What’s the Real Beef of the Gilets Jaunes?

Arthur Goldhammer
22 December 2018

Image from video by Lena Abraham via Delish.com (https://www.delish.com/cooking/recipe-ideas/recipes/a55651/best-beef-tenderloin-recipe/)

As we’ve been hearing for more than a month now, the French are upset about a supposed decrease in their pouvoir d’achat owing to Macron’s reforms. On Mediapolis this morning the political scientist Roland Cayrol claimed that signs of this concern with disposable income had been increasing over the past year. I tried to find evidence of this, without success (I would be grateful for links in the comments if any readers have the polling information to which Cayrol referred). I did find various calculations of the gains or losses of disposable income to be expected by different social groups. Here is a summary:

Les Français jugeront donc en 2019… et ils risquent d’être plutôt divisés sur l’évolution de leur pouvoir d’achat. « Si vous êtes un salarié et que vous utilisez souvent les transports en commun, il y a de grandes chances pour que vous soyez gagnant, explique Mathieu Plane. En revanche, si vous êtes un retraité de la classe moyenne supérieure, donc sans compensation de la hausse de la CSG, et que vous utilisez souvent votre voiture au diesel, là très clairement vous serez perdant ».

As usual in such debates, there are qualifications, beginning with the first sentence. Because of the different timing of various cuts and increases, the full effect of the reforms will not be felt until 2019. People are reacting on the basis of what they saw in 2018, and many are reacting to only partial information: some saw a decrease in their take-home pay but failed to factor in a decrease in certain levies they would have to pay or a decrease in transport costs. In any case, it would seem that any changes in disposable income will have been insufficient to explain the extreme wrath of the Gilets Jaunes or the violence manifested by some of the protesters (not all of which can be blamed on casseurs).

When we take a broader look at shifting attitudes toward President Macron and his reforms, a different picture emerges. There have so far been five “waves”  of a survey conducted by IFOP in conjunction with an organization call No Com and the newspaper JDD. What one finds is that Macron’s early reforms (of the labor market and SNCF in particular) enjoyed substantial support, in contrast to the abolition of the ISF, which was always unpopular. And the decrease in the rural speed limit was among the most detested reforms, more so than the hike in the fuel tax. Macron was also given high marks for “courage” in pushing through the reforms against opposition, and the overall effect of the reforms was judged to enhance “social justice.” Over time, however, support on these very broad judgments of policy has eroded. Starting in the middle of this year, there was a sharp uptick in the percentage of people who judged the overall effect of the reforms to be “unjust.”  And what people had previously taken for “courage” in Macron they began to perceive as a combination of stubbornness, isolation, and indifference.

Results of the fifth wave of the survey are summarized here.

L’inquiétude et l’incompréhension ont gagné du terrain dans tous les milieux sociaux (voir graphique 1). De fait, ce n’est pas le mot « transformation » qui est rejeté mais son mode opératoire. Les Français sont plus nombreux que jamais à considérer que la première condition de réussite de la transformation, c’est la réponse à la demande de protection et au souci d’égalité et de justice dans les réformes (voir graphique 2). Pour comprendre la force du soutien aux Gilets jaunes, il faut relever les progressions considérables enregistrées en un an et demi sur toutes les préoccupations d’ordre financier et social : écarts de salaire, hausse des impôts, égalité femmes-hommes, augmentation du niveau de vie, retraites, etc. (voir graphique 4).

Will things improve for Macron? It’s not out of the question. As Cayrol noted, support for the GJ dropped by about 20% after the president’s speech, which is unprecedented for a single presidential intervention. A change in the character of the movement may also decrease support. I am referring to the adoption of the infamous quenelle by some demonstrators (h/t Arun Kapil) as well as to today’s blockage of border crossings, both indications that the remaining GJ are taking a harder right line than the original protesters.

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4 Comments

  • David L says:

    I have thought for some time that many of the yellow jackets wore stylish black shirts as well here in the countryside, in Paris not so much 🙂

  • Douglas Crockett says:

    The view from the ground floor is a little simpler. Macron is perceived as the president of the rich. He follows the neoliberal/austerity agenda which, as Thomas Piketty has pointed out, is designed to increase inequality to benefit the rich at the expense of the rest of us. His “reform” agenda includes reducing taxes for the very rich and their corporations, weakening unions, weakening job protections, reducing government services to the population at large including healthcare, and privatization. It’s the same agenda that has led to a Democratic sweep of the midterms in the US and the rising popularity of Labour in the UK.

  • Geof says:

    The phenomena described here is simply due to the basic human condition (perhaps more prevalent in France than elsewhere) that we enjoy Punishment of others more than than the Rewarding of ourselves. Thus Macron’s labor reforms (hurting the unions, based in the cities) and realigning the SCNF (ditto) gained support, while recompensing the wealthy (ISF) was greeted with distaste. If I’m right, then Macron’s bribes will be like aspirin, wearing off in a few hours and needing constant followup dosages.

  • Michael Heim says:

    On the other hand, Douglass Crocket, Steven Bannon immediately identified the GJ as Trump constituency – rural petit bourgeois; farmers, truckers, tradies, religious conservatives waving nationalist flags. “The rich” and “Neoliberal elites” are the home iconography of the far right from Hungary to the Atlantic seaboard. However, I have seen few signs of the feminist or anti-racist or grassroots trade union leadership that has been the driving force behind the US Democratic Party renewal, or that of the British Labour Party. I remain skeptical.

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