Police scuffle with a yellow vest protester on December 18, 2018 in Biarritz, France. (Photo by Gari Garaialde/Getty Images)
Saturday, January 26th 2019. "Yellow vests" protests were being organized in the main cities of France. Mobilization was not weakening. Support from the population had decreased slightly but was still huge (60%-70%, according to polls). The main slogan has remained the same since November 17, 2018: "Macron must resign". In December, another slogan was added: "Citizens' initiative referendum".
The government and French President Emmanuel Macron have been doing everything they can to crush the movement. They have tried insults, defamation and have said the demonstrators were both "seditious people" wishing to overthrow the institutions and fascist "brown shirts". On December 31, Macron described them, as "hateful crowds". The presence of some anti-Semites led a government spokesman (incorrectly) to describe the entire movement as "anti-Semitic".
The Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, ordered the police to resort to a degree of violence not seen since the time of the Algerian war (1954-62). During the two last decades in France, other riots have taken place many times. In 2005, for instance, when the whole country was subjected to arson and riots for weeks, the number of wounded rioters remained low. But violence has consequences. In just the last few weeks, 1,700 protesters were wounded, some seriously. Nineteen lost an eye; four lost a hand. Although French police officers do not use lethal weapons, they do use rubber ball launchers and often fire at protesters' faces -- a target prohibited by the current rules of engagement. The French are also the only police force in Europe to use Sting-Ball grenades.
Macron has never treated protesters as people who have legitimate claims, so he has never paid attention to their claims. He only agreed to suspend the additional fuel tax, which was to have been begun in January, and to grant a slight increase in the minimum wage -- all of which he did only after weeks of protests.
Journalists say that Macron thought the movement would fade away after the end-of-year break; that police violence and desperation would induce the demonstrators to resign themselves to their fates, and that the support of the general population would collapse. Nothing of the sort took place.
It is clear that Macron does not want to meet the main demands of the protesters; that he will not resign, and that he refuses to accept a citizens' initiative referendum. He has apparently decided that if he dissolved the national assembly and called for legislative elections to end the crisis -- as President Charles de Gaulle did it to put an end to an uprising in May 1968, as allowed by the French Constitution -- he would suffer a scathing defeat. He can see that an overwhelming majority of the French people reject him, so apparently he has determined to seek a way out:
Macron called for a "great national debate" to address the problems facing the country. It soon became clear, however, that the "great debate" would be unconventional, to say the least.
Macron wrote a letter to all French citizens inviting them to "participate", but saying explicitly that the "debate" would not change anything, that the government would continue in exactly the same direction ("I have not forgotten that I was elected on a project, on major orientations to which I remain faithful."), and that everything that was done by the government since June 2017 would remain unchanged ("We will not go back on the measures we have taken").
He then entrusted organizing the "debate" and drafting its conclusions to two members of the government, and requested that "registers of grievances" be made available to the public in all town halls.
Macron then launched the "debate" by meeting mayors of many cities, but not in public. He seems to have been concerned that if he organized meetings open to the public, he would be immediately chased away by crowds.
The first two meetings took place in small cities (with 2000-3000 inhabitants), and with mayors whom the organizers -- chosen by Macron -- allowed to come. The organizers also selected the questions to be asked, then sent them to Macron to be answered at the meeting.
The day before each meeting, the selected city was placed under the administration of legions of police. All access roads to the city were closed, and anyone found wearing a yellow vest or carrying one in his car was fined. All protests in the city were flatly forbidden. The police made sure that the road used by Macron's convoy to reach the city was empty of any human presence for several hours before the convoy arrived.
Television news channels were asked to broadcast the entire meetings, which lasted six to seven hours. Only a few journalists, also selected by Macron, had permission to attend.
Several commentators stressed that pretending to "debate" is nonsense, and that entrusting the organization of the "debate" and the drafting of its conclusions to members of the government, and the way the meetings were organized, clearly show that these performances are a sham.
Some commentators pointed out that the term "register of grievances" has not been used since the time of absolute monarchy, that mayors are treated as waxworks and that placing the cities Macron visits in a state of siege is unworthy of a democracy.
A French economist, Nicolas Lecaussin, who grew up in Romania, wrote that these meetings reminded him of those in Romania during communism.
The author Éric Zemmour said that Macron is desperately trying to save his presidency but that the attempt will be useless:
"Macron has lost all legitimacy. His presidency is dead... For three months the country stopped economically; and Emmanuel Macron, to try to save his presidency, inflicts on the country two months of additional economic stagnation, and two more months of demonstrations. When people understand that they have been deceived, anger could increase... France is already a country in very bad shape."
