“WE’RE NOT blocking the traffic, just filtering it,” declares Loup, a 64-year-old former education assistant, who has a hand in each pocket and a silver ring in each ear. In his high-visibility jacket, from which the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) movement gets its name, he and a dozen others are manning a protest at a roundabout outside Evreux, in rural southern Normandy. On the muddy ground, a fire of wooden crates is blazing, and bags of croissants are piled up on a camping table. Protesters have blocked off one lane of the road, yet passing motorists hoot their horns not in anger but in support.
Two weeks ago the gilets jaunes emerged from nowhere via Facebook to block road junctions across France. The anger that started as a protest against a rise in diesel taxes has since widened into a revolt against President Emmanuel Macron. “At the end of the month, I just can’t afford to fill up the tank,” says Sandra, another gilet jaune and single mother of two small children, who works at an optician’s and drives 20km each way to her job. “We’re not rich, but we’re not poor. It’s an attack on the middle classes who work.”
The government says its tax increase of 7.6 euro cents ($0.09) a litre on diesel is part of a plan to align diesel and petrol taxes, to curb the small-particle pollution caused by diesel engines. A further increase of 6.5 cents is due in January 2019. “I’d rather tax fuel than work,” Mr Macron says. “Those who complain about higher fuel prices also demand action against air pollution because their children get sick.”
In France’s big cities, commuters are well served by metros, bike-share schemes and Uber drivers, and green taxes are seen as a virtue. But in places such as rural Normandy, modest earners do not buy the government’s green argument; they recall that previous governments encouraged the use of diesel at a time when it was judged to be less polluting than petrol. Today, they think that the tax hike is, rather, a punishment for families struggling to make ends meet, and proof of the president’s disdain. “Monsieur Macron is arrogant and has little respect for the people,” says Loup.
A first day of protests, on November 17th, drew some 280,000 yellow vests nationwide. A week later, less than half that number took to the streets. But a protest in Paris turned violent when shop windows were smashed on the Champs-Elysées, and barricades were set alight. Riot police dispersed protesters with water cannons and tear-gas. Sandra made the trip up to Paris from Evreux to take part in those protests, and blames infiltrators for the violence. For her, the purpose of the revolt is nothing less than the removal of Mr Macron.
France is used to theatrical demonstrations and the revolutionary imagery protesters often embrace. On one roundabout in southern France, gilets jaunes brought along a guillotine and a stuffed effigy of Mr Macron. “When people stormed the Bastille it wasn’t clear what the objective was that day,” declared a far-left deputy on the radio. But the gilets jaunes’ lack of formal leadership makes them volatile and hard to handle.
How long the gilets jaunes last depends partly on whether they can survive an attempted mutation into a more organised movement. Internal rivalries and conflicting objectives could yet be divisive, as could a loss of public support if the movement radicalises. This week, a delegation of gilets jaunes met the environment minister, François de Rugy. But the legitimacy of the emerging spokesmen is uncertain.
Mr Macron tried to defuse the anger this week by adopting a more modest tone: “You’ve said ‘Stop’. I hear that. So we’re going to change our method.” Instead of lecturing the French on the merits of his green policy, he promised to consult them. While he said that he will keep the green taxes in place, he vowed to review tax increases if world energy prices rise. A snap poll suggests nevertheless that 66% of people still back the gilets jaunes, a figure that has been stable throughout the protests.
Over in Evreux town centre, another group of gilets jaunes is blocking access to the prefecture, or departmental administrative building. Three police officers stand on a step between the protesters and the glass entrance. The numbers are thin, but the exasperation is palpable. “France has a social pyramid, and Macron sits on the top,” explains one protester, who works at a fairground. “We want him to smell what it’s like down here at the bottom.”