Macron must take back the streets


Most people in countries governed by the rule of law will have been astonished at the continued violent and criminal activities of the so-called gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in Paris. France, of course, is a republic born of revolution and unruly demonstrating seems to be in French blood.

Farmers in particular are notorious for their lawlessness, blocking roads and dumping mountains of produce outside town halls and ministries. All too often the police merely look on indulgently. Transport workers and automotive unions think nothing of closing down ports or factories and attacking, even kidnapping anyone who tries to cross their picket lines.

The eighteen weeks of gilets jaunes protests began initially in the countryside as a response to President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to order a sharp hike in fuel prices. They thereafter spread to major cities including the capital, where in November 300,000 people took to the streets. Macron’s presidency, which he assumed less than two years ago, has been remarkable for his rapid fall in popularity and the demonstrations quickly took on a wider protest at his attempts to reform the ailing economy.

But these unruly weekend protests have assumed an increasingly violent and illegal character. Until this weekend, the worst of the rioting was in December when barricades, the traditional symbol of revolution, were thrown up in the capital. But Saturday saw a new and frankly unacceptable peak in the violence with widespread looting in Paris and the torching of upmarket locations such as the iconic Le Fouquet’s restaurant. Macron sought to defuse the early popular anger, in part by deferring the fuel price rises. In a sometimes emotional TV broadcast, he tried to open consultations, which he characterized as “the Great Debate”.

The President has been castigated by political opponents for being on a skiing trip in the Pyrenees at the weekend. This he cut short to hurry back to the Elysée Palace where he promised to come up with strong measures to curb further violence. However, at the same time he also put out a social media message saying the rioting showed that he needed to do more to address the protestors’ concerns.

It is certain that many of the original gilets jaunes are shocked and ashamed at the thuggery that has become part of their protest. It also seems clear that criminal gangs are using the demonstrations as cover for looting and destruction. Police, who at one point on Saturday appeared overwhelmed by crowds that may have numbered around 40,000, reportedly made 200 arrests. If found guilty, those who have been seized should face severe penalties. However, it is seems clear that sentences handed down as a result of past violence have not been tough enough to dissuade further wrongdoing.

Macron’s En Marche party currently faces humiliation in June’s European parliamentary elections with the likely beneficiary being Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party. The anti-Semitic and Islamophobic chants in recent gilets jaunes protests strongly suggest the concealed hand of her neo-fascist bigots. The center ground in French politics appears in serious danger of disappearing because, with the notable exception of former general Charles De Gaulle, few presidents have been prepared to use the forces of law and order to take back the streets and deal with violent protesters as common criminals.