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The Old Regime and the Yellow Revolution

France’s protest movement has become a crisis of legitimacy for Emmanuel Macron—and the country’s constitutional order.

Yellow Vest protesters clash with police during an anti-government demonstration on Jan. 12 in Caen, France. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)
Yellow Vest protesters clash with police during an anti-government demonstration on Jan. 12 in Caen, France. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron is desperately seeking a consistent and credible answer to a question that refuses to stand still. When the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement started this past November, Macron’s government treated it as a one-off protest that could be ignored. By December, the president decided that the continued weekly demonstrations were a threat to his policy goals. Macron’s response was to deliver a national address in which he announced an altered agenda, including economic concessions such as annulling the gas tax increase and raising the minimum wage.

The compromises weren’t enough to end the protests. This weekend, for the ninth consecutive Saturday, the protest movement took center stage, mobilizing over 80,000 demonstrators across the country. The principal stages were Paris and Bourges, the latter chosen for its symbolic significance as roughly the geographical center of France. Though the demonstrations were mostly peaceful, there were once again eruptions of the nearly ritualistic acts of violence on the part of some protesters, and the equally ritualistic reaction of police and security forces.

It’s increasingly clear that the protest movement isn’t simply a political challenge but a fundamental crisis of legitimacy for Macron and France’s Fifth Republic. The protesters now imply that their objections are aimed not at the government’s decisions but at the style of democracy represented by the constitutional order. And, worryingly, the persistence of the demonstrations reflects a persistence of public support. While there has been a decline in enthusiasm, most French still back the gilets jaunes. In a study released last week by the French Institute of Public Opinion, those who either support or sympathize—two very different categories—fell from 71 percent in early November to 57 percent in early January. The overarching goal of these remaining supporters was summed up by the signs recently carried by gilets jaunes protesters in the French Alps: “End the dictatorship.”

Macron, to his credit, has not shirked the fundamental challenge posed by the gilets jaunes. In his December speech, he addressed it head-on by promising to hold what he called a “great national debate” about French politics, which is scheduled to begin today. Whether anyone yet knows what to expect of that debate—much less whether it will work—is another question.

If all of this has you thinking of an earlier event in French history, you are not alone. Two hundred and thirty years after it first erupted, the French Revolution hovers over current events in France. Macron’s decision to call upon his citizens to prepare for a national conversation recalls Louis XVI’s decision to call upon his subjects to, well, prepare for a national conversation. In the king’s case, this led to the cahiers de doléances, or lists of grievances, which locally chosen representatives wrote up and sent to Versailles before the convening of the Estates General in 1789. Given the world-altering events that followed later that year, the seismic rumble of the cahiers de doléances is often overlooked. Yet it was an unprecedented exercise, not just in 18th century France but throughout Europe, in uncensored and unbound popular expression.

In the present instance, though, town and city leaders, not Macron, issued the call for the writing of such grievances. Of the more than 5,000 city halls that established a process for such lists since early December, many are located in the now notorious “peripheral” regions of the country—the very same regions from which most of the gilets jaunes, and their supporters, hail. Strikingly, just as their 18th century ancestors railed against the tax burdens they bore, their descendants express the same anxiety and anger over taxes. As one paper concluded, there is a widespread, deep discontent with taxation. Before it was rolled back by Macron, the gas tax increase was universally detested; protesters have since glommed onto the regressive value-added tax. While a number of the grievance lists include concern over immigration, others voicing fear over increasing geographical and political isolation are even more numerous.

But it’s on the subject of the state that past and present merge most fully. In something of a paradox, the grievances lambaste what they perceive as the levying of unjust taxes while also insisting the state impose greater economic and social justice. As the historian Simon Schama once observed, most of 18th century France “wanted more, not less, government in the countryside.” This now seems to be the case for rural and exurban France in the 21st century, particularly with its insistence on the state enforcing a certain idea of equality. In this regard, the movement’s most significant demand is for the establishment of a citizen-initiated referendum. Predictably, this proposed mechanism for direct democracy, which would allow any proposition to be brought to a national vote upon receiving 700,000 signatures, is keeping not just the government but also leaders of all the traditional parties awake at night.

