Macron would be prudent to meet with the leaders of the movement and meaningfully address their grievances and the more moderate of their demands.
The French public is pushing President Emmanuel Macron into a tight corner, and he must now consider meeting with the leaders of the yellow vests not only to improve his public image amongst an increasingly restive population, but also to undercut support for a resurgent far-right which itself presents a dangerous threat to France’s long-term relationship with Europe.
The yellow vest movement stands at the vanguard of a new wave of popular discontent in France. It coalesced in mid-November 2018 in opposition to a government-sanctioned fuel tax aimed at reducing the country’s carbon emissions and helping it meet its climate obligations. The potential consequences of the tax were not accurately assessed, however, and it disproportionately impacted working class and (especially) rural communities who are more dependent on automobiles for work commutes. This led opponents to accuse the government of implementing discriminatory revenue schemes which unfairly heap the tax burden on working individuals.
The movement has proven widely popular and has attracted sympathy from across the political spectrum. Unsurprisingly, this also includes the more extreme elements (on both the left and right) which recognize it as an opportunity to harmonize their aims with those of the broader public and win approval for their agendas. The insertion of extreme ideologies has gradually morphed the movement into a general protest against national and international authority, but particularly against the growing disparities between ordinary people and the elite.
The far-right Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the National Front) has benefited enormously from these developments. Initially pronounced dead after its leader Marine Le Pen was trounced by Macron in the 2017 presidential election, the party has powered itself back into the political conversation by co-opting the yellow vests and highlighting their shared opposition to the elite. Recent polling data suggests that Le Pen is still the country’s second most popular leader behind only Macron (though it should said that she briefly surpassed the president at the height of the yellow vest protests in November), and RN sits comfortably as the second most popular party in European election polls.
The yellow vests alone represent a substantial challenge to governmental authority, but the resurgence of Le Pen and RN poses a longer-term challenge because of their staunch opposition to France’s membership in the European Union (EU). This is clearly evident to Macron who has already scrapped the fuel tax and provided some general tax relief in addition to leading a series of nationwide conversations seeking to restore public trust in the government. Although the so-called “great national debate” has proven mostly unacceptable to protesters, popular support for the yellow vests has declined in recent weeks, indicating at least some measure of success for Macron.
He should be wary about taking that to mean anything more than a temporary reduction, however. Support for the yellow vests is not necessarily tied to sympathy for their grievances, and one can imagine the shift occurring as a consequence of some of the movement’s characteristic flaws (i.e. its lack of structural authority and the use of violence by some of its members) rather than any change in attitude towards its objectives. Indeed, the fact that they still command 58% popular support and that protesters themselves have refused to relent shows that there remains a deep feeling of discontent that will almost certainly outlive the movement if it fails to achieve its objectives.
For that reason, Macron would be prudent to meet with the leaders of the movement (however one chooses to define them) and meaningfully address their grievances. Of course, he cannot (and will not) entertain their extreme demands (like the immediate cessation of privatization), but he should seriously consider some form of their more moderate ones which at their core seek to relieve financial stress on working people, increase public engagement with the democratic process, and cut back tax privileges for the wealthy.
Stopping there would almost certainly leave the extremes unsatisfied, but it would probably be enough to reduce popular discontent in the middle sufficiently to recover support for the government and, perhaps more importantly, offer a direct challenge to the populist narrative which paints Macron as a stooge answering only to the elites in Paris and Brussels. It is impossible to predict if Macron can salvage any semblance of popularity even in this scenario, but if he chooses this route it could be enough to undermine support for the far-right and not only preserve France’s place inside the EU, but also reduce its capacity to damage the bloc from within after the parliament elections occur in May.