The violent protests of the “yellow vests” in France have inevitably prompted comparisons with insurrections past, most notably the unrest of 1968 that effectively shut down the French government, and the tribulations of presidents from Charles de Gaulle through François Hollande who have fallen victim to street uprisings.
There are similarities, partly expressed in the stereotype that the French favor change in the abstract but abhor it in practice. But it is the differences with the past that pose the major challenge as President Emmanuel Macron tries to find a way to defuse the anger without abandoning his needed reforms.
One difference is Mr. Macron himself, who was not yet 40 when he was elected 18 months ago to a five-year presidential term. His own victory and the host of deputies he brought into the National Assembly were the product of a popular discontent with all established parties of right and left. But the reforms he launched — and especially the replacement of a wealth tax with a less onerous tax on the real estate of the rich — and his attempts to project a grand image, especially on the world stage, only deepened that malaise and earned him the sobriquet of “president of the rich.”
A relatively mild hike in fuel taxes, intended to lower France’s carbon emissions, proved to be the last straw for a broad swath of people in the provinces and suburbs who believe that government ministers, bureaucrats, trade unions and especially the political class in a wealthy, complacent Paris are deaf to their economic struggles. Cars are indispensable in their lives, and a fuel tax increase intended to reduce vehicle use was an insufferable insult. Mr. Macron, without much political experience or an established party behind him, failed to see the anger rising, and when it erupted, seemed to have few responses other than retreat.
Another difference with past protests is the uprising itself. It began and swelled through social media, without organization or a definable agenda, a wave of anger that rapidly swept up grievances from low pay to frustration with politicians of all stripes and on to the disparate demands of groups like ambulance workers or students.
Donning the fluorescent yellow safety vests of emergency workers, the protesters became visible first at highway tollgates, then in cities, and finally in Paris. The “casseurs,” violent vandals who often attach themselves to strikes or protests in France, joined in, until Saturday’s eruption, when a peaceful march degenerated into a riot of flaming cars, water cannons, tear gas and destruction at the Arc de Triomphe and the broad boulevards radiating from it.
But when the government tried to open talks, there was no one to talk to. Some unofficial interlocutors appeared but were pulled back by threats from other yellow vests. So Mr. Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe were left with no choice but to retreat, suspending the fuel tax hike and tougher vehicle inspections and freezing gas and electricity prices, while warning that violence would not be tolerated. “I hear this anger, and I have understood its basis, its force and its seriousness,” Mr. Philippe declared. “It is the anger of the French who work and work hard but still have difficulty making ends meet, who find their backs against the wall.”
The retreat is a dangerous gamble. In the view of the demonstrators, Mr. Philippe and his boss heard their anger only when they started torching cars on Avenue Kléber, not when it smoldered in distant villages. Social media is already buzzing with calls for more. Demands now include Mr. Macron’s resignation and dissolution of the Parliament.
Such steps would be big mistakes. Certainly Mr. Macron and his government have to pay much closer heed to the France outside Paris and other big cities, and they need to make far greater efforts to explain their measures and to lower their burden on the many people struggling at the borderline of poverty.
But the power of social media to quickly mobilize mass anger without any mechanism for dialogue or restraint is a danger to which a liberal democracy cannot succumb. Mr. Macron and the Parliament were democratically elected only 18 months ago, and the reforms they have been pursuing, both within France and in the European Union, and on the environmental front, were what they openly promised in those elections and what France needs.