Week nine and the gilet jaunes remain at the center of French political life. The populist protest has endured the scorn of the French media, unfair and scabrous attacks by French President Emmanuel Macron, and efforts by far-left rioters to use its demonstrations as a cover for attacks on police and property.
It has endured the arrests of some of its leaders, and its own failure to set forth a clear agenda or choose representatives to effectively make its case. It did not recede after Macron made some initial concessions (most importantly on the gasoline tax), nor after national attention was diverted by a terror attack prior to Christmas, nor after Macron attacked it as an ugly mob of racists, homophobes, and anti-Semites. Nor did it abate during the two week political lull of the holidays. Last Saturday, 84,000 gilets jaunes demonstrated throughout France, according to the Ministry of Interior, 35,000 more than the week before.
Macron, unpopular before the protests began, has done what would be expected from a moderately skilled politician: attempt to divide and diffuse the movement with a combination of concessions and harsh attacks, both rhetorical and judicial. For the French president, the question of whether he will to finish out his term—“can Macron still govern?”—remains alive.
Macron was elected by voters either at peace with liberal globalism or fearful that Marine Le Pen would be too disruptive. He now knows that the former group, at least, are far from a majority in France. National polls remind him that the gilets jaunes‘ contempt for French elites of all stripes is widely shared.
In a response born of political desperation, Macron has called for a wide-ranging national conversation on key issues. But who gets to choose the topics?
In a televised address on December 10, Macron raised the minimum wage, postponed the rise in the gasoline tax, and called for a renewed national debate on five subjects, including immigration. Immigration had not been at the forefront of the protests. Nonetheless it is widely understood that the gilet jaunes‘ sociological base (the white working and middle classes in peripheral cities) has been for a generation on the losing side of changes that globalization and immigration have brought about.
So Macron put the issue on the table. Then within days, he reversed himself. Immigration was downgraded from a major topic to a subset of a discussion about “democracy and citizenship.” It had proved too divisive a topic for La République En Marche!, Macron’s newly created political party. One Macronist deputy, Matthieu Orphelin, exclaimed that “a great debate on housing, fiscal issues, social mobility, purchasing power, and democracy is a wonderful idea. But immigration doesn’t belong on the list.”
Politicians to Macron’s left echoed that view. Jean Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, expressed “sadness” at Macron for putting the issue on the table. Mélenchon had been supportive of the gilets jaunes, while trying to funnel their protests into class warfare channels. Benoît Hamon, the socialist standard bearer in the last election, chimed in to say that debating immigration was “incomprehensible and dangerous, when the main subject is clearly social justice.”
On the other hand, some figures in Macron’s party, speaking off the record, lamented the turnabout—blaming the “intense lobbying effort of the care-bears who wish to censor a subject at the heart of the concerns of the gilet jaunes and the French people.”
A Macronist deputy, speaking on the record, said it was “time to stop sweeping the immigration issues under the carpet—that he would have no problem with the issues of identity, immigration and laïcité.”
Then, nearly as abruptly as he dropped it, Macron returned to the immigration issue. In a letter addressed to the French people last week—this attractive form of communication was utilized previously by Mitterand and Sarkozy in their campaigns—he made some nationalist and traditionalist points about the uniqueness of France. And he stressed once again his desire for a wide-ranging debate on all subjects concerning France’s government and people.
“For me there are no forbidden subjects,” Macron wrote. He mentioned the four “grand themes” around which the debate will center: taxation and fiscal matters, the organization of government and public services, the ecological transition, and democracy and citizenship, and elaborated upon each of them. He also placed up for discussion the important issue of referendums, a key gilet jaunes demand that often yield conservative or populist results. He added that the French tradition of immigration has been shaken by doubts and the failures of integration.
He threw out the possibility of quotas on immigration, set annually by the Parliament. In practice, this would likely limit the number of immigrants through “family reunification”—one of the main channels of immigration into France. He then added a paean to laïcité—a “primordial value” of liberty—a word historically linked to the 19th and early 20th century battles against the power of the Catholic Church but now deployed as a discreet way of expressing concern over Islamic fundamentalism.
So unless he reverses course again, Macron has doubled down on his initial instinct—to make immigration part of the great national debate instigated by the gilet jaunes rebellion. His own views are not obvious. During his campaign, he said all the things a pro-business multicultural centrist would be expected to say; subsequently, on a trip to Africa, he poured cold water on requests for more visas for Africans to enter France, and remarked about African birth rates  in a way that liberals derided as racist. Now, to take the steam out of the gilets jaunes, he’s presented as an option an immigration restrictionist plank proposed by the center-right party in the last election cycle. For this, naturally, he came under renewed fire from members of pro-immigration lobby.
The gilet jaunes, eloquent in expressing their contempt for Macron and French ruling circles, have not been especially clear on immigration. One compelling interpretation comes from Causeur’s Élizabeth Lévy, who writes  that the anti-government sentiment pervasive in France (and in much of the West) is provoked not by governmental authoritarianism so much as by governmental weakness.
Governments, Lévy says, have been “unable to come up with a policy for globalization that does not sacrifice the middle classes.” The state seems ubiquitous with its torrent of rules and regulations—yet when it comes to protecting your way of life, it is impotent: “Your factories close, you are coming to feel like a foreigner in your own town…too bad, you have to adapt, not only adapt but proclaim your enthusiasm for the new situation.”
This strikes me as correct, and not only about the populism raging in France. There are tens of millions of people who want desperately for government to work for them, not just for the rich and the poor. When he came into office, Macron had no intention of instigating a national debate about the French state and its goals, and certainly not about immigration. And his current stance may be no more than a smokescreen—that’s what Marine Le Pen, the left-wing socialist parties, and most of the gilet jaunes think anyway.
But another possibility is that Macron has been forced into a corner by the gilet jaunes, and that his only way out is to put multiculturalism and immigration on the table for discussion. It may really be that his own views on these subjects are not set in stone, that his greatest motivation at this point is to succeed as president, and as a result something good might emerge.
We’re soon to find out.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.