Back in 2015, Emmanuel Macron claimed that the French public regretted killing their monarch in 1793 and yearned for someone to fill that void. Clearly, he thought he was the man to do this, as less than two years later he was president.

By the twilight of 2018, however, he was close to suffering the same fate as Louis XVI. A seemingly innocuous fuel tax proposal laid bare the French people’s simmering contempt for a president they deemed arrogant, and the astonishingly violent gilets jaunes protests were the trigger for a continent-wide spate of anti-establishment unrest.

The rioters that occupied the Champs Elysées, Bastille and Place d’Italie came very close to overthrowing a government that had been elected a mere 18 months previously. I lived in Paris at the time, and the plumes of smoke that I saw rising from the north, west and east of my 13th arrondissement apartment are one of the abiding memories of my time in the city of love and light. 

Macron, with various concessions and the promise of a citizens’ consultation, survived. Just. And although UK columnists from Owen Jones right through to James Delingpole voiced support for the movement, it is good news for representative governance that he did. Democracy would have been on the ropes if the torching of cars and the ransacking of shops by a few thousand vandals had forced a president to resign. 

No doubt, at the outset the movement had traction – polling found that in January over 70% of the French public supported it in some way, and one weekend saw over 50,000 protestors out on the streets. They represented a large segment of the population who struggle to make ends meet, who feel ignored by the incumbent political system and utterly despised and sneered at by the ruling énarques.

Some have even said that the gilets jaunes are the incarnation of French revolutionary principles: equality, because they fought for greater financial distribution; fraternity, because they revived a sense of collective struggle; and liberty, because they exercised their right to protest in the face of police brutality. 

But for all this Dr Jekyll, there is an awful lot of Mr Hyde. Although for a short period of time the movement had the support of a whopping proportion of the population, this swiftly dwindled as people realised that at its root, the gilets jaunes was a movement initiated, directed and sustained by people with disturbing extremist tendencies. 

Visceral anti-elitism often spilled into antisemitism. In a notable interview between two prominent gilets jaunes, Eric Drouet and Stéphane Colin, the latter claimed that politicians are ‘just serving the cause of the Khazar mafia, the Zionists! They’re the ones who have ruled the modern world for 500 years.’ This subsequently infected the mindset of other protestors who screamed antisemitic vitriol at the prominent public intellectual Alain Finkielkraut outside his home. Macron himself was described as the Rothschild president.

Coupled with this was a form of French exceptionalism. The belief that France is ‘a country unlike any other’ precipitated Trumpian immigration demands. Channelling French far-right movements from the 1930s which claimed that France was ‘besieged by foreigners’, the gilets jaunes created and perpetuated anti-immigrant myths. Boulevard Voltaire, a popular blog that supported the gilets jaunes, said that France was being hobbled by ‘the unceasing reception of hundreds of thousands of immigrants with no qualifications whatsoever, but with conditions of residence that are unparalleled in Europe by their generosity’.

Coupled with this bigotry was a hatred for democracy. As was reported by the respected Fondation Jean Jaures, many of its core members believe that democracy ‘is bogus, that the president of the republic is not legitimate’. Their demand for all issues to be resolved by referenda or ‘people’s assemblies’ (which differ, somehow, from the French parliament) was also deeply suspect. 

So, although Macron survived, it is troubling that a movement whose core members have such distasteful beliefs managed to garner the support of a large proportion of the population. It points to a nation which is split along several fault-lines (educational and regional among the widest), and which has succumbed, like much of Europe and the West, to the perfidious allure of populism and nationalism. 

For Macron, therefore, 2019 has been a task not just in rejuvenating his public image and salvaging his approval ratings (which had sunk as low as around 20% during the depths of the crisis) but in attempting to heal a badly riven society. 

The fire at Notre-Dame in April partly helped him in this endeavour. Postponing a speech addressing the gilets jaunes, Macron was afforded the opportunity to appear presidential at the head of a country united by grief. The wounds that were exposed by the gilets jaunes were temporarily healed as the banks of the Seine were filled with mourners singing Ave Maria. 

Asking the French people to stay united, Macron said: ‘The fire at Notre Dame reminds us that our history never stops. Everything that makes France material and spiritual is alive and for this reason it is fragile and we must not forget that. I share your pain, but I also share your hope. We now have to act, and we will act, and we will succeed.’

However, just as quickly as it had caused unity, the cathedral sowed division anew. Disputes have raged almost since the day the spire collapsed as to whether it should be restored in modern or historic style. The army general overseeing its reconstruction told the building’s architect to ‘shut his mouth’, which felt emblematic of a country in turmoil. 

Indeed, the gilets jaunes protests, although starkly diminished in number of participants, rumbled on through the spring, summer and autumn. Macron, having completed his remedial ‘Big National Debate’, turned his attention to foreign policy, positioning himself as Trump’s kryptonite and a voice for European integration. The fact that he was overtaken in May’s European elections by Marine Le Pen proved that although his attentions may have shifted, those of the people he governed had not. 

Many of the gilets jaunes thought that the grand débat was superficial, cosmetic, or simply ‘puffed-up nonsense’. They felt that Macron, who announced the scheme from behind a lavish antique desk in the salon doré, the most opulent of the Elysée Palace’s 365 rooms, was continuing to mock and patronise them. 23 million tuned in to the speech, but few would have been left feeling confident that this so called ‘President of the Rich’ could understand the concerns of ordinary people. 

He came under fire for allegedly buying expensive crockery and exorbitantly redecorating rooms of the presidential palace. His cabinet ministers proved equally out of touch: one failed to name the national minimum wage, while another complained that Paris dinners ‘cost 200 euros without wine’. 

It felt as if Macron had merely papered over the cracks that the gilets jaunes had exposed. 

And so it proved. Soon after the gilets jaunes’ ‘Act 52’, marking a year since the first protest, the country erupted in protest again at Macron’s proposed pension reform. The early weeks of December saw 85% of SNCF (France’ national rail operator) drivers on strike, and over Christmas the travel network remained crippled as nearly 50% of workers continued their protest. 60% of the public supported the strike despite the severe disruption it caused to Christmas travel, and Macron’s popularity ratings dropped back towards 30%. 

With the next presidential election in 2022, 2020 needs to be the year that Macron emerges from the mid-term slump that every French president suffers from. Many still feel that the capitulation of the traditional parties and Le Pen’s general unpopularity mean that Macron is well-placed to win a second term. 

However, the response to his pension reforms prove that he is mistrusted these days (and still hated by many), and all further reforms will run the risk of strikes or riots with the potential to derail his project. 

The gilets jaunes have thus reduced Macron to a zombie-president. Although most of the 70% of French people who said they supported the cause don’t adhere to the anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and anti-democratic tropes of its core leaders, the fleeting success of the movement proves that the population is willing to rally if they believe the president is overstepping the mark. The scars left by the protests are almost indelible, and Macron will now struggle to bring about the change he desires. 

When he first rose to prominence he said he believed France needed a Jupiterian leader, who would unilaterally decide what was best for the country in the expectation that its institutions would fall into line behind him. The gilets jaunes are evidence that this is nigh-on impossible when you have been given explicit mandate by a mere 15% of the population. 

Macron said that the French wanted a king. The fact that he now has to leave his palace with armed protection to keep the angry mob at bay proves they don’t.

Tom Mitchell is an Editor at Backbench

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