How Emmanuel Macron Outlasted The Yellow Vests

The populist roar from forgotten France has been drowned out by provocateurs and the hard Left.

Demonstrators light a car on fire during a protest of the yellow vests. Credit: Alexandros Michailidis/

It is a political rule of thumb that street violence and disorder eventually redounds to the benefit of the party that can put an end to it. Except in rare cases, that is the party in power.

Paris in 2019 is almost certainly not Saint Petersburg in 1917 or Tehran in 1979. French President Emmanuel Macron, two years ago viewed as the great neoliberal hope for saving Europe from the populists and nationalists, was by this past summer extremely unpopular. He has now managed to rally in the polls, giving his party a small but meaningful lead going into this May’s Europarliament elections.

One can imagine that in a head-to-head contest, some politician would be able to persuade a majority that Macron is too weak to govern France, that his policy failures are responsible for the chaos, and that ousting him at the polls is the way to restore dignity and calm to the country. But that election is years away, and it’s far from clear what figure might emerge to carry that out. Macron, meanwhile, has effectively initiated a “national dialogue” and used it to his own political advantage, drowning the French population in a sea of words.

In the meantime, parts of Paris are burning. The Gilet Jaunes seem to be petering out as a movement, their populist roar from forgotten France increasingly overtaken by leftists speaking in their name. Four weeks ago, some Islamo-gauchistes wearing the movement’s trademark yellow vests shouted crude anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic slogans at 69-year-old Alain Finkielkraut and seemed on the verge of assaulting him before police intervened. Not that it should matter, but Finkielkraut was one of the handful of prominent French intellectuals who had spoken favorably about the Gilet Jaunes when the movement began. 


The number of Gilet Jaunes at traffic circles and in demonstrations has decreased with each passing week. Fatigue is a factor, but the demonstrations have also been subject to extremely rough treatment by the French police. Particularly fearsome have been the heavy use of so-called flashballs, non-lethal rubber projectiles fired by the riot police. As of last month, 20 people had lost eyes, and there have been hundreds of serious head injuries.

By increasing the fear factor, police have surely lowered the number willing to participate in demonstrations, while raising the outrage of those who do take to the streets. Today’s Gilet Jaunes protesters are thus less numerous and more violent. This past Saturday the group returned to Paris in some force, their ranks swelled with the so-called casseurs, or black blocs, hard-left agitators. They blended in with the Gilet Jaunes, using them as human shields, occasionally emerging to attack the cops, burn shops, and scrawl communist and anarchist slogans. They broke down the security gates of the famous and pricey brasserie Le Fouquet on the Champs- Élysées, sacked the restaurant, and then firebombed it. They also set fire to a half-dozen newspaper kiosques—small businesses that run on very tight margins. 

At this point, the French press recognizes that the Gilet Jaunes aren’t responsible for the majority of the violence, but their demonstrations do facilitate it. Who is responsible then? Eric Delbecque, author of the recently published book Les Ingouvernables on the far left and violent ultra-left, describes their strategy like this: “the black blocs are not a movement but a mode of operation. Their goal is to wage an information war, with the following goals: demonstrate their power to inflict violence, provoke the police into incidents which can be used to spread charges of police brutality.” Delbecque says they are ideologically a mixed bag of anarchists and zadistes (a term used for militant ecologists who violently “defend zones” against commercial and official encroachment).

It’s the violence that’s key. Delbecque observes that the violent left was able to remain somewhat untracked by authorities in recent years because so much manpower has been devoted to monitoring radical Islamists. He fears the coming of “leopard France”—a situation where the French state gradually cedes pockets (spots) of its sovereignty to Islamists or far leftists. (I first heard this term in relation to Vietnam when it arose in various ceasefire proposals wherein the Viet Cong would be allowed to retain authority in certain zones, so-called “leopard spots.”)

In any case, the police estimated that there were 1,500 casseurs active in Paris last weekend. It’s not a small number. The broader Gilets Jaunes phenomenon has unfolded quite distinctly from the unrest the French establishment really fears: violence from the immigrant populated suburbs close to Paris. Thus far, the youth of Seine-Saint-Denis haven’t joined in any meaningful way in Gilets Jaunes protests, and one occasionally reads comments from suburban notables along the lines of “if blacks did that in Paris, the police would massacre them.” That’s surely not the case, but it’s undeniable that the highly unlikely fusion of the remaining Gilets Jaunes, the hard-left casseurs, and the suburban lumpenproletariat would be genuinely terrifying to the French authorities.

