How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
France is a country with a long history of rebellions, but it has never seen anything quite like the revolt of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests), which erupted in mid-November. Disturbed by the high cost of gasoline and diesel fuel, a woman who runs an online cosmetics business in the small town of Savigny-le-Temple posted a petition on Facebook calling on authorities to cut prices at the pump. When the government instead announced that in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions it would enact a modest increase in the tax on gasoline and a slightly higher increase in the tax on diesel, the petition began to pick up steam. Before long it had gathered 986,000 signatures.
The protest then moved from the Internet to the traffic circles that dot the French countryside. France boasts some 30,000 of these, half the world’s total. Traffic entering and leaving most villages and towns must pass through one or more such roundabouts. People protesting the fuel tax donned the fluorescent yellow vests that all French drivers have been required to carry in their cars since 2008 and began to congregate at traffic circles, where they could easily disrupt the flow of traffic and command the attention of drivers. The yellow vests served as an impromptu uniform, which gave the movement not only a name but also a symbolic resonance: the vests are intended for use in emergencies, and protesters used them to convey the message that they were living in such dire straits that even a small tax increase, insignificant to the bureaucrats in Paris, could drive them to rebellion.
On four successive Saturdays, large numbers of protesters converged on Paris from their homes in the provinces. Some clashed with police. But only some of the violence came from the Gilets Jaunes. Bands of casseurs (lawless youths bent on smashing things) and squads of Black Bloc militants (like those who have caused trouble in other demonstrations around the world) used the protestors as camouflage as they shattered store windows, set fires, and hurled projectiles and Molotov cocktails at police. Scenes of chaos were broadcast around the world.
After 18 months of energetic reform with surprisingly little overt opposition, Emmanuel Macron thus faced his first major crisis as president of France. Everything about the movement surprised political observers: its virulence, its magnitude, its provincial origins, its apparent lack of structure and leadership, and its adamant refusal to be co-opted by existing political parties and unions. One thing above all seemed to unite the protesters: their hatred for Macron and their desire to see him removed from office.
Surprises are common in politics, but the precipitousness of Macron’s decline has been particularly stunning. There was always a hint of the mythological in Macron’s career: whom the gods would destroy, they first make arrogant with success no rational person would have thought possible. And then, in an instant, they snatch it all away.
Macron’s ascent to the presidency began, like a certain Greek tragedy, with parricide. The victim was his political father, the Socialist President François Hollande, who had brought Macron back from the private sector and cleansed him of the right-wing label he had earned as secretary of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007–08 commission for economic reform. In August 2016, Macron abruptly resigned his post as minister of the economy to run for president, even though Hollande was planning, despite his deep unpopularity, to run for reelection. Macron’s rapid rise ultimately forced Hollande to announce that he would not run after all. After such betrayal, could nemesis be far behind?
Of course, it is an exaggeration to accuse Macron of killing Hollande, whose presidency was already dead when his protégé made his move. Macron was not so much Oedipus—even if he did marry a woman old enough to be his mother—as a high-stakes gambler, prepared to bet the farm on a pair of deuces. And fortune smiled on him. The Socialists nominated a candidate on the left wing of the party, Benoît Hamon, and the Republicans a candidate on their right, François Fillon, leaving a gaping hole in the center for Macron to fill. A potential centrist rival dropped out and threw his support to Macron, and then Fillon was crippled by scandal. A last-minute surge on the far left fell short, leaving Macron alone to face Marine Le Pen, whose far-right National Front remained, despite strenuous efforts to bury its demons, beyond the limits of respectability for two-thirds of French voters.
In a sense, Macron is the victim of his own success.
As if that were not enough, Macron then ran the table by conjuring a political party out of thin air, which he dubbed La République en Marche. The party’s ticket, which included many candidates who had never before held political office, won an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly. Within less than a year, a 39-year-old who had never held elected office had transformed his pair of deuces into a royal flush.
And royal was indeed the word for the new president. An unusually reflective man for a politician, Macron himself proposed the theory that the French preferred to be governed by a monarch—though an elected one—because democracy without a strong executive was “incomplete.” The previous three administrations had faltered, he believed, for want of sufficient “verticality”: rather than rule authoritatively from the top down, these presidents had bowed to pressure, retreated in the face of opposition from powerful interests and from the streets, and allowed necessary reforms to be undone or scrapped. He, by contrast, would never retreat. He mistook his ample margin of victory for a mandate, which it certainly was not. The majority of those who voted for him were rejecting Le Pen rather than embracing Macron. He knew this but chose to ignore it, on the theory that the appearance of unwavering self-confidence could compensate for the deficiency of active support.
