LONDON - Historian Thomas Carlyle, chronicler of the epoch-shattering French Revolution, thought the French were unrivaled practitioners of the “art of insurrection,” characterizing “the French mob among the liveliest phenomena of our world.”
Mobs in other countries by comparison, he argued, were “dull masses” lacking audacity and inventiveness.
French President Emmanuel Macron is now facing the latest iteration of the “French mob” — in this case "gilets jaunes," or "yellow vests," named after the fluorescent jackets French motorists are legally obliged to keep in their vehicles.
The "inventiveness" of the "yellow vests" has turned violent thanks, some say, to far-left and far-right infiltrators, but seemingly the protesters, according the opinion polls, remain broadly popular in France, a country that historically has a high threshold for robust street protest stretching back to the bread riots of the 17th century.
For more than two weeks now the "yellow vests" have disrupted France, bringing the French capital, Paris, to a violent standstill three weekends in a row, paralyzing highways around the country, blockading refineries and fuel depots and gridlocking traffic in major cities from Marseilles in the south to Lille in the north.
Saturday’s protests left Paris looking like a war zone after the "yellow vests" torched cars, smashed shop windows, looted stores and battled police in the worst spate of violence since the 1968 student uprisings. Police said 133 people were injured and 412 protesters were arrested. They had to use more than 10,000 tear gas and stun grenades to combat rampaging demonstrators.
The French leader, on his return from the G-20 summit in Argentina, summoned the cabinet to consider deploying troops and declaring a state of emergency to prevent any repetition, but decided — at least for now — against the move.
The agitation, originally was intended as a one-day event by campaigners, who’ve been organizing via Facebook and other social media platforms, to protest high fuel prices, hiked to dissuade the French from using their cars for the sake of the environment.
Modern bread riots?
But the leaderless, grass-roots movement, especially strong among low and middle-income earners in rural and small-town France, known as La France périphérique, has morphed quickly into a furious revolt against the business-oriented centrist Macron and his economic policies in general.
"Yellow vests" dub the 40-year-old Macron, “President of the rich” and accuse him of high-handedly neglecting the daily struggles of ordinary French people and not appreciating how living costs have risen fast.
As the movement hardens Macron is facing the same question many of his predecessors in the Élysée Palace have had to confront when it comes to civil unrest. Is the protest a temporary expression of political rage that will burn itself out much as bread riots of old did or could it develop into a more serious challenge to the authorities and the presidency?
Adding to Macron’s dilemma is that this drawn-out protest is not being planned or led by known labor figures or opposition politicians, who can be engaged with by the government for a deal to be negotiated. The "yellow vest" movement is as sprawling and amorphous and non-hierarchical in organization as the Occupy movements in the United States.
The eclectic nature of the movement and the mix of grievances protesters are expressing — as well as the open disdain they hold for Macron — makes it even harder for government officials to comprehend it, let alone develop a strategy to defuse it. Some officials hope that the amorphousness of the movement will end up being its downfall.
To act or not to act
Part of the risk for Macron is getting the answer wrong about whether this a modern equivalent of a bread riot or something that has got greater staying power, say analysts. Being too light-handed risks allowing the unrest to grow when it could be stamped out by firm action; being too tough when it may be just a flash in the pan could make a bad situation worse and make the riots even more deadly adding to a death toll that stands now at four.
The government appears caught in a quandary. Macron has said he’ll “never accept violence,” but has instructed his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, to meet protest groups and opposition politicians this week in an effort to ease tensions and at very least stop “extremists” from infiltrating street demonstrations.
On Sunday, Macron refused to offer any concessions, but on Tuesday the government offered a partial back down announcing a suspension of the new fuel taxes. Whether that will be enough to tamp down the fire remains to be seen. The list of grievances of the Yellow Vests is now a long one and includes Macron’s tax cuts for the wealthy and businesses. Many of the protesters want Macron to resign or to dissolve the government and call new elections.
Clearly the government is pinning its hope that the fuel tax suspension will take the sting out of the protests. Announcing government ministers said the violence must stop. “It is out of the question that each weekend becomes a meeting or ritual for violence,” said interior minister Christophe Castaner. He, though, is likely to face tough questioning Tuesday from a senate committee over how thousands of protesters were able to play cat and mouse with riot police through central Paris for hours on Saturday.
The trajectory of French mobs is hard to calculate, as Carlyle observed. “The thing they will do is known to no man; least of all to themselves,” he wrote.