A French government capitulating to widespread rioting on the streets of Paris and other major cities and towns is nothing new. The modern republic is built on revolution, and street violence has long been viewed as an acceptable reaction to unpopular policies. What makes president Emmanuel Macron’s U-turn on green surcharges on the price of fuel so humiliating, however, is that it happened so quickly.
The gilets jaunes – the “yellow vests”, named after the high visibility jackets that all motorists have to carry in France and which they now all wear with pride – only began demonstrating on 17 November. Now they have already forced what was once considered a young, dynamic French administration to run up the white flag. Not only that, but they have also given succour to similar movements across Europe, especially those rallying around issues, rather than political parties. Brexiteers frustrated by Britain’s stagnating process aimed at leaving the EU will certainly be taking notice of what the gilets jaunes have achieved in such a short space of time.
The French protesters were furious at the escalating price of petrol and diesel and accused the government of adding to their misery by preparing to impose an ecological tax on fuel on 1 January. This was a sacred policy of Macon’s, as he bid to reduce the nation’s reliance on cars, bringing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change. A climbdown proved inevitable, however, when thousands rioted, desecrating national monuments, including the Arc de Triomphe. There were more than 400 arrests in Paris alone last Saturday, as upmarket buildings and cars burned and shops were looted.
Public order offences were the main tactics used by the gilets jaunes. They also blockaded roads and fuel refineries, destroyed speed cameras and toll booths and generally created mayhem. This generated an enormous amount of publicity for the cause, naturally, both in France and abroad.
“For three weeks we’ve seen a deep anger that comes from afar,” said Edouard Philippe, Macron’s crestfallen prime minister, as he claimed to “understand the anger” and announced a six-month suspension of the green tax on Tuesday. There will also be a half-year moratorium on other fuel taxes, and on hikes in the price of gas and electricity. “We must succeed collectively,” he added, acknowledging that even those involved in violent affray have as much right to have an effect on the workings of government as anyone else.
Crucially, neither Philippe nor Macron have had any significant dealings with the gilets jaunes, and nor have any other politicians. On the contrary, those who have tried to piggyback on its success have been told where to go. These include Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally (previously the National Front) and Jean-Luc Melenchon, the hard-left firebrand and former minister who runs La France Insoumise (France Unbowed).
It is this sense of grassroots non-affiliation – and, indeed, independence – that has helped to make the gilets jaunes such a powerful threat. Almost anyone with a grievance against the government can rise up against what they perceive as a corrupt and unresponsive Paris establishment. The vests themselves are a brilliant marketing tool: the brand garments were seen in large numbers in Brussels last Friday as Belgium’s gilets jaunes braved tear gas and baton charges to take on riot police. When I trailed their Paris counterparts over three Saturdays, I spoke to supporters from Italy, Spain and Britain itself, as well as plenty of others from further afield.