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