ANALYSIS: The yellow rebellion is threatening to engulf France – Macron must act

As a collective hysteria threatens to engulf the country, John Lichfield looks at what happens next in France. Will Christmas and the cold come to Macron's aid or will the violent insurrection against the president and the whole political class spiral into something very sinister and dangerous?

ANALYSIS: The yellow rebellion is threatening to engulf France - Macron must act
Photo: AFP

The government is trying, clumsily and too slowly, to calm the rage of the yellow vest movement. Others – farmers, students, cynical opposition politicians, fake news generators, domestic and foreign – are feeding the flames.

Despite the concessions on fuel taxes made by the government this week, the yellow rebellion shows no signs of subsiding. There is a high risk of more violence in Paris and other cities on Saturday.

The yellow vests are still blocking roundabouts all over France. But the movement itself is at a cross-roads.

Are the gilets jaunes a legitimate social movement which seeks practical answers to the genuine grievances of a “forgotten France”? Or will they be overwhelmed by their radical, violent wing and become a menace not just to the career of President Emmanuel Macron but to the survival of France’s democratic institutions?

The yellow vests, never a single, coherent movement, are splintering into mutually hostile factions. Some are prepared to negotiate with the government.

Others threaten violence against any gilet jaune spokesman who considers anything short of a rag-bag revolutionary manifesto, ranging from Macron’s impeachment by referendum to a new constitution in which laws will be decided by popular vote.

Most of the yellow vests manning and womanning blockades at rural roundabouts or picketing oil refineries are courteous and peaceful. Some condemn last Saturday’s savage violence in Paris and other towns. Some condone it.

Others parrot mendacious reports that the police provoked the riots or dressed up in civilian clothes and yellow vests to burn building and overturn cars.

Such nonsense is being spread on social media. It is repeated by Kremlin propaganda arms like Russia Today and – most disgracefully of all – by politicians allied to the supposedly democratic hard right and hard left.

There is no evidence that the gilets jaunes movement was created by dark forces, as some Macron supporters claim. There is clear evidence that they are now seeking to exploit it.

Lycée students are blocking schools to complaint about reform of the Baccalaureat. Farmers, never short of a grievance and always game for a fight, are threatening to pile in. Truck drivers’ unions have called for a rolling strike from Sunday.

Macron’s partial U-turn on petrol and diesel taxes on Tuesday was necessary but may have come too late. Rises in carbon taxes on car and heating fuel due next month have been “frozen” until July.

The government also plans to organise region-by-region conferences to examine the entire structure of taxation and public spending in France. The SMIC or minimum wage will rise by 3 per cent.

Even reasonable gilets jaunes were disappointed by the announcements made by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

They wanted the outright abolition of the green taxes, not a freeze. They wanted a steeper increase in the minimum wage and more generous social payments to help those “worried by the end of the month, not the end of the world”. They also wanted Macron to go back on his partial abolition last year of the wealth tax, or Impôt sur la Fortune (ISF). 

Macron’s best hope is that, despite these complaints, support for the movement will erode as Christmas approaches and the weather grows colder. Further violence in Paris and other cities on Saturday may finally melt the sympathy for the gilets jaunes which persists at extraordinarily high levels – over 70 per cent – in the general population.

President Macron’s failure to make any kind of public address on the crisis is puzzling. 

He may feel that he needs to keep himself in reserve for a solemn appeal if the crisis deepens. He may also have been advised that he had best keep his head down. There is something about his manner which symbolises to “peripheral France” the know-it-all smugness of the country’s technocratic elite.

There is deep hatred of Macron amongst even the more peaceful gilets jaunes. His approval rating has sunk to a new low of 23 per cent. After only 18 months in office, this is disturbing.

It should be remembered, however, that all previous French presidents – François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac were detested within a year or so of being elected.

The suffering of some gilets jaunes is genuine. The problems of rural France are profound.  France is the most taxed nation in Europe (over 48 per cent of GDP).

Some new balance of taxation and public spending is urgently needed.

Macron set out to achieve this but, foolishly, began with cuts on taxes for the rich and delayed tax reductions for lower-middle France which are due next year. 

But it is high time for France’s opposition politicians – and for Macron-despising anti-European forces in Britain – to grasp that this crisis is not just about Macron. The genuine problems of rural and outer suburban France have not been created in the last 18 months.

The yellow vest movement is not just “France being France”.

It threatens, at its extremes, to become more than a rebellion against Macron, or against the elites or against the rich. It threatens to become a violent insurrection against all the French political class and institutions of state.

You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @John_Lichfield

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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.