The Yellow Vests Are Going to Change France. We Just Don’t Know How.

By inaugurating a national “grand debate,” can Macron harness the concerns of citizens without undermining his government’s own mandate?

A protester stands in front of riot police at the Arc de Triomphe on January 12.
A protester stands in front of riot police at the Arc de Triomphe on January 12. (Le Pictorium / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty)

PARIS—This past week, President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated a vast national debate, a kind of ongoing town hall and airing of grievances that will unfold across France for the next two months. The grand débat, as it’s called, is the government’s response to the “yellow vest” protest movement that began in November with citizens protesting a fuel-tax hike and has grown exponentially into a massive groundswell of popular discontent, peppered with occasional flare-ups of violence.

By organizing these discussions, which will be mediated by mayors, the government is essentially acknowledging that frustrations now run so deep that they can’t be ignored. Much of the anger has been aimed at Macron, who was elected on a platform of change but has come to be seen as arrogant, imperious, and tone-deaf to the concerns of the less fortunate. The French leader didn’t exactly dispel that perception when he sent an open letter to the nation outlining the themes of the debate—the environment, taxes and public spending, political representation and public services—essentially saying, “We can talk about anything you want, as long as it’s what I want.”

That’s one reason this national conversation may quell tensions for a while but probably won’t end the yellow-vest movement for good. The gilets jaunes, so named for the roadside safety vests that drivers must keep in their vehicles at all times, are here to stay precisely because the movement is so inchoate in form, so leaderless in organization, and so diffuse in its demands. And also so successful in driving the debate. Political parties across the spectrum and labor unions have been trying to channel the movement’s momentum, but so far to no avail. That puts France in uncharted political territory.

That is what makes this grand débat all the more complex. Normally, elections are held to gauge political sentiment. But how do you harness the concerns of citizens without undermining the government’s own mandate, at a time when the government’s only significant political opposition comes from the far right and the far left?

Some political scientists are calling Macron’s approach an unprecedented step in representative democracy, a step toward greater citizen engagement and more direct democracy while still keeping France’s august hierarchical structures in place. It’s the country’s attempt to capture some of the anger of the moment without forcing an array of issues into a Brexit-like referendum, a yes/no question whose answer doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems.

The philosopher Bruno Latour this week compared France today to Britain ahead of the 2016 Brexit vote, when vague questions of national identity coalesced around membership in the European Union. The French situation has had its own elements of strange political theater, though, and Latour sees the grand débat as more of a kind of poll than a means of changing the government’s program. We have “the yellow vests who don’t know exactly what they want and a government that’s completely incapable of listening,” Latour told French radio.

As part of the national debate, citizens can register their concerns in cahiers de doléances, or grievance logs, a practice first put into use during the French Revolution. An online forum that polled citizens’ concerns showed a vast range of issues: Some wanted to change unemployment compensation, or increase taxes for the rich and on second homes, or proposed the elimination of bank fees; others were upset that the government had reduced the speed limit to 80 km an hour. For his part, Macron asked his constituents to consider which public services they wouldn’t mind reducing. That’s something of a taboo in France, where citizens of every political persuasion rely on the state for all manner of support—the exact opposite of American-style mistrust of government.

“This grand debate is a kind of reality test,” Étienne Balibar, a Marxist philosopher and scholar, said at a debate last week in Paris, where he expressed his enthusiasm about the yellow-vest movement. If the discussion unfolds the way the government hopes it will—peacefully, leading to constructive proposals that don’t contradict the ones on which the government was elected—it will raise a tricky new question: What should the government do? “In what circumstances can a political power decide to choose not only to use chaos as blackmail, but to choose chaos as a political strategy?” Balibar asked.

Balibar’s enthusiasm for the movement is indicative of how some on the left see in the yellow vests the potential for revolutionary promise, a chance to bring about more social equality and to increase awareness of regional inequalities—some of the same factors that led to the Brexit vote in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States. But the yellow vests also seem to be anything and everything. Socialists see them as a way to claw back the terrain they lost to Macron’s centrist La République En Marche party. The far right wants to harness the anti-government sentiment into an electoral victory in the European parliamentary elections in May. So, for that matter, does Macron’s party.

Much like the Occupy movement in the United States, the yellow vests haven’t transformed party politics, but they’re certainly driving the conversation. And they’re driving it all over the place. There’s a strong social element. Demonstrators have enjoyed the conviviality of their gatherings at traffic circles and don’t want the party to end. Catholic-inflected social conservatives are piling on and want to use the national debate to defend the traditional family. While some want more social justice and greater openness to migrants, others have made anti-Semitic gestures that have gone viral, entertained wild conspiracy theories in online forums, or shown disgust and even outright physical violence toward journalists from the mainstream media, raising fears that the movement is essentially veering to the far right.

There has been an undeniable current of violence, with some demonstrators smashing the windows of shops and banks, and setting fire to cars and scooters in central Paris. French police have brought more than 5,300 people in for questioning across the country since the protests began, and have sent more than 150 to jail, according to Le Monde. More than 1,700 demonstrators have been wounded since November, the paper reported, and authorities have opened 71 investigations into police violence. In Le Monde, Michelle Zancarini-Fournel, a political scientist, criticized the government for “criminalizing” dissent in ways she compared to the police crackdown during the student uprisings of May 1968.

Macron, the first French president whose political life wasn’t in some way shaped by 1968, kicked off the debate this week by meeting with 600 mayors in a gathering outside Paris, and has since been traveling the country meeting with other mayors. For hours he listened as they described problems that had been building up over decades, and he often responded with an impressive command of public-policy details. One mayor, Dominique Chauvel—a former Socialist and the mayor of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux, a town of about 300 people in Normandy—told the president she was deeply disappointed in his government and afraid France was abandoning the safety net that has been an essential part of the French social contract here for decades. “My country has men and women, young people and old people, people of all colors, all beliefs, and it leaves no one by the side of the road,” she said, adding that mayors, of which France has a plethora, were the “social backstop.”

Macron watched Chauvel intensely. He sat with his legs spread wide, his hands on his thighs and elbows out, as if he were huddling for a fight. He seemed at times glacial, or tired, with occasional flashes of what might have been empathy. He seemed aware that the stakes were very high. He was elected to change France, to make it easier for companies to hire employees whose taxes will prop up the system. His majority is strong, but he is surrounded by critics, and enemies. How the grand debate unfolds will define his presidency.