Macron’s proposed alternative to shoring up the state’s legitimacy is his national debate, the contours of which he revealed in a letter published on Monday. His aim, in essence, is to let a thousand debates flourish—as long as they adhere to the rules established by the government. Certain topics are off-limits—for example, abortion rights and same-sex marriage—and will be subsumed under fiscal and environmental, economic and democratic concerns. The letter foresees hundreds of debates, ranging from town hall meetings to regional conferences, sprouting over the next two months. Many of them will include representatives from the government, including Macron, who will kick off this unprecedented experiment Tuesday night by meeting in Normandy with 600 local mayors.

Inevitably, perhaps, the debate has itself been the object of fierce debate. First, there was a controversy concerning Chantal Jouanno, a former minister in Nicolas Sarkozy’s government who had been placed in charge of the commission tasked with preparing for the debate. When Jouanno’s generous salary was made public—nearly 14,700 euros (about $16,800) per month—the gilets jaunes websites and Facebook pages lit up in outrage, prompting her to step down as the debate’s architect. Oddly, though, Jouanno did not step down as head of the commission and will continue to receive the same salary until Macron decides otherwise.

Second, Macron’s letter has already ignited political fireworks in Paris. In an effort to save what remains of his economic reforms, the letter makes no mention of the wildly popular demand, supported by nearly 80 percent of the French, to restore the wealth tax that Macron had ditched upon becoming president. That the issue is not even on the table risks having the entire table either overturned or ignored by one of the two sides in this debate. More insidiously, Macron also raised the subject of immigration, suggesting that the idea of quotas be studied. Many on the left and center were not just shocked by Macron’s suggestion but also surprised, because Macron has long defended the importance of immigration.

This meta-debate has thus acted as a kind of solvent, clarifying the ideological fault lines running through Macron’s composite government. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, who along with Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and the budget director Gérald Darmanin quit the conservative Republicans party to join Macron, suspects that such a debate will open a veritable Pandora’s box that they will never be able to close. According to one government source, Le Maire and Darmanin worry that “they will not escape the debate without getting out their checkbook.”

Yet other government figures have embraced the debate. This is the case for Marlène Schiappa, who gravitated to Macron’s En Marche! party from the political left. Schiappa, who serves as the secretary of equality between men and women, declared that she will “take the lead,” especially for mothers who hail from “peripheral France.” Yet others, such as Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer, are less enthusiastic. Acknowledging that the outcome of the national debate was anybody’s guess, he nevertheless insisted on the democratic traditions of the French.

But it’s precisely the received boundaries of French democracy that the protesters are keen to change. For the country’s Association of Rural Mayors, the great takeaway from their constituents’ grievances is their “attachment to the principle of equality.” This, in turn, leads to a second and more disturbing parallel between 1789 and 2019. The demand for greater equality does not always go hand in hand with the desire for greater liberty. Yet it is precisely greater freedom, especially in the realm of the economy, that France’s elites sought then and seek now. The 18th-century economists known as the physiocrats, who inspired the notion of laissez faire, insisted upon the freedom of industry, merchants, and exporters from state-imposed constraints, just as they believed, in the words of a contemporary, “that talents should be subjected to no impediment.” Likewise, it is an article of faith for neoliberals like Macron that France can prosper only by loosening government constraints on industrialists and entrepreneurs and insisting upon the virtues of meritocracy. Last year, in one of his many controversial claims, Macron compared the French economy to a cordée, or team of mountain climbers attached by a rope, ascending a mountain: “If one begins to throw stones at the lead climber, the entire group will tumble.”

As the gilets jaunes have revealed, the French are struggling not just with the elements, or even with one another, but also with competing ideals. In his 19th-century classic The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the French have two ruling passions: the desire for liberty and demand for equality. As France’s series of revolutions and reactions remind us, these passions conflict more often than they complement one another. The “great debate” will help determine if the cordée’s leaders are listening to those who have been trudging at its rear.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.