On 22 November, five days into the gilets jaunes protests, with some 2,000 roads and roundabouts barricaded across the country and 280,000 demonstrators having taken to the streets in the major cities, Emmanuel Macron welcomed journalists from Le Monde to the Élysée. It was not to give them his analysis of this extraordinary outburst but to take them on a tour of the presidential palace, where he had undertaken a costly renovation of its sumptuous ballroom. He told them that Brigitte, the First Lady, was supervising the project, and praised her choice of a €300,000 carpet woven at the Royal Manufactory of Aubusson. ‘We are at a moment in the life of the nation when it is necessary to invest’, he declared, and since the Élysée was the showcase of France, it had to be a priority.footnote1 For a president who regards the King’s death during the Revolution as a permanent trauma for the French people, and considers it his mission to occupy the vacated space, this disconnect between the preoccupations of the nation and its head of state—the yellow vests were initially supported by 75 per cent of the population, according to opinion polls—could be called a Louis xvi moment, comparable to the Bourbon monarch’s laconic diary entry for 14 July 1789, the day the Bastille fell: ‘Nothing.’

The executive had simply not taken stock of the magnitude of the yellow-vest mobilization, nor of the accumulated grievances that lay behind it. The insurgency was regarded as one more episode of futile protest against its neoliberal reforms. The experience of Macron’s first two years in office—the repeated failure of massive demonstrations to prevent his revisions of the labour code, overhaul of the state rail operator and cuts to pensions—led Paris to believe that it could ride out this latest unrest. It deemed trivial the yellow vests’ main complaint: an increase in fuel tax of 6.5 cents per litre for diesel and 2.9 cents for petrol, scheduled for 1 January 2019 and coming on top of similar rises implemented in 2018. The stated purpose of the carbon tax was to reduce fossil-fuel consumption, an ecological gesture intended to dispel the negative impression created by the resignation of Nicolas Hulot, the popular environment minister, who had declared himself frustrated by the government’s lack of political will on green issues.

Persuaded of their strength and of the weakness of the mobilization against them, the President and his ministers initially refused to listen to the demonstrators. Macron instead tried to discredit them as ‘a heinous mob’ and latter-day ‘Poujadists’—a reference to the populist anti-tax campaigners of the 1950s, whose discourse had included anti-intellectual, xenophobic and antisemitic themes. The spokespersons for the gilets jaunes ‘target Jews, foreigners, homosexuals’, he alleged, even though the movement had, since its inception, rejected all self-proclaimed representatives.footnote2 Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, labelled the activists ‘seditious far-rightists’—despite their adamant refusal to associate with any political party—and compared them to the Taliban for the (possibly accidental) destruction of a garish sculpture on a roundabout in Châtellerault on 16 December, after a barricade was set on fire to forestall an attempt by police to clear the road.footnote3

Truth be told, very few politicians or commentators had anticipated such disturbances, or proved able to interpret them once they became entrenched—despite a burgeoning literature on the subject. How could a leaderless grassroots movement, involving often quite small groups of protesters, monopolize the national news, capture the attention of the wider world and destabilize a government that had swept to power by a landslide victory in 2017? As Jacques Rancière has suggested, it is as difficult to understand why some people mobilize when confronted with situations they regard as unacceptable, as it is to understand why others in similar or even worse circumstances do not.footnote4 The gilets jaunes upsurge appears all the more remarkable when one considers that most of its adherents had never participated in a demonstration before and refuse any political or union affiliation. One should therefore be prudent when interpreting an event that has either been described as a phenomenon without precedent or likened to movements as varied as the revolutionary sans-culottes and Italy’s Cinque Stelle.

Commentators who derided the initial grievance of the gilets jaunes ignored the fact that opposition to the fuel-tax increase had a deeper meaning, rooted in the social transformations of the past decades, which recent measures have merely aggravated.footnote5 Worsening economic inequality since the 1980s was relatively well tolerated as long as living standards continued to improve for everyone, even if not at the same pace. But since the 2008 financial crisis, the income of the bottom 40 per cent of the population has dropped. Pauperization has mainly afflicted those who were already the most disadvantaged, among whom joblessness and under-employment became increasingly rife. At the same time, the cost of housing, energy, insurance and school meals has risen faster than the overall rate of inflation. These trends have left the lowest segment of the population with a reduced budget to meet all their other needs.

In parallel, rising rents and house prices, especially in large cities, have forced more and more people on tight incomes to move further away from urban centres, where many of them work. Public transport remains chronically underdeveloped in these hinterlands, so owning a car is essential. The soaring cost of fuel has therefore eaten into household budgets. In rural areas the problem is even more acute. There, the atrophy of public services—from post offices to train stations, hospitals to schools—obliges people to drive into larger towns to access any sort of amenity. Thus, whereas the tax increases had little impact on privileged social layers, since fuel represents only a small proportion of their budgets, they constituted a real financial burden for people living at a distance from the cities. It is estimated that the carbon tax weighs five times more heavily on the bottom decile than on the top, even though the former produces much less pollution than the latter. Besides, the car industry itself was exempted from this environmental levy. On top of these injustices, drivers of diesel cars saw the extra tax hike for their vehicles as being particularly unfair, because the government has encouraged the use of this type of engine for decades, and so it is found today in more than 60 per cent of all personal vehicles in France—mostly the older ones owned by lower-income road-users. Mocked as archetypal rednecks by government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux, the ‘drivers of diesel cars who smoke fags’ thus had every reason to don a yellow tabard.footnote6 It is obvious that the Parisian commentariat, which enjoys the use of chauffeurs, Uber and the Métro to move around the city, as well as hybrid cars stowed away in the country houses where they spend their weekends, has had a difficult time understanding these earthly concerns about a several-cent increase in the price of fuel.

This contemptuous attitude, fully shared and overtly expressed by the authorities, who see the protesters as ‘stupid, brutal, thugs, fascist, reactionary, vulgar’—in the words of David Guilbaud, a high state official, quoting the language of his colleagues—has reinforced the sense of social relegation among the disregarded classes.footnote7 The President himself has made multiple disparaging or condescending public interventions of this kind: dismissing his critics as ‘slackers and cynics’; describing women laid off from a slaughterhouse as ‘mostly illiterates’; drawing a contrast between ‘people who succeed and people who are nothing’; deploring that ‘we are putting crazy amounts of dough into minimum social benefits’; telling a young jobseeker that ‘I’ll cross the street and I’ll find you something’; and commenting, in reference to the yellow vests, that ‘we must make those who suffer hardship take responsibility because some behave well but others screw around’.footnote8 These incendiary statements, which a late act of contrition in his television address of 10 December could not erase from collective memory, probably explain why the January polls showed that 68 per cent of the French population find Macron arrogant and that he is the most unpopular French president in the history of the Fifth Republic, with only 23 per cent holding a positive opinion of him.footnote9 As the historian Gérard Noiriel notes, ‘popular struggles almost always involve the denunciation of the disdain of the powerful, and that of the yellow vests only confirms this rule.’footnote10