In June of 2017, in the flush of total victory, this was not a foolish theory. De Gaulle was Macron’s hero, and de Gaulle had shown time and again the power of sheer self-confidence to cow adversaries uncertain of their strength. Macron kept on bluffing, and remarkably, he also kept on winning—for a while. He pushed through extensive reforms to the labor and tax codes without arousing significant opposition, tackled persistent problems of the French educational system, including large class sizes in elementary schools and a high dropout rate after the second year of university, and issued a bold call for reform of the European Union. Few noticed the opposition that had begun to smolder in small towns far from Paris, where mayors complained that Macron’s budget cuts made their jobs impossible, and long before the hike in the fuel tax triggered the Gilets Jaunes protests, motorists were up in arms about a decrease in the speed limit.
Macron’s implacable reformism stood in apparent contrast to the populist nationalism surging across the continent. The French president supported a pro-European, pro-globalist program of transformation that would restore growth while “at the same time” (a catch phrase repeated so often by Macron that it became an object of mockery) bringing jobs and therefore hope to the forlorn and forgotten. But Macron was in fact an unapologetic elitist. While populists extolled the common people and rejected the elite, Macron praised the reformist zeal of the elite and from time to time let slip his doubts about the virtues of the people. If workers at a meatpacking plant slated to close could not find new jobs, it was because they were "illiterate” or “lazy.” Jobs were waiting, he insisted, for anyone with the gumption to “cross the street.”
Society, according to Macron, 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. With this metaphor he justified his decision to abolish the wealth tax, a move that opposition firebrand François Ruffin called “the original sin” of Macronism. The president seemed to listen only to people who shared his elite educational background and thought little of contrasting people "who are successful" with those "who are nothing."
These attitudes cost him dearly with ordinary people, who might otherwise have been more inclined to forgive his failure to invest in the decaying suburbs that house France’s “visible minorities” or to allow passage to the Aquarius, a ship that rescued migrants adrift in the Mediterranean. While support for Macron cooled among his young, upwardly mobile urban base, anger seethed in the provinces, especially among those who were finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as wages stagnated, prices rose, and government reforms lightened the tax burden on the top one percent while increasing the burden on the bottom 20 percent. Macron’s abolition of the wealth tax quickly earned him the epithet “president of the rich,” even though the overall effect of his comprehensive tax package, according to the Institut des Politiques Publiques, was to redistribute income from the top 20 percent to the middle 50. Budget-cutting measures—including the closure of rural schools, hospitals, and courthouses, and service cuts on rural branch railroad lines—inconvenienced people living in less populated areas.
Then came the rebellion of the Gilets Jaunes. With a fourth round of demonstrations slated to converge on Paris on December 8, the government feared that protesters might march on the Élysée Palace. Some had even threatened to enter it. In a panic, the government rescinded the fuel tax hike that had sparked the original protests.
Demonstrators were not placated, but numerous local groups of Gilets Jaunes urged followers to stay away from the capital in order to avoid a bloody confrontation. The government dispatched a heavy police force, which was relatively successful in containing the protests in the capital. Yet violence broke out elsewhere, especially in Bordeaux and Toulouse. And support for the Gilet Jaunes movement remains high: no one can say how many people are actively participating, but polls suggest that close to 70 percent of the population approves of their efforts.
In a sense, Macron is the victim of his own success. In the wave of enthusiasm for a clean sweep of the old political parties that followed his victory last year, he was able to fill the National Assembly with handpicked supporters, many with no political experience. This left the field clear for the president and his lieutenants to formulate policy without consulting with the party’s base or its deputies. The République en Marche failed to set down the sort of local roots that might have allowed word of growing anger at the base to filter up to the top. Those at the top were left free to persuade themselves that because they found the logic of their reforms convincing, no one could fail to agree. “Who would not want cleaner air?” they reasoned. Hence, “Who would not be willing to accept a higher tax on fossil fuels?” Their awakening has been a rude one.
Can Macron survive this revolt? The decision to rescind the fuel tax did not calm the protests. A large segment of the French population, tired of being ignored, still waited for a sign that its grievances had been heard by the president. On Monday night, December 10, the president addressed the nation. It was an uncharacteristically short speech, less than 15 minutes long. Speaking in somber tones, he said he had heard the anger and understood the reasons for it, and he apologized for having used words that had hurt the feelings of so many. He also announced an increase in the minimum wage, to be paid for by the government rather than by employers. He rescinded a tax that had especially incensed retirees. He pledged to work more closely with the country’s many mayors, who have been particularly displeased with cuts to their budgets. He nevertheless refused to reinstate the wealth tax, which has become for him a symbol of his resolve, just as it has been for the protesters a symbol of his bias in favor of the well-to-do.
The concessions are significant, but the protesters are unsurprisingly disappointed that not all of their demands were met. Unless the Gilets Jaunes can organize themselves more effectively, however, the movement could recede. Or it could smolder for a while and erupt again later on. Meanwhile, Macron will face his first electoral test in May, when European parliamentary elections will give voters their first opportunity since his election to express their displeasure at the polls. Whatever the outcome, Macron’s star has dimmed, and the hopes for European renewal that attended his election have been dashed. This is bad news not only for France but for the world.