The court in Bourg-en-Bresse, a small township in eastern France, couldn’t quite figure out how removing portraits of French President Emmanuel Macron from public offices would “save humanity from ecological disaster”. The court is not alone. Across France, the judiciary has to decide whether stealing official portraits of the head of state is a crime worthy of prison time, or merely a creative act of civil disobedience. For once, there may be an easy answer. After all, the country practically invented the idea of revolution: What is some petty larceny compared to the guillotine or even May ‘68?
Through 2019, over 130 portraits of Macron have been stolen from town halls. The portrait-removers are mostly climate activists, who claim that the president’s likeness is being removed to draw attention to his hypocrisy: Despite his rhetoric and promises about moving away from fossil fuels and the dangers of global warming, France is lagging behind in its international commitments in reducing emissions. To win the election, Macron — a relative novice in French politics — promised a contradiction in terms. A centrist revolution. He wanted to be friendly to business and please workers, fight for climate change while ensuring no real disruptions to the economy. And now, no one is pleased. When he tried to introduce a tax on fossil fuels last year, the country erupted with the Yellow Jacket protests, sometimes violent, in solidarity with the transport industry.
The portrait-thieves seem to have a simple aim. To call their country’s leader to account, publicly. The trials, which have kept the issue of emissions in the limelight, seem to have achieved that. Like most public figures, especially politicians, Macron is unlikely to be happy about the manner of this protest. But considering the severity of the Yellow Jacket protests, the damage they caused to his image and the amount of political capital he has already lost, Macron might well overlook this benign form of civil disobedience.