OPINION: Macron beware, France’s ‘yellow vest’ rebels will not retreat easily

The unpredictable and leaderless "yellow vest" rebellion in France might appear to be on the wane but it's entering a danger zone and the French government would be mistaken to underestimate the volatile movement, not least because it could lead to an ugly "battle of Paris" at the weekend, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron beware, France's 'yellow vest' rebels will not retreat easily
Photo: AFP

As the weather grows cold and pump prices fall back to their summer levels, some of the softer support for the road blockades is falling away. Those who remain are the more self-righteous, more bloody-minded and perhaps more desperate gilets jaunes.

They are plainly enjoying themselves – people who see themselves as powerless and neglected who are enjoying their moment of power. They will be difficult to shift, even when public opinion turns against them, as it will. 

There are leaks from the internal security services – tactical leaks most likely – which suggest that known activists of the far-left and the hard-right are infiltrating the movement. Trade unions are threatening to mobilise. So are lycée pupils in parts of the South.

The informal or self-appointed leaders of the yellow vests plan to go ahead with a mass invasion of central Paris this Saturday despite a government ban. 

If so, violence is probable. The police and gendarmerie have been under orders to hold back until now in the expectation that the movement will play itself out. Two deaths and 550 injuries have already been caused by accidental clashes between gilets jaunes and the motorists that they claim to represent.

An unauthorised mass demonstration in central Paris on Saturday will be met head on by the CRS and gendarmerie riot police. They are seldom gentle.  Urban anarchists and kids from the banlieue (poorer suburbs), who rarely resist the chance for a fight, may well join in.


Despite a scattering of disgraceful racist or homophobic or violent incidents, last Saturday’s nationwide protests against tax-rises on petrol and diesel were mostly polite and peaceful. The demonstrations contained thousands of people who had never demonstrated in their lives before.

There is a tendency, observable in reader comments on Le Monde articles, for parts of Metropolitan-liberal France to sneer at the gilets jaunes as oil-guzzling “beaufs” (oafs), ecologically ignorant “péquenots” (yokels) or disguised far-right racists. 

That misses the point – or perhaps makes the gilet-jaune point that there are now two Frances and booming Metropolitan France cares only for itself. The September-October spike in pump prices was the immediate cause of the protests but it cannot alone explain the depth of anger and resentment in rural and outer-suburban France.

The movement was triggered by diesel at Euros 1.51 a litre but is a shout of fury against low salaries, high taxes, a lack of good jobs and poor local services. There is a conviction in “peripheral France” that Emmanuel Macron is the President only for successful Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Montpellier.

On a journey along the N12 through rural and small-town Normandy yesterday, I kept a tally of the number of on-coming cars displaying supportive yellow vests on their dash-boards. The yellow count rose and fell depending on the prosperity of the surrounding area but the average was 40 per cent. If this is a disguised Far Right movement, as Metropolitan liberals fear, France is in deep trouble.

I do not believe that it is – not in its origins in any case. It is a social movement but not yet a political movement. I was stopped by road blocks four times. The pickets included many women and girls. They did not look like typical Lepennists to me. 

The danger is that the movement will become more political and more extreme as its softer support evaporates.

Scarcely mentioned in the French press is the fact that pump prices have been falling in line with the global oil price for two weeks or more. Diesel is now selling at an average of Euros 1.46 a litre – and several centimes less on supermarket forecourts. That drop almost absorbs the 6 cents eco-tax imposed by the government in January, which was the original focus of protest.

The weather is turning wintry. Other motorists are beginning to lose patience. Rural people are growing alarmed as their shops run short of food held up in the barricades.

But the government is mistaken if it thinks the yellow vests will disappear easily. The gilets jaunes spokespeople – officially there are still no leaders – are equally misguided if they maintain their maximalist demands.

Macron is not going to resign. The parliament is not going to be dissolved. And the government is not going to abandon its – justified – policy of pushing up petrol and especially diesel taxes.

The government should treat the gilets jaunes rebellion as the social protest that it is. It should invite the movement’s leaders, trade unions and all democratic, political parties to a conference on the future of “peripheral France”. It should announce its readiness to take measures to address the wider problems of rural areas and hard-scrabble outer suburbs, from transport to taxes to local services.

And both sides should do everything possible to avoid a bloody battle of Paris this weekend.

You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @john_lichfield.

Member comments

  1. There are no GJ leaders. Most anything the government tries is likely doomed to failure, if only because there is no one to negotiate with. The best they can hope for is to pull in other groups and hope that the other groups, at some point, convince the GJ that it’s time to go home.

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.