PARIS — Glittering shops from Louis Vuitton to Dior are boarded up on both sides of the Champs-Élysées. The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre will be closed. Paris has hunkered down for the latest Yellow Saturday, the fourth in a row that has brought tens of thousands of yellow-jacketed protesters — the gilets jaunes — into the streets.
Many come from the provinces, where President Emmanuel Macron’s gas tax would hit hardest. But their ranks also include growing numbers of violent activists from both political extremes — think Antifa side-by-side with Charlottesville white supremacists. They will all converge on the City of Light to scream at our aloof young leader that they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Call them les déplorables.
Still, Macron says nothing. Instead, he sent out Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to promise technical measures that satisfy no one. The disintegration of Macron, once the president the world supposedly envied, is perhaps the most amazing part of this current flyover-France revolt.
He ticked all the boxes. He wanted more integration in the European Union. He’d fight populists at home and abroad. He’d put France back to work after three decades of 10 percent unemployment. He’d welcome more refugees. He’d save the planet!
Macron lectured President Trump, in good English, before Congress last spring. Save the Iran deal, he enjoined, and the Paris accord on climate. Concrete results? There were none, but the speech was broadcast live on all French news channels.
More recently, Macron pledged to sign an open-borders UN pact on world migration, which the US, Australia, Israel and a handful of European nations reject. He said France’s cherished secularist 1905 laws should be revised, largely to help the country’s newest religion, Islam, integrate within French society. Worst of all: Members of his party have indicated that Macron is willing to give up France’s UN Security Council seat to the European Union.
None of these decisions please anyone in the country, save the clone-like Macronista hipsters in Paris and a few large cities. They are men and women in their 30s and 40s — affluent, well-educated, in competitive jobs, able to afford the crazy rents in places like Paris, Bordeaux or Lyon.
Safe in gentrified neighborhoods, they welcome “diversity” and see themselves as morally superior. They welcomed a president in their own image, especially as he faced the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, the perfect foil, in last year’s election.
A new face, the people mistook Macron for a new broom: After all, he kicked out all the old, tired incumbents, left and right. Voters discounted the fact that he himself is a former top technocrat, bred in the most elite schools in the country. He believes in all the Davos pieties.
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It was Macron’s green obsession that eventually sparked the explosion. The gilets jaunes are a grassroots movement, born in hundreds of provincial small towns and villages across the country. They are farmers, small businessmen, truck drivers, waiters, nurses — or jobless. They have no official spokespersons. It was on Facebook that they resolved to adopt as their symbol: the yellow, high-visibility jackets that the French are required to keep in their cars in case of accidents.
For years, they have seen their livelihoods threatened — by plant closures, inflation, the disappearance of public services like small train lines, hospitals, schools and local post offices. They need their cars, however old and beat-up, to drive their kids to school, to shop, to find and hold a job.
Their lives are fenced in by an ever-growing skein of nanny-state regulations. Before the fuel tax, there was the unpopular rollback of the speed limit on France’s roads to 80 kilometers (49 miles) per hour from 90 (56). The same week, bureaucrats added dozens of new requirements for vehicles, forcing many cars off the road. Macron’s government offered drivers a $4,500 bonus to buy electric cars: a Marie-Antoinette moment seen as an insult by les déplorables.
Resisting pressure to cave in, Macron conceded too little, too late this week, agreeing to a six-month delay of the fuel tax. His job is secure; it would take a lot to remove him. But the time for the great reforms he was elected to make now seems past: All that’ll remain, hidden in his Élysée Palace, will be the youngest lame duck president of the Fifth Republic.
Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a French political writer and a columnist for the London Telegraph
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