Fears that a fourth weekend of protest by the yellow vests might explode into widespread, insurrectional violence on Saturday proved inflated. But President Emmanuel Macron would be foolish to believe that he has ridden out the hurricane of popular fury which has blown up, seemingly from nowhere, in the last two months.
He must offer a convincing series of responses to the sufferings of low-income people, and a more humble manner, when he belatedly addresses the nation tomorrow or the day after. It may already be too late to save his presidency.
Detestation of Emmanuel Macron is the only point on which all gilets jaunes agree. The movement ceased to be a “normal” social protest long ago. Many peaceful gilets jaunes, their apocalyptic ambitions stoked by social media and their fury overheated by fake news, believe that they can overthrow representative democratic structures. They want to expel not only Macron but the whole of the French political class.
The violence in Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux and elsewhere on Saturday was arguably worse than the previous week. Scores of cars were burned. Over 1,300 people were arrested.
The Paris town hall says that the destruction in the capital was not so concentrated but scattered across the city and, overall, caused “much more damage”.
No buildings were set alight. National monuments were not attacked or desecrated. The violence came mostly from small – and some not so small – gangs of hard-right or hard-left urban guerrillas. As night fell, multi-racial groups of kids from the banlieues joined in.
Last week, the attacks on police and property were initiated from early morning by a radical wing of the gilets jaunes from suffering towns in northern France, Brittany and Normandy. I was on the streets during both protests. It seemed to me that a different army of gilets jaunes turned up this Saturday, more like the angry but broadly peaceful people who have been picketing or barricading roundabouts all over France since 17 November.
The police tactics were also different. Instead of defending fixed positions en masse, they deployed mobile companies of police and gendarmes to disrupt and scatter the so-called “casseurs”.
This is an inadequate word to describe the commandos of young men in black – Ultra-left? Ultra-right?– whom I witnessed gathering cobblestones just before the Avenue Marceau exploded into an orgy of car burning in early afternoon.
The government had warned beforehand that firearms and molotov cocktails were being prepared. I saw one impromptu petrol bomb thrown at an armoured car, without much effect. No shots were fired.
The state’s internal intelligence services also appear to have done a better job this time. Many of the 1,385 arrests occurred preventively in early morning. Those intercepted included a group of 150 ultra-right activists from eastern France. They were were rounded up as soon as they arrived in Paris.
It would be foolish to minimise Saturday’s events. Armoured vehicles were used in earnest on the streets of Paris for the first time since the German army was expelled in 1944. Much of the centre of the French capital was closed down and boarded up two weekends before Christmas. The impact on the French economy threatens to be crippling. Another mass protest is planned next weekend.
The security forces, at full stretch for the fourth Saturday in a row, are exhausted. One million hours of overtime were owed to the two forces of French riot police before every man and woman of them turned out again on Saturday.
The numbers involved in protests across France have fallen each weekend, from 287,000 on 17 November to 125,000 on Saturday. There are tentative signs that the mass of the French public – 70 per cent supportive until now – are losing patience.
At the same time, there are also disturbing reports that shadowy external forces – the US alt-right? Russia? – are systematically deploying lies and propaganda through social media to further enflame the anger of gilets jaunes. False images of protesters allegedly injured by police; absurd claims about a global plan to “replace” white populations with African migrants;
All the same Saturday’s violence mostly did not come from the yellow vests. Many of the “real” gilets jaunes in Paris this weekend tried to discourage violence or stood aside from it. I cannot speak for what happened in Toulouse, Saint Etienne and elsewhere.
Is this a turning point? It should be.
In the interests of the rural and outer-suburban France that it represents, the gilets jaunes movement needs to get not just angry but serious. A start was made when a group of moderate yellow vest spokespeople met the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe last Friday.
At the same time a depressing 25 point manifesto for “exit from the crisis” received hundreds of thousands of hits on gilets jaunes social media late last week. The manifesto is not official because nothing about this disparate movement is official but it accurately represents the naivety and delusions of many gilets jaunes.
The manifesto called for the halving of all taxes, so that no individual would have to pay more than 25 per cent of their income. It called for a massive programme of state spending. It demanded a 40 per cent increase in the minimum wage and welfare payments. It sought an end to immigration. It demanded French departure from the EU and Nato and the “repudiation of the national debt”. It proposed the replacement of representative democracy with direct popular votes on all laws.
This is Alf Garnett meets Dave Spart, a formula for reducing what was a mildly recovering French economy to a European Venezuela.
Macron must make serious attempt to boost the purchasing power of poorer French people when he appears on television this week. He must admit that his reform programme, though well intentioned, has been too rapid, very poorly sold and front-loaded towards the wealthy.
But the gilets jaunes movement must also start to formulate clear, achievable goals which will bring genuine relief to the people they represent. Perpetual, violence-attracting protests and apocalyptic drivel will serve no one, least of all the poorest.