In any case, what the Gilets Jaunes represent in French politics has evolved. Once an unexpected cry of pain from the peripheral France hurt by globalization and ignored by the French governing class, supported at least tacitly by a large majority of the French, it has become a more standard left-wing movement, shouting redistributionist slogans and now in some instances blended with the violent ultra-left. Last November, on French social media, a video circulated of a couple of hundred Gilet Jaunes reaching a local entente with a squad of riot cops; the slogan shouting stopped and both groups joined together to sing the French national anthem. Such an interlude is difficult to imagine today.

Even though Macron retreated on the regressive carbon tax that ignited the initial protests, the underlying class problem that gave birth to the Gilets Jaunes remains unaddressed. Simply put, more working class people in France are poor and struggling to get by than at any time in the postwar era, while many in the prosperous cities are doing just fine.

The safest prediction is that the demonstrations will soon stop. The government will forbid demonstrations in certain sensitive areas like the Champs-Élysées and a crackdown will be widely viewed as unavoidable. Macron’s party will emerge slightly stronger in the coming Europarliament elections than if the Gilet Jaunes had never happened, and the economic gap between Macron’s France and the Gilets Jaunes’ France will continue to grow. Some Gilets Jaunes activists will move into electoral politics, without obvious effect. It isn’t a happy outcome if you believe neoliberalism doesn’t have the answers to the crisis that’s been generated by its own policies.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcConnell9.

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17 Responses to How Emmanuel Macron Outlasted The Yellow Vests

  1. Parrhesia says:

    “a more standard left-wing movement, shouting redistributionist slogans and now in some instances blended with the violent ultra-left.”

    Now that the US has its own, fledgling, socialist movement in the form of AOC et al., one wonders how long before such a movement arises here.

  2. Fazal Majid says:

    It’s misleading to call the Gilets Jaune leftists. One of their initial demands (after the government yielded on the gasoline tax and the 80 km/h speed limit) was repealing the legalization of gay marriage. That’s the sort of traditionalist Catholic platform behind François Fillon’s rise to the center-right’s primary in the last presidential campaign (before he collapsed due to corruption allegations).

  3. Sid Finster says:

    Macron didn’t “outlast” anything. He cracked down.

    Something something about those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable?

  4. Furor says:

    Yellow Vests were always exaggerated, when I heard that at best there were 300 000 protestors I knew Macron only has to wait so the movement runs out of energy.

    Too weak and too small.

  5. Du Bartas says:

    Be they zadists, black blocs or other assorted casseurs, I pray the military patrols do not fire upon demonstrators this weekend.

  6. Saad says:

    The working class French will never get a candidate of their choice in the presidency. Years of massive immigration from the Maghreb and Africa have diluted their voting power.

  7. polistra says:

    I strongly sympathized with the Vests and hoped they’d hold together, but basically this proves the old advice of Gouvernour Morris.

    In the 1770s he tried to persuade the American rebels to avoid a war. When he failed, he got into the new regime and tried to slow down the craziness. When that failed, he got himself sent to Paris as a debt negotiator and tried to persuade the French to avoid revolution.
    Failed there as well, but he’s still right.

    Violent revolution ALWAYS leads to worse tyranny. It’s ALWAYS better to end-run or passively resist the existing regime.

    His advice is even stronger now, with the tyrants using Alinsky’s AP tactics via state-owned Google and Facebook. Participating in a movement gives the tyrants more puppets to play with.

  8. MarkVA says:

    I believe the Yellow Vests need to organize politically, make allies within and without France, and win this thing. They are not alone! Borrow a page from history, learn from the Solidarity movement, remain peaceful, denounce provocateurs, be flexible vis a vis strategy, and stay for the long haul, even if it means years;

    I think they know very well that there is no place for them in “Water Cannon” Macron’s (and others like him) France. Under the current dispensation, they are viewed as the surplus population. If they give up, real France kaput est. What will remain is an elite France with its docile servant class, and a Potemkin village “tourist France”.

  9. JR says:

    Macron’s elitist globalist Neo-liberal world view is demonstrated by his increasingly repressive regime and increasing violence against demonstrators. Yes a few provocateurs exploited the opportunity, but Macron’s carefully staged ‘consultation’ never addressed the real and still valid grievances of the demonstrators. Remember 1968? Macron is still in for a major upheaval.