The French economy is, in fact, sclerotic. The Index of Economic Freedom created by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal ranks it 71st in the world (35th among the 44 countries in the Europe region) and notes that "the government spending accounts for more than half of total domestic output". The Index also reveals that "the budget has been chronically in deficit"; that "corruption remains a problem and that "the labor market is burdened with rigid regulations" leading to a high level of unemployment.
France has lost almost all its factories (industrial jobs account for only 9.6% of total employment). Its agriculture is in ruins, despite huge European subsidies: 30% percent of French farmers earn less than 350 euros ($400) a month and dozens commit suicide each year. In the high-tech sector, France is essentially absent.
A brain drain has started that show no signs it will stop.
When a talk show host recently asked Zemmour why Macron is not placing the country's interest higher by taking the reality on the ground into account, the author replied:
"Macron is a technocrat. He thinks he is always right. He was programmed to do what he does. For him, France and the French people do not count. He is at the service of technocracy. He will do exactly what is wanted by the technocracy and a higher class, [who are] totally disconnected from the bulk of the country's population... Those who want to understand have to read Christophe Guilluy."
Guilluy, a geographer, published two books: La France périphérique ("Peripheral France") in 2014, and, just weeks before the outbreak of the uprising, No society. La fin de la classe moyenne occidentale ("No Society. The End of the Western Middle Class"). In them, he explains that French population today is divided into three groups. The first group is a ruling upper class, totally integrated into globalization, made up of technocrats, politicians, senior civil servants, executives working for multinational companies, and journalists working for the mainstream media. The members of this class live in Paris and the main cities of France.
The second group lives in the suburbs of the main cities and in no-go zones ("Zones Urbaines Sensibles"). It consists mainly of immigrants. The French upper class, who rule, recruit people to serve it directly or indirectly. They are poorly paid, but highly subsidized by the government, and increasingly live according to their own cultures and standards.
The third group is extremely large: it is the rest of the population. It is this group that is called "peripheral France." Its members are made up of low-ranking civil servants, blue collar workers and former blue-collar workers, employees in general, craftsmen, small entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, farmers, and the unemployed.
For the ruling upper class, they are useless. The ruling upper class treat them as regrettable dead weight and expect nothing from them except silence and submission.
Members of "peripheral France" have been driven out of the suburbs by the influx of immigrants and the emergence of no-go zones. These "peripherals", for the most part, live 30 kilometers or more from the big cities. They can see that the upper class dismisses them. They often have a hard time making ends meet. They pay taxes but can see that a growing portion is being used to subsidize the very people who drove them out of their suburban homes. When Macron lowered the taxes of the wealthiest, but increased the taxes of the "peripherals" with a fuel tax, it was seen as the last straw -- in addition to his arrogant condescension.
In a recent interview on the British web magazine Spiked, Guilluy said that the "yellow vests" movement is a desperate awakening of "peripheral France". He predicted that despite Macron's efforts to displace the problem, the awakening will last, and that either Macron "will recognize the existence of these people, or he will have to opt for a soft totalitarianism".
For the moment, Macron does not seem to want to recognize that these people even exist.
According to François Martin, a journalist for the monthly Causeur, Macron has placed himself in a stalemate:
"He must make decisions and he can no longer take any decision without making things much worse... Macron should agree to resign, but will not do it, and would prefer to go to the end, and hit a wall... The next three years will be hell for the yellow vests and for the French".
At the end of the protests in Paris on January 26, thousands of "yellow vests" had planned to gather peacefully on one of the main squares of the city, the Place de la République, for a "debate" and to provide responses to the "debate" organized by Macron. The police were ordered to disperse them brutally; they once again used rubber ball launchers and Sting-Ball grenades to do just that.
One of the leaders of the "yellow vests" movement, Jerome Rodrigues, was shot in the face while filming police officers in a square nearby, the Place de la Bastille. He lost an eye and for several days was hospitalized. Other protestors were wounded.
In the spring of 2016, leftists had organized debates in the same locations and were allowed to remain there for three months with no police intervention.
In an article describing the events of January 26, columnist Ivan Rioufol wrote in Le Figaro: "Repression seems to be the only argument of the caste in power, faced with a large-scale protest that will not weaken".
Why today's events are especially ugly, according to Xavier Lemoine, the mayor of Montfermeil, a city in the Eastern suburbs of Paris where the 2005 riots were notably destructive, is that:
"In 2005, the police were clearly the target of rioters, and they showed restraint in the use of force to bring down the violence. Today, most of those who protest do not attack the police. But instead of acting to bring down the violence, the police are receiving orders pushing them to be very violent. I do not blame the police. I blame those who give them orders".
The next day, Sunday, January 27, a demonstration was organized by Macron's supporters, who called themselves "the red scarves". The demonstration was supposed to show that an impressive number of people were still on Macron's side. Organizers said that ten thousand people came. Videos, however, show that the number seems to have been far lower.
Dr. Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris, is the author of 27 books on France and Europe.