For the last few months, weekends in France follow a similar routine. Tens of thousands of people march
through traffic and into the streets to demonstrate against a government they feel no longer represents the
working class. These protesters call themselves the Yellow Vests, or Gilent Jaunes and first appeared as a
response to the government’s raise of fuel taxes in early November of 2018. The fuel tax increase
represented an enormous financial challenge for much of French society, many of whom rely of their cars
to travel long distances for work, and these taxes also represented the government’s tendency to favor the
wealthy. After organizing through social media, thousands across France took to the streets in fluorescent
yellow vests to voice their grievances. These protests often escalated and turned violent, with protesters
rioting and using tools such as vandalism to display their discontent. Many of the news reels tend to focus
on this violent image of the Gilent Jaunes, but there is little examination on the root causes of the
movement. At its core, the movement represents a battle for defining French society—the struggle
between the urban elites and the rural working classes—that one can no longer ignore. Contrary to his
reformist image, French President Emmanuel Macron aggravates this internal battle by refusing to fully
recognize the forgotten side of French society.
Emmanuel Macron marked his success in French politics during the 2016 elections. Macron seized the
opportunity to run as a centrist candidate when the Socialist party nominated a candidate on the far-left
wing of the party, Benoît Hamon, while the Republicans chose a candidate on the far-right, François
Fillon. Macron’s centrist candidacy allowed himself to run as a safer choice in comparison to his more
radical opponents. Yet, it was standing side by side next to National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen that
helped to secure Macron’s electoral victory. Many viewed Macron as a more respectable and reasonable
choice than the controversial Le Pen. On top of winning the presidency, Macron created a political party
almost overnight known as La République en Marche. Many party members never held a political office,
and yet, they won an absolute majority of 337 seats out of the National Assembly’s 577 seats.
The legacy of confidence-driven Charles De Gaulle profoundly influenced Macron’s view of government
and policy who stated “the French preferred to be governed by a monarch—though an elected
one—because democracy without a strong executive was incomplete.” Macron’s Gaullist confidence and
ambition drove him to mistake his majority for a mandate from the French people, despite the fact that
Macron’s victory seemed to represent more the fear of Marine Le Penn than the hope of Macron’s
agenda. At first, no significant opposition arose when Macron enacted the first reforms to labor, tax
codes, and the French educational system. To pass such reforms, the government made significant budget
cuts and chose to look the other way when local mayors complained. Federal budget-cuts often resulted in
the closure of rural schools, hospitals, and courthouses while reducing railroad services to rural branches.
This reformist enthusiasm demonstrates the great contradiction of Macron’s so-called revolutionary
leadership as his reforms typically assist the upper-classes while simultaneously stifling the working
class. Macron’s earliest endorsements came from the economists Jacques Attali and Jean Pisani-Ferry, as
well as the investment banker Alain Minc. Macron “praised the reformist zeal of the elite and from time
to time let slip his doubts about the virtues of the people. If fired meatpackers could not find new jobs, it
was because they were ‘illiterate’ or ‘lazy’.” Society as Macron saw it was like a team of mountain
climbers: “the most enterprising clawed their way to the top at the head of the rope, drawing the rest up
behind them.” Such a perspective on the functions of French society resulted in the government’s failure
to invest in rural parts of the country that shelter underserved French minorities.
Consistently championing business interests, Macron failed to recognize that millions of French people
received little to no benefit from these policies. Most significantly, Macron’s decision to abolish the
wealth tax in 2017, a tax on the total amount of personal assets, cemented the title of “Macron: president
of the rich.” Levied on individuals with assets above 1.3 million euros ($1.5 million), the wealth tax
helped make up a large proportion of government revenue and it’s estimated that the treasury lost 3.2
billion euros from its repeal. The Institute of Public Policies noted that the current French budget reforms
for 2018-2019 overwhelmingly benefit the top one percent. At the same time, the bottom twenty percent
would likely see their incomes fall due to rising prices of energy in order to compensate for the loss of
revenue. The current government’s increase of the tax burden on the bottom twenty percent comes at a
period in which Macron shows no interest in challenging the Eurozone’s austere monetary and budgetary
policies, which costs France 2.00 billion euros in customs duties on the EU’s behalf.
It does not help that Macron’s background drastically differs from the “up-by-his-bootstraps outsider”
description he gave to himself. Both of his parents had stable employment in the medical field and sent
Macron to private school before he won admission to France’s École Nationale d’Administration—the
country’s top and most exclusive school for higher education.
Macron’s privileged background and elitist agenda produced feelings of isolation and resentment amongst
France’s middle and working classes. Many have been priced out of the major centers of the city and rely
on their cars to travel for work. Thus, when Macron instituted fuel tax to reduce carbon emissions, an
online petition against the already rising fuel prices gained thousands of signatures. The rise in fuel tax,
which represent around sixty percent of the fuel prices, marked yet another example of Macron’s inability
to comprehend and recognize the other side of France’s society, the far less-privileged component.
After the government announced the fuel tax increase, thousands took their frustration to traffic circles of
major towns and cities, disrupting the flow of traffic and voicing their grievances. These protests gripped
Paris and the rest of the country, growing more brutal by the weekend as protesters acquired grenades and
police sprayed tear gas.
In January, Macron responded to the protests with the solution of a national debate designed like an
“ongoing town hall.” The debates, held by local mayors, are meant to addresses the grievances of
protesters and provide an outlet to discuss dissatisfaction with the current government’s agenda. Despite
his best attempts, Macron continued to isolate the concerns of the lower class when he published a 2,330-
word letter outlining topics the debates should focus on. These topics, formatted as questions, included
the environment, taxes, public spending, and public services. Although the list is broad and addresses
some of the protesters’ concerns, it gave the impression that France’s upper class would dominate the
debate, perpetuating the feeling of invisibility among the workers and lower classes.
It seems that Emmanuel Macron and his administration must finally come to grips with the fact that
numerous kinds of backgrounds shape French society. The problems expressed by the Yellow Vest
protesters reflect not just a desire for reform, but a longing for recognition that they exist and are a valid
part of France. Until Macron grants full recognition, one unfortunately can expect to see more grenades,
masks, and broken windows on the Sunday evening news reel.