  10. Sans Culotte says:

    I read that the French cops are going to shoot to kill this time. They’re going to shoot to kill native born Frenchmen.

    The globalist media seems very cool and accepting of it.

    Imagine their reaction if those same cops started shooting to kill the immigrants who have been breaking into France instead.

    Think about it.

  11. Arnold Ian Reeves says:

    To me, the only surprising thing about the dying-down of the GJ movement is that anyone is surprised at the dying-down of the GJ movement.

    As Barbara W. Tuchman said when explaining the seemingly unstoppable General Boulanger’s complete failure more than a century back: Boulanger’s movement, which made the mistake of imagining that “people power” would bring about its triumph, “lacked that necessary chemical of a coup — a leader … to upset the established government in a democratic country requires either foreign help or the stuff of a dictator.”

    Who led the GJs? No-one. Previous protest movements in France have had a Pierre Poujade or a Daniel Cohn-Bendit or a José Bové in charge of them. Thus, they had political successes (if frequently short-lived).

  12. Mark B. says:

    yep, it seems like neo-liberalism will live another day in Europe. But it will be last chance. In the Netherlans just a new populist shocker: in Dutch Senate elections a new right-wing populist party (Forum voor Democratie) came out on top from nowhere(it was their first time). It had one penetrating message: total rejection of the neo-liberal governments climate emergency legislation forcing everyone to pay for carbon reducing policies. The bill was laid by the citizens and not the corporations. Talk about oil on fire. Complete idiots.

    Either they learn this time or they’ll disappear next time.

  13. Brian Backes says:

    “Outlast”? Nay, the yellow vests need only endure thru to the May European Parliament elections. Their impact may be seen then.

    The EU project may take a turn thereafter. Viva yellow vests.

    I feel sorry for those poor, sorry devils in Brussels.

  14. Kurt Gayle says:

    Scott McConnell says: “The Gilet Jaunes seem to be petering out as a movement…The number of Gilet Jaunes at traffic circles and in demonstrations has decreased with each passing week.”

    Deutsche Welle (“France: Yellow vest protesters march on as Macron ups security”) reported that yesterday’s (Saturday’s) Yellow Vest demonstrations were up 25 per cent from last weekend: “More than 40,000 people marched across France, according to the French Interior Ministry, including 5,000 in Paris — higher than last week’s demonstrations [32,000] but markedly lower than the massive gatherings of December…In some ways, Saturday’s outpouring seemed to be a replay of traditional French protests — largely boisterous affairs in the past…Demonstrators appeared in good spirits as they sang the French anthem and called for Macron to be fired. Still the broader takeaway was more bitter than upbeat. ‘The crisis for us ends when Macron is booted out,’ said Christelle Camus, 50. ‘I’ve been working since I was 17, and I know there’ll be nothing for me when I retire. But there’s my daughter and grandchildren and I’m fighting for them.’ Mechanic Federica Briet is also worried about the future. ‘It’s harder and harder to make ends meet,’ he said. ‘In another 15 years I’ll be retiring and handing things over to my children — and I’m worried about what they’ll inherit.’”

  15. cka2nd says:

    Yet another argument in favor of Leninism, if you ask me. A professional revolutionary party with the ultimate aim of taking state power, not just organizing demonstration after demonstration, or action after action, and one that knows when, and when NOT, to use violence.

    Black Bloc and AntiFa are the idiot descendents of the old stereotype of the mad Anarchist bomber, and I emphasize the word “idiot,” because at least those old time anarchists and Narodniks would target the powerful and the elite with their violence (industrialists, Tsars and Presidents!), rather than wasting their time redirecting traffic in Portland or smashing windows in Paris. And the feminists who attacked churches in several countries recently are the idiot cousins of Black Bloc and AntiFa.

  16. Latus Dextro says:

    Don’t shed an iota of pity for the incipient demise of secular globalism and their virtue signalling crony capitalists, whether in Brussels or in Auckland.
    The Trojan horses of climatism, safe-ism, and the bureaucratic edifice of the Ministry-of-We-Know-Best-For-Your-Own-Good wrapped in a Green chancre and iced with identity politics, political correctness and cultural Marxism is done. People it seems, eventually come to prefer freedom, prosperity, hope and happiness.

  17. NedLern says:

    Now we have a very suspicious fire at the culturally important Notre Dame. Will it be blamed on the Gillet Jeune? macron was due to give another crackdown speech tonight, this may be the ‘bold type’ to help emphasize who is in charge…

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