By Michel Guilmault
As I walked through my French town of Chambery one Saturday afternoon in late January to take part in a demonstration for an action on climate change, I bumped into a group of so-called “Gilets Jaunes” protesters made infamous by their violent actions and yellow vests. They were shouting obscenities at police officers and roaring at them to “Get out of our way!” because the cops’ car was parked too close to them.
Last Saturday, such protests took place for the 14th week in a row, despite the French government suspending high taxes and announcing increases to the minimum wage. The protests were overshadowed by a verbal attack on our Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. This is intolerable. A call for action against antisemitism and anti-Zionism was launched by 14 national political parties and took place in many French cities and towns last night.
I attended one held in Paris, and spoke with many people there who told me about their disgust at such an attack. It followed the desecration of Jewish graves near Strasbourg earlier in the week.The Gilets Jaunes, however, are not able to find a leader and to agree on their grievances. This is contrary, for instance, to the Podemos Party in Spain, which has become the second largest political party by numbers of members and does make a huge impact on current regional or national election results.
But President Emmanuel Macron needs to change his ways. He was elected as a result of his belief in “participative democracy” and soon after his election introduced a policy similar to that of our former King Louis XIV, which is to say dictatorial and arrogant. Not surprisingly, this modern-day behaviour adopted from the Sun King has led to destructive missteps. And a few months later, Macron power’s was usurped by Gilets Jaunes’ mutiny.
Though initially mostly supportive, the French have good reasons to question the yellow vest protesters: as a result of the “grand national debate” effect launched by Macron to try and quell the unrest, the president’s popularity has seen a boost in recent weeks — he is, after all, a good communicator, aptly demonstrated during the presidential campaign. But the Gilets Jaunes’ ongoing actions — rioting, vandalism, looting, shouting at Finkielkraut to “Go back to Tel Aviv!”, “France is ours!” — have led to widespread public display, and anger.
A new poll says more than half of French people now want to see an end to the weekly protests.
One may wonder if this poorly organized movement can turn into a political party with a clear message that goes beyond distaste for its president. To say the least, last night’s events across France will not dissipate the anger, and all the more so now that 96 graves were desecrated at a Jewish cemetery in the Alsace region. This area, bordering Germany, was once home to a large Jewish population that until this despicable event was always respected. The country is in shock — so much so that former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande felt compelled to join the protesters last night.
One Gilet Jaune protester at least tried to make the point that that group is not an anti-Semitic movement, but put the blame on elements of the extreme right and extreme left among them. “There is no leadership in our movement, so you feel free to express yourself the way you want,” he told local media yesterday. It certainly appears that the movement is becoming more radical by the day.
Many French people seem convinced they will not personally benefit from their president’s reforms, and that his controversial new tax policy only favours the very rich. He and his team are seen as a political and arrogant elite, and perceived to be cut off from the harsh reality of ordinary people’s lives.
Whatever the Gilets Jaunes get up to next, it’s clear their movement is increasingly doomed, such is the public revulsion of their actions. In the meantime, Macron has no option but to re-establish a real dialogue with the people who put him into power, and find a workable and equitable way forward for the good of the republic.
Michel Guilmault is an international business development director based in Chambery in eastern France.