PARIS IS USED to theatrical and periodically violent street protest. But the scenes of urban rioting this weekend were unlike anything the French capital has seen for over a decade. President Emmanuel Macron has returned from dealing with intractable global issues at the G20 summit in Argentina to face the first real political crisis of his presidency.
The most immediate challenge is security. On December 1st, 412 people were arrested in Paris. There were 249 recorded cases of arson, many of them in the capital’s smartest neighbourhoods, such as Avenue Kléber and other arteries leading to the Place de l’Etoile, where the Arc de Triomphe stands. Images of torched cars before Paris landmarks have filled the 24-hour news channels all weekend. Since the gilets jaunes protesters emerged three weeks ago, the numbers protesting countrywide have dropped: from 280,000 to 136,000 this weekend. But as the figures have fallen, the violence has intensified.
The profile of the perpetrators is mixed. Some were organised ultra-right and ultra-left casseurs, or troublemakers, who are known to police for infiltrating protests. Most of the gilets jaunes, who have been manning roundabouts and road junctions across France, are peaceful. But there was also a blurring of the lines between the organised and mobile groups of anarchists and neo-fascists, and some of the otherwise peaceful gilets jaunes.
With a fourth day of protests planned for December 8th, Benjamin Griveaux, the government’s spokesman, has raised the possibility of imposing a state of emergency. France has resorted to this before, notably following the terrorist attacks of 2015, and after urban riots in 2005. But Mr Macron has asked the government first to explore other ways of keeping the capital, and other cities, safe. One of the difficulties facing the police force is the largely structureless and leaderless nature of the gilets jaunes. The police is faced more with riot-management than the familiar union-led demonstrations, whose organisers help plan crowd-control arrangements.
Beyond the immediate security challenge, Mr Macron also faces the stiffest political test of his 18-month-old presidency. The gilets jaunes movement—named after the high-visibility jackets that all motorists must carry—began as a protest against higher taxes on fuel. The protesters were largely people on modest incomes living in predominantly rural or outer suburban areas, who drive long distances to work. But it has since captured a far broader anger: about the cost of living, Mr Macron’s early tax cuts for the better-off, and a perception that he is indifferent to the concerns of ordinary people. It is a protest by France’s squeezed middle: those whose incomes are too high for all welfare benefits, but too low to feel comfortable.
The great difficulty for the French president is that he has styled himself as a leader who does not cave in to the street, as so many of his predecessors have. Indeed, during his short time in office, Mr Macron has faced down successive waves of union-led protests against reforms which are, slowly, helping to make the country more competitive. He is not about to resign, or dissolve the National Assembly, as some protesters are demanding. Yet the former investment banker cannot afford to appear indifferent to the movement. This is particularly so given the broad public sympathy for the gilets jaunes.
The French have been at a loss to find a useful comparison to understand the nature of the movement. The country has witnessed before the emergence of recent grass-roots protests, such as Brittany’s bonnets rouges, but this was regional. France is certainly no stranger to mass protests on the streets. But these tend either to be organised by established unions, or—like the movement against gay marriage—to have divided the country rather than found popular backing. Some analysts reach for May 1968, or poujadisme in the 1950s. Others venture the revolution of 1789, or even the Jacquerie peasant revolt of 1358.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, the gilets jaunes seem to be the expression of a form of digitally enabled populism which prizes an uncontaminated connection with the people. The movement emerged via Facebook and social media, and values its identity as a spontaneous expression of “the people”. This makes it difficult for the government to deal with. Already its attempts to name spokesmen have been undermined by disorganisation, a lack of common objectives and internal divisions. It also means that the country’s existing populist leaders—the likes of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on the far left, and Marine Le Pen, on the nationalist right—have failed to cash in on the movement. Such leaders are becoming part of the rejected establishment.
Under the Fifth Republic, the constitutional power invested in the French presidency makes the country’s leader at once the focus of inflated hopes, and of anger and disappointment. Mr Macron campaigned for office in 2017 as a political insurgent against the established political parties. Now, the rebellion is aimed at him. How he handles the current crisis could well determine his presidency.