Out and about in Paris on Saturday I passed scores of protestors on their way to the Champs-Élysées to vent their fury against Emmanuel Macron. Wearing their gilet jaunes (yellow vests), they were angry, determined and overwhelmingly white and middle-aged. The nationwide protest that pulled in nearly 300,000 demonstrators has been billed as a pushback against rising fuel tax but it goes much deeper than that; it’s the revolt of the people against a president they believe holds them in contempt. As one demonstrator told Le Figaro: ‘Macron is the president of the rich and not the poor. He should think also about the poor.’
Macron rarely thinks about the poor, except to insult them. In July 2017 he referred to them in a speech as ‘nothing’, the first of several barbs at those less fortunate than himself. That speech was at the opening of a start-up centre in Paris, where his audience was tecchies, hipsters and entrepreneurs – Macron’s kind of people.
A friend of mine, an Englishman, was present in Paris in May this year when the president spoke at the technology summit VivaTech, which bills itself as the ‘world’s rendezvous for start-ups’. He told me that Macron was greeted like a messiah, the audience overcome by a quasi-religious fervour.
Similar atmospheres were glimpsed during Macron’s campaign trail, one in particular in Paris in December 2016, which earned him much mockery on social media. But it did him no harm in the long run, although one should remember that France didn’t so much vote for Macron, as against Marine Le Pen.
There was a brief period before the second round of the presidential election when the leader of the National Rally had Macron on the back foot. Arriving unannounced in Amiens, Macron’s home city, Le Pen addressed the workers of an appliances plant threatened with closure because the bosses wanted to outsource to Poland. ‘Everyone knows what side Emmanuel Macron is on’, she said in a speech in the plant’s car park. ‘He is on the side of the corporations. I am on the workers’ side.’
Outmanoeuvred by Le Pen, Macron visited the plant in the afternoon to parley with the disgruntled workers but, as I wrote for Coffee House, in doing so he revealed one of his major political weaknesses: his unfamiliarity with the working class leads him to talk at them and not with them.
He should undergo a crash course in learning how to talk to the sans-culottes because the anger in France is growing and the Yellow Vest protest has rattled the government. ‘France cannot submit to anarchy,’ said Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Sunday, a reference to the nebulous nature of the protest that has no leader, no official union ties, but unites people across the political spectrum, as well as attracting a minority of thugs who were responsible for injuring 28 police officers.
There were further demonstrations on Sunday, including one at Eurodisney, where protestors raised the barriers so that visitors were spared the car park fee of €30, and some blockades are still in place today.
What the protests reveal is the widening chasm between metropolitan and provincial France. Life in Paris, Lyon or Bordeaux is dandy if you’re a hipster with start-up skills; it’s a different story out in the sticks. A government report in 2017 classified 27 towns as ‘extremely deserted’ with shops closing down and doctor’s surgeries moving out. The French have a word for this phenomenon – the ‘désertification’ of rural France – and in his election manifesto Macron promised to reinvigorate the provinces, but if anything the situation is deteriorating and the fuel tax rise has enraged men and women who rely on the car to get to work in regions with patchy public transport.
As Saturday showed, the people’s patience has worn out and worryingly for the president, the conflict has become personal with Macron seen as the supercilious face of an uncaring global elite.
It was unfortunate timing that on Sunday Macron fulfilled an engagement to address the Bundestag in Berlin, in which he urged Europe to become a confident bulwark against a world in danger of ‘slipping into chaos’. France is already close to that state and Macron’s grandiose rhetoric will count for nothing on the world stage if he can’t restore order in his own country.