For the past 21 weeks, France’s major cities have been gripped by an atmosphere of civil unrest as thousands of citizens take to the streets and voice their dissatisfaction with the politics and personality of their President, Emmanuel Macron. While the French are hardly strangers to the practice of popular mobilization and engaging in civil disobedience, this sociopolitical movement, dubbed the gilets jaunes for the high-visibility yellow motor vests its participants don, is anomalous in its longevity despite a lack of a tangible leadership structure, ideologically distinct base of supporters, and clear set of policy goals. For several months, Macron has endeavored to understand how he and his administration have so quickly fallen out of touch with the French people, (with his approval rating plummeting to a mere 23% at the height of the protests) culminating in the anticipated release of the findings during his highly publicized “Great National Debate” tour. It is intriguing to consider why the gilets jaunes persist in demonstrating week after week, despite staunch police opposition and dwindling popularity, instead of undergoing other forms of political action to attain their goals. I believe that the closed, exclusionary nature of France’s political opportunity system fails to incorporate the needs and concerns of its exurban population, thereby necessitating the disruptive mobilization of the gilets jaunes as they lash out against an unresponsive democracy in an increasingly globalized world.
In the journal article “Political Opportunity Structures and Political Protest,” Herbert Kitschelt discusses how social organizations in different nations will rationally employ different strategies about how to deploy their political capital and resources in order to achieve their desired goals based largely on the institutional accessibility of that nation’s political establishment. Kitschelt argues that if political parties cannot “…effectively articulate demands in electoral politics…” and if the policy preferences of social movements that are recognized do not “…actually find their way into the processes of forming policy compromises and consensus…” then that society’s institutional accessibility must be considered very limited and the “input” side of its political opportunity structure is effectively closed. In this scenario, disaffected citizens hungry for change will organize and apply political pressure to the regime from the outside, separate from the established domain of political bargaining: extra-institutionally. I argue that the gilet jaunes, in the earlier stages of their movement, effectively mobilized in cities, small towns, and roads across France as an incredibly visible disruption tactic meant to circumvent the closed nature of the state’s closed political opportunity system. The gilets jaunes, who originally organized their movement as a mass protest against the raising of a fuel tax proposed by President Macron, did not engage in attempts to directly lobby with the French government because they felt, and continue to feel, profoundly forgotten and unheard by the political establishment. Many argue that the gilet jaunes, who originally were comprised of mainly of the French exurban, outer suburb, lower-middle class (including small business artisans and pensioners) felt neglected by the political elite largely due to the rapid globalization of the French economy since 1980s. John Lichfield, a Guardian journalist based in France, states flatly that the “energy life and local sources of wealth have been sucked” out of France’s “periphery” and redistributed into metropolitan areas. As such, many of the gilet jaunes may feel like their voice and representation has been taken from them along with their economic opportunities as the French political elite, now embodied by Macron, enact policies that seem rational and benign in the metropolitan context without considering the negative ramifications on France’s peripheral population, such as the inflammatory fuel tax. Additionally, many among the gilet jaunes may view France’s political institutions as unrecognizable due to the collapse of the traditional party system in the aftermath of the 2017 Presidential election. Emmanuel Macron came to power via a nascent political movement, En Marche, which French political historian, Pierre Rosanvallon, considered to be a movement revolving around the personality and ideology of Macron himself, and not any programmatic ties to specific social groups with distinct policy preferences. Both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen rose in popularity while France’s traditional Republican and Socialist parties swallowed crippling electoral defeat- being knocked out of the second round of the Presidential election entirely. To summarize, the gilets jaunes likely view French political institutions as closed off and inaccessible due to the lack of a party system in power that has long-standing links to social/class-based constituencies combined with the general feeling that Macron and his administration are unconcerned with the negative effects that economic liberalization has had on rural French communities. Consequently, disgruntled members of the gilet jaunes push for change by cutting out political institutions altogether and instead express their political potency through the visible blocking of roads, confrontations with police, and destruction of property.
The extra-institutional resource mobilization of the gilets jaunes has been largely effective. They have won genuine concessions from Macron’s administration who have since rolled back the controversial fuel tax, along with enacting an increase in the minimum wage and the introduction of tax-exempt overtime pay. These speedy policy reversals interestingly suggest what Herbert Kitschelt deems to be an open political opportunity system on the “output” dimension. The gilets jaunes applied acute political and economic pressure on the Macron administration through mass protest because they understood that France’s centralized and powerful national policy apparatus would be able to effectively and efficiently translate their demands into concrete concessions. However, absolutely essential to the political calculus of the gilets jaunes is the understanding that the French state’s power to enact policy can only be unlocked if they challenge its authority from the outside- at least for now.
As Emmanuel Macron concludes his Great National Debate and the intensity and popularity of the gilets jaunes movement continues to wane, he must recognize and appreciate the factors that led such a previously dormant faction of French society to become so enraged. I believe that in order to make France a more responsive democratic society, Macron must allow his fledgling political movement to mature into a full-blown party that establishes linkages and coalitions that revolve around social and class identities, and not a cult of personality alone. As the moniker and energy of the gilets jaunes is increasingly coopted by militant extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, Macron must take care to address the concerns of and incorporate members of all segments of French society. Otherwise, many French citizens who have been left behind in the globalized world may once again be enticed by a populist, nativist strongman who promises to dissolve the intransigence of an unresponsive political elite.