France in general, Paris in particular, is no stranger to civil unrest. The country was one of the epicentres of the student protests that shook many parts of the world in the late 1960s. And in 2005, there were riots in Paris sparked of by the deaths of young immigrants which led to injuries and vast damage to public property. The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests that have currently enveloped the city of lights are clearly the greatest challenge so far for the Emmanuel Macron government, commonly described as centrist. But the protests, which have also been accompanied by violence (three people have died so far, about 260 wounded and 400 arrested), also point to a deeper cleavage within French society that is likely to resurface unless the fundamental issues around models of development, the welfare state and national identity are addressed.
On November 17, about 3 lakh people from small towns and rural France descended on Paris, led by drivers wearing vests, to protest the rise in fuel prices caused by a new tax. The protests have been supported by the far-right and the Marxist left. Some opinion polls show that nearly 70 per cent of the French are sympathetic towards the gilets jaunes movement. While fuel prices were clearly the catalyst and continue to be at the core of the leaderless, social media-organised movement’s core, issues of declining welfare services and unemployment allowance have also come to the fore. Worryingly for Macron, even as his government ponders whether or not to impose a state of emergency, he has been labelled as pro-rich and pro global capital.
Macron’s electoral victory in 2017 was hailed as a triumph of a liberal voice at a time when fears of a backlash against globalisation were fuelled by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But the fractures exposed in the first round of the election — the far-right nativist Marine Le Pen received 21 per cent of the vote and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s left party over 19 per cent to Macron’s 24 per cent — appear to be reaching a breaking point. In France, as in other parts of the world, large swathes of the population feel the government no longer works for them. With the gilet jaunes, this sentiment appears to have boiled over. While the Macron government has stated that it will suspend the fuel price hike for now, the people of France clearly need a deeper dialogue to address their sense of alienation.