May is not for turning
The scenes from Paris have been arresting — protesters marching down the ChampsElysees, the grandest avenue in the city, hurling projectiles at police and being tear-gassed in return.
But it is in smaller towns and cities such as Besancon, nestled in the foothills near the Swiss border, where the anger is most deeply felt.
People here are dependent on their cars, and so they are especially frustrated with rising diesel prices and a now-scrapped petrol tax — the issue at the core of the national “yellow vest” movement that has produced marches and roadblocks throughout France in recent weeks.
“Ask a Parisian, for him none of this is an issue, because he doesn’t need a car,” said Marco Pavan, 55, who has driven trucks and taxi cabs in and around Besancon for 30 years.
“We live on the side of a mountain. There’s no bus or train to take us anywhere. We have to have a car.”
Many people here are also keenly frustrated with their President. They see Emmanuel Macron as part of an elitist coterie that neither understands nor cares how they live, or how the decline of traditional industry has hollowed out their city and limited their prospects.
“And then there’s the disdain — he openly mocks people,” said Yves Rollet, 67, a Besancon retiree, who said he had participated in the protests because he was fed up with how Macron governed, dismissive of poor and working people.
Rollet recalled an incident in September when Macron told a young, unemployed landscaper that it should be easy to find a job. “If you’re willing and motivated, in hotels, cafes and restaurants, construction, there’s not a single place I go where they don’t say they’re looking for people,” the President, a former investment banker, said to the young man.
“We called him the President of the Rich from the beginning,” Rollet said.
For his part, Macron has sought to be empathetic and more humble, while also insisting that he will not cave to violent demands or revoke the petrol tax (which he subsequently did) — a product of the country’s climate change commitments.
“One cannot be on Monday for the environment and on Tuesday against the increase of fuel prices,” he said in a recent speech on energy.
Macron acknowledged that French policy hadn’t done much to address the expense of living in big French cities other than to encourage people to live further out and buy cars.
“They are not the perpetuators of this situation, they are simply the first victims,” he said. “We must, therefore, listen to the protests of social alarm, but we must not do so by renouncing our responsibilities for today and tomorrow, because there’s also an environmental alarm.”
Since his election in May last year, Macron has been one of the world’s leading advocates for action to combat climate change. He unsuccessfully tried to convince US President Donald Trump to remain within the 2015 Paris Climate Accords, and he hosted a second major climate summit in Paris in December 2017.
France has more diesel cars than any other country in Europe, and higher taxes on diesel has been part of the climate bargain from the beginning.
Paris and its surrounding suburbs, meanwhile, have moved to ban older model diesel cars from their roads. And Macron’s Government committed France to banning the sales of all petrol-powered cars by 2040.
Macron’s opponents on both the far-left and the far-right have lent their support to the yellow vest movement, making the protests easier to dismiss as a politicised spectacle.
And though Macron’s approval rating has fallen to record lows, that can also be discounted by the historical trend that the French typically turn against their presidents throughout their term.
As Macron put it in a Der Spiegel interview last year: “The French want to elect a king, but they would like to be able to overthrow him whenever they want. You have to be prepared to be disparaged, insulted and mocked — that is in the French nature.”
But sociologists and anti-poverty advocates warn that some of the frustration underlying the yellow vest protests is real — the inevitable result of decades of social fracture between rural France, increasingly devoid of resources, and the country’s prosperous large cities.
“It’s important to understand this movement is not at all an opposition to the environment,” said Benoit Coquard, an expert at the National Institute for Agronomic Research in Dijon, which is in the same administrative region as Besancon.
Coquard said the issue was a perceived double standard. What is disputed is that drivers from the middle and lower classes are made to pay, but that in their eyes we don’t ask enough of the big companies and the rich, who also pollute the most because they often take airplanes,” he says.
A common refrain among protesters is that fuel prices and other social charges have increased at the same time as Macron’s administration has axed France’s famous wealth tax. Macron’s argues it is the rich who will help stimulate the economy and drive down the country’s stubbornly high unemployment.
Pavan, the driver, said France has to be conscious of the environment, “but it’s a change everybody has to make — not just working people”.
“Why do the little people have to pay, but the big dogs pay nothing? The people have a feeling of injustice,” he says.
You have to be prepared to be disparaged, insulted and mocked.
Protesters near the Arc de Triomphe.
Emmanuel Macron in Paris.