For two months, France has been wracked by protests. Initially set off by rising fuel taxes, they morphed into a more general rejection of President Emmanuel Macron. The movement has become increasingly violent and security officials say that some of the protests have become as violent as those of those of 1968, when all of France was in upheaval. In some ways, the “gilets jaunes” (“yellow jacket”) movement is a typically French protest, but it also reflects a deeper malaise that is increasingly found throughout the West.
The yellow jacket protests began in November when an estimated 300,000 people across France took to the streets and erected barricades to protest rising fuel prices. The price increases stemmed from France’s commitment to fight global warming, but also reflected Macron’s belief in the need to force structural change on the economy. The protests continued for the rest of the year, and gradually took on the character of an anti-Macron movement, despite key concessions that his government made, including suspension of the fuel tax increases.
Hopes that additional conciliatory statements and gestures by the president would deflate the movement proved mistaken. The protests resumed last weekend as an estimated 50,000 people across the country took to the streets. The demonstrations in Paris turned violent when marchers deviated from an approved route, and riot police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Barricades and motorcycles were set on fire, as was a floating restaurant on the Seine.
Criticism of the president takes three forms. First, there are those, like U.S. President Donald Trump, who blame environmental naivete as the root of his problem. For them, Macron’s pursuit of a “globalist” agenda reeks of elitism and ignores the needs of ordinary French citizens. A second group of critics charge that Macron is a typical bourgeois capitalist whose reform agenda is merely unbridled capitalism that ignores the needs of most French citizens. Finally, a third group charges that Macron was always just another empty suit with good marketing skills; his claim to represent a new force in French politics was just talk. That may not have been true when he launched his presidential bid, but in the 18 months since he took office and his party won a majority in the National Assembly, Macron and En Marche have become part of the system, rather than a corrective for it.
Popular anger toward Macron is driven by a perception that he is insensitive to the needs of ordinary French people. His reform agenda has included tax cuts that favor the wealthy and labor reforms that make it easier to fire workers. The yellow jackets that protesters wear — equipment that every car is supposed to have — symbolizes the call by average citizens to be seen and their voices heard. An imperial personal style has not helped Macron’s image.
Macron is unbowed, however. While he has acknowledged that he made mistakes, suspended the fuel tax increases, pushed for tax cuts for pensioners and promised wage increases for the poorest workers, he has also said that he will continue with reform. In his New Year’s Eve speech to the nation, Macron said “We can’t work less, earn more, cut taxes and increase spending.”
Macron’s success should matter to the rest of the world. He is the leader of a Group of Seven country and the holder of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. His commitment to fighting global warming and for responsible carbon emissions policies is an example to other nations. He has stood up for the institutions of international order when they are under unprecedented assault. He backs the same principles and norms as has Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: free and fair trade, open and transparent trade and investment policies, and human rights and the dignity of the individual. Last October, the two men agreed to increase bilateral cooperation to promote stability in the Indo-Pacific region, noting that “Japan and France are both oceanic nations. We would like to join hands for promotion of the free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Perhaps most important is his support for the European Union. Macron is a true believer and has worked with like-minded integrationists to keep the EU strong. He knows that a united Europe is a powerful force for peace and prosperity in the world and without it, Europe will be increasingly subject to the influence of external powers. Japan, like Washington, should want that strong conception of Europe to prevail. They should also recognize that a successful European project will help combat the populist and right-wing forces that are pulling the continent apart.
Macron is the master of his own fate. But much rides on the future of the yellow jacket movement and Macron’s ability to convince them of a vision that will better their own lives.