When Emmanuel Macron triumphed over his far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen, in the 2017 French presidential election, many were quick to declare it a victory over the upswell of populism that was enveloping various corners of the world. A pro-EU centrist, he proved that the French people had not completely lost their minds, and cooler heads were still capable of prevailing in the face of fear and ugly nativism. The embittered neocons who hadn’t joined the Trump train due to being actual conservatives – once hostile to France for being critical of the United States’ war in Iraq, to the point of supporting the renaming of french fries to “freedom fries” – were now charmed by what they saw.
“Maybe the French should now, as suggested by Michael Tomasky, start calling steak well done with ketchup —Trump’s preference — bifteck a l’Americaine,” Max Boot wrote in an op-ed for the L.A. Times, cheekily titled “France’s election proves it — America is now an example of what not to do.”
The praise was shallow and high-handed. Angry populists don’t just disappear into thin air after they lose an election. The cultural anxieties which were never sufficiently addressed have reached a boiling point amid the increasing cost of living and the carbon tax enacted by Macron in his crusade against climate change, resulting in four consecutive weekends of violent demonstrations in the streets of Paris.
France now has it’s very own Tea Party mixed with a splash of Antifa. What began as a spontaneous protest organized through social media has morphed into the gilets jaunes, or the Yellow Vest movement: a group that demands the government cut the GDP, leave NATO, create a new Constitution, provide more quality civil services, start mass hirings and, of course, limit immigration. Instead of being mostly comprised of angry Boomers who believe Obama is a secret Muslim from Kenya, the Yellow Vests skew on the younger side and have shown a fondness for looting, smashing, and burning. It is a violent molotov cocktail aimed at the French parliament and its figurehead, wielded by a 33 year-old truck driver and an army of disenfranchised white people.
Predictably, the vultures have already swept in, hoping to mobilize the movement for its own means. Russian social media accounts immediately began to cheer on the protesters and take up the cause, ultimately leading to the government opening a probe into what seems to be obvious Russian influence. Macron’s political opponents have demanded the dissolution of the National Assembly and new elections.
“Politicized and radicalized elements are trying to exploit the movement,” said Benjamin Griveaux, the government’s spokesman told Politico. “These people want to topple the government…”
To make things worse, Macron capitulated, withdrawing the fuel tax before he promised to speak to the nation from the presidential Elysee Palace to appease the protesters. The man who infamously emasculated President Trump with an intense handshake seems to have folded at the first sign of trouble. He has promised “immediate and concrete measures”, when there is no cure all for poverty and economic instability. It has exposed Macron’s fragile hold on his country, and his eagerness to just make everything stop.
The protesters feel like they are not being listened to. Simply opening talks between the government and the ringleaders of the Yellow Vests may de-escalate the situation. Now emboldened by the concessions the government has already agreed to, they have no reason not to simply continue if all their demands aren’t met. The use of force has not dissuaded them thus far; four people have already been killed and hundreds more injured.
There is no easy solution to this mess, but there are better solutions. For all his faults, our President doesn’t easily cave to the protests held by his angry citizenry – his problem is that he rarely listens at all in the first place, makes self-inflicted mistakes as a result, and expects to be praised when he finally corrects his course. President Macron is capable of listening and he wasn’t elected simply to piss off the opposition, but he should start using that stubborn pragmatism the people of France elected him for, when they need him the most.