France’s gilets jaunes protesters, called yellow vests in the English-speaking press, scored one victory earlier this week. President Emmanuel Macron announced that his government will no longer levy the fuel tax that so outraged the country’s middle- and working-class ranks. But the
yellow vests are set to protest again on Saturday, where they’ll be met, Macron’s prime minister Édouard Philippe promised, by 89,000 police and a dozen armored vehicles. There may be nothing now that Macron can do to settle the unrest he has repeatedly provoked — and repeatedly dismissed as the last gasps of a dying regime. “We need to rid this country of its strike culture,” Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for Macron’s En Marche party, said in April as the country prepared for a massive transportation strike. France’s strike culture endures. Macron, with an approval rating of 23 percent, might not.
The crisis Macron faces doesn’t just jeopardize his presidency; it also threatens the future of the ideology he rode to victory. A banker by trade, Macron took technocratic centrism and called it revolution, in the most literal sense. The 2017 book he wrote to outline his ideology is titled Revolution. And his entire political project, as he has detailed it publicly, is a transformative one, as if he and he alone can bring France creaking into the 21st century. Macron has been in office for a little over a year, and in that time, France has been rocked by strikes and protests that are beginning to accumulate a body count. One conclusion is that France, with a relatively robust welfare state and a vibrant history of radical protest, might not be such a natural fit for Macron and his technocratic reforms. But what could follow him?
The yellow vests do not tilt obviously to the right or to the left. Anyone can put on a yellow vest and join, so the ranks of participants include high-school students and union workers and, yes, some far-right activists; these factions don’t necessarily have political interests in common with each other, and thus it’s not at all clear that the protests favor either France’s ascendant far right or its beleaguered left. But the political world is not bounded by the electoral prospects of the Marine Le Pen’s fascist National Front party or Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing Insoumise party. While the yellow vests might not have an obvious political identity, the movement does have a discernible political origin that traces its way back to Macron’s centrism.
Macron, since taking office, has promoted a regressive tax agenda that has almost exclusively favored French corporations and the wealthiest French households:
That alone could have earned him a reputation as a threat to the working class. But Macron has also pursued his tax agenda alongside cuts to France’s famous social safety net, which likely cemented his reputation as an existential danger to the fortunes of struggling communities. In September 2017, he drastically reformed French labor law for the private sector. He did so via executive order in an elaborately staged event — an obvious provocation that followed two days of protest by French trade unions. His reforms, as reported by the Guardian at the time, “include a cap on payouts for unfair dismissals and greater freedom for employers to hire and fire” and granted private-sector employers greater leeway to set pay. Macron justified the reforms as a necessary response to mass unemployment. But months later, in January 2018, the AFP reported that France’s PSA — the manufacturer of Peugeot and Citreon cars — cited Macron’s reforms as the reason it chose to offer 1,300 voluntary redundancies and 900 early retirements to staff. Though PSA said it would “offset” the losses by creating 1,300 new jobs with long-term contracts, those long-term contracts aren’t permanent, a fact that stoked the ire of the CGT union, which represents PSA workers. Another French corporation, Pimkie, cited the reforms as it cut 208 jobs.
The average person might read PSA and Pimkie’s decisions as evidence that Macron’s reforms might not actually benefit the French worker. But undeterred by protest and lackluster economic growth, Macron’s government announced in August that welfare handouts would increase at rates below inflation levels. France 24 reported that Phillipe said, “Housing allowances, family welfare benefits and pension payouts would increase by only 0.3 percent in 2019 and 2020.” Inflation is expected to rise by 1.5 percent — meaning that Macron’s welfare increase actually amounted to a cut. Sure enough, Macron announced tax cuts a month later, in September — his proposed budget included a provision to reduce labor charges for employers by 20 billion euros while cutting 14,500 state jobs by 2021. (In 2015, 21 percent of French workers held public employment, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.)
Against this backdrop, it is relatively easy to determine what the protests presage for the future both of Macron’s political career and of his centrist political philosophy. As a candidate in 2016, he said he wanted to govern like Jupiter, king of the Roman gods, in contrast to the rule of his predecessor, François Hollande. Macron later distanced himself from that Jupiterian ambition, at least to the press. “I obviously never said that I see myself as Jupiter,” he told Le Point magazine in August 2017. But thanks to his reliance on executive orders, his near-dogmatic commitment to supply-side economics in the face of mounting public unrest, and the preferential treatment France’s wealthiest citizens have received from his government, Macron still looks like Jupiter to his people, even if he wishes to disavow the image he invoked for himself. Support for his party, meanwhile, has begun to slip in opinion polls.
If Jupiter falls along with his party, they’ll leave a void that can’t be filled with more centrism. Some other party will have to repair Macron’s damage. A coalition of left-wing parties — the Socialist Party, Defiant France, and the Communist Party — announced that it will introduce a no-confidence vote in Macron’s government on Monday. According to the Associated Press, they probably don’t have the votes to succeed. But now or in the near future, the French left will have to answer the yellow vests with a coherent and constructive message that addresses the roots of their outrage. The alternative might be another far-right government in Europe.