzzing, it is clear that they are … aroused, and searching for flesh in which to implant their stingers. And while honey bees die after stinging, yellow jackets do not. Their anger can be long-lived.
The French yellow jackets, or “yellow vests” as they are commonly called in English, are quite different from the Nuit Debout movement that plagued Hollande and accompanied the rise of left populism. Nuit Debout was largely urban, even bobo, and rather youngish. Les gilets jaunes are largely rural and exurban and working class. An instant participant-observer sociological analysis, admittedly incomplete and quite possibly inaccurate, can be found here. As for issues, the GJ are perhaps slightly more concrete than ND. ND complained about inequality, while the GJ complain about the hike in the gasoline tax, the reduction of the speed limit, and the suppression of the wealth tax, although it is common to hear each of these issues described as little more than “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” triggering “un ras-le-bol généralisé” and a visceral rejection of “the arrogance” of the powers-that-be, starting with the president.
Comparisons have been made to other angry and non-specific protest movements of recent years: the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, the Bonnets Rouges, Nuit Debout, etc. As for political coloration, the GJ seem to be a kaleidoscope. As vigorously as Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen deny that they draw on similar reservoirs of anger, it is undeniable that substantial numbers of the GJ claim allegiance to one or the other, while still larger numbers disclaim allegiance to any political party. But between “tous pourris” and “qu’ils s’en aillent tous” is but a short step.
The problem for Emmanuel Macron is that the protest is directed not against his specific policies but against everything he represents, or, rather, everything he is commonly represented as representing. He is “the president of the rich,” the protesters say, pointing to the elimination of the wealth tax and the increase in the gas tax as evidence. Try as he might to justify these measures on economic and ecological grounds, his words will not be convincing unless and until results are palpable, and they won’t be anytime soon.
In any case, the malaise lies deeper than policy, in the realm of respect, dignity, and consideration. It is difficult to convey genuine respect across the boundaries of quite different social worlds. There is not much to be done about the fact that the decisions that shape the direction of French society today, as in the past, are taken in the capital by people who have been socialized in the ambiance of the capital. Conflict between Paris and the provinces is a perennial theme of French politics. The very disorganization of the GJ and the coexistence within its ranks of disparate political valences suggest that it will prove to be as ephemeral as the previous movements to which it has been compared.
But even its disappearance will not solve Macron’s political problem. His approval rating now stands at 23%, which is roughly equivalent to his share of the vote in Round 1 of the presidential. In short, his support has been reduced to its kernel and shorn of all protective buffers. Having walked on water for more than a year between his resignation from the Hollande administration and his victory over Marine Le Pen and the early resistance to his reforms, he has been sinking ever since. He no doubt learned from Hollande that retreat is not the answer, so he will continue moving forward. Hence his fate is now in the hands of forces beyond his control. If the employment picture improves, if oil prices continue to fall (offsetting the increased gas tax), if the now withered green shoots of European recovery regain their vitality, things may look up for him. If not, not. No wonder he’s been fatigued of late. No matter how many white nights he endures, he remains at the mercy of notoriously fickle gods.