15 December 2018

The Yellow Vest Protests and the Tragedy of Emmanuel Macron

By Arthur Goldhammer

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

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