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

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

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.

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  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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