Yellow Vests or the reassessment of Macronism

For over 3 weeks, France has been experiencing targeted blockades of streets and highways. French people being French you would say ? Well this time, everything is different as the usual suspects (truck drivers, students, trade-union or public services) were not involved at first.

This time, this social mobilization caught everyone by surprise. In the wake of declining trade-unions, this spontaneous movement of “gilets jaunes” (named after the yellow jacket they wear) used social-media to organize. Rising up quickly from rural France, this grass-roots and citizen-driven movement is now one of the most serious challenge President Emmanuel Macron has yet to face since the beginning of his mandate. In a nutshell, it is an assertion of power from below that President Emmanuel Macron might have to listen to. However, unlike union-led demonstrations, the lack of a clear “leader” or a specific political agenda makes it difficult for the government to negotiate with them.

“Make our oil cheap again ?”

If the yellow-vest protest began with rising world oil prices, combined with an increase this year of 7.6 cents per liter in taxes on diesel, pushing prices at record highs, it seems to be now a protest at the perception that President Macron governs for the better-off, for cities-based elite. Henceforth, it has spread to a general protest against living-costs and the perception of long-lasting declining purchasing power for lower-income household. Thus, the Government seems completely disconnected with the daily life of “real people”, struggling to pay their bills.

If this needs to be assessed more thoroughly, these protests have put forward French schizophrenia over the ecological transition. More than 75 % of French people think that their country relies too much on fossil fuels while 70 % of them still support the gilets jaunes mobilization. Hence, these protests goes well beyond the issue of rising oil prices, it points out the lack of consensus on what should be done to fight climate change and all its consequences.

Save the planet or save his image : Macron’s dilemma

Though Macron’s environment minister resigned without warning earlier this year, the French President has been implementing an ambitious environmental policies compared to other developed nations. However, environmental policies disproportionately can impact more low-income people and this is what exactly “gilets jaunes” people feel. They feel that the ecological transition is just an excuse to pay more tax while putting aside the elite from the necessary burden-share. Thus, despite the wide support of French people towards the ecological transition, these protests have highlighted the tipping point of every environmental policy : how to carry out an ambitious ecological transition while involving everyone ?

Nonetheless, the urgency of climate change and the deep transformations that are required to curb it lead Macron to one of the greatest challenge for all political leaders of our time : balance long-term thinking and short-term popularity.

“La République en Marche arrière” or the reassessment of Macronism

In the past few days, the gilets jaunes mobilization has forced the government to clarify its stand on the ecological transition which has put on the table several measures designed to help low-income households. Even though President Macron reaffirmed several times that he will remain consistent with his policy, in the wake of days of unrest that included widespread riots in Paris, the French government relented Tuesday and agreed to suspend utility hikes and a controversial fuel tax.

Put into a corner, the government had to make some concessions but more importantly has set up a turning point in Macron’s presidency. Indeed, what defined Macronism was the commitment to deeply reform the country, and do what his predecessors failed to do : negotiate or give up unpopular measures. This decision has set a precedent which should have heavy and long-lasting political consequences, should the crisis last after Christmas.