All predictions on the Gilets Jaunes are hazardous. No one saw them coming. No one can be sure where they are going.
After ten weeks of protests, there are signs that the movement is receding. Roundabout blockades have all but vanished. But there are also signs that the movement is regaining strength. The number of people who demonstrated across France last Saturday rose to 84,000.
There is evidence that French people are losing patience. The mood of reader comments in Le Figaro (centre-right) and Le Monde (centre-left) is now virulently anti-Gilets Jaunes.
And yet opinion polls suggest that that a large part of the French public remains mystifyingly tolerant of the Gilets Jaunes, despite their revolutionary rhetoric, street violence and attacks on journalists. Up to 36 per cent still say that they actively support the yellow vests. Over 60 per cent are “sympathetic”.
- Q&A on France's yellow vests: Why are they still protesting and who is to blame for the violence?
- 'They tell nothing but lies': France's 'yellow vests' reveal their hatred of the media
- 'Where do our taxes go?': Yellow vests in Bourges explain why they won't give up their fight
There are signs that the movement is splitting and squabbling. The founders of one of the most militant groups of Gilet Jaunes, Priscillia Ludosky and Eric Drouet, fell out publicly this week. Madame Ludosky accuses Monsieur Drouet of threatening her and “damaging the movement”.
And yet there is also evidence that the Gilets Jaunes, supposedly a spontaneous and leaderless roar of pain from the French heartland, are becoming better organised.
“This is no longer an amateur movement. Its apparent disorganisation is deliberate, intended to defy the rules, destabilise the Republic and create the conditions for an insurrection,” a police intelligence source told Le Figaro.
Far Right? Far Left? The influence of Moscow? Or the influence of the American Alt Right? Such forces have certainly competed or combined to inflame the Gilets Jaunes through hysterical and mendacious posts on social media. Ultra-left and ultra-right activists riot each Saturday alongside a violent fringe of yellow vests at demonstrations in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rouen and other cities.
And yet the core of the Gilets Jaunes movement remains ordinary, previously non-political people from rural and outer suburban France. They have genuine grievances – low wages or pensions, vanishing public services. Nothing easily explains their white-hot anger or their determination to tear down the representative institutions of the Fifth Republic.
- OPINION: The 'yellow vest' movement is in danger of destroying itself as its dark underbelly is exposed
I have chatted in recent days with Gilets Jaunes on a roundabout beside a supermarket in rural Normandy. They are friendly, likeable men and women, young and old, poor and not so poor. None of them are typical political activists. None have any obvious ideology. They are united by three things.
First, a conviction that they represent “the people”, even though their numbers are much reduced since early December. Second, a cynical-credulous conviction, beyond all reason or fact, that most of the taxes they pay are being used, not for education or health or defence, but to fund a gilded lifestyle for elected politicians in Paris.
Third, a belief that career politicians and political institutions should be swept aside and replaced by direct democracy through referenda.
I have also spoken to local people who are not Gilets Jaunes. They say, in sum: “They had a point about some things but it’s gone too far and lasted too long. We don’t like Macron but he’s trying to answer them. There is no justification for the violence that we see at the Saturday protests.”
It is apparent that the proportion of local cars which display high-viz yellow vests on their dashboards has fallen dramatically. It used to be one in three in my part of Normandy. It is now one in ten.
The yellow vests claim to represent “the people”. It is doubtful whether this was ever true. It is now presumptuous grandiloquence.
Photo: The Local
The most important new development in recent days could be the development of formal, popular opposition to the Gilets Jaunes – or at least opposition to their excesses. Three movements have come together to organise a “March for Republican Liberties” in Paris on Sunday 27 January.
Laurent Segnis, one of the organisers , a 36 years old jurist, from the outer Paris suburbs, told me: “The Gilets Jaunes have dominated the national conversation for too long. They have legitimate grievances…But nothing justifies their claim to represent the whole people or their desire to tear down the democratic institutions which may be imperfect but protect the weakest most of all.”
The street is an important theatre in French politics, threatre as in “theatre of war” as well as forum for popular expression. The May 1968 student and worker protests ended soon after a vast counter-demonstration by supporters of President Charles de Gaulle on the Champs Elysées on 30 May 1968.
Organisers of the Marche Républicaine des Libertés do not welcome that comparison. They say that their march from République to Bastille is not pro-Macron but anti-violence and pro-democratic institutions. Over 9,000 people have said that they will attend.
It will take many, many more than that for the organisers to prove their most important point; the Gilets Jaunes may have legitimate complaints but they are not “the people”.
They have no legitimate basis for turning a social protest into a revolution against representative democracy.
You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @john_lichfield.