The first protest against a fuel tax was on November 16th, 2018—at that time no one could have imagined that it would have ballooned into the largest series of protests in France since the infamous 1968 demonstrations. As of writing, the protest of the gilets jaunes(yellow vests that all French drivers are legally required to have in their car) is now comprised of nine “acts,” with promises of future performances.
The struggles of French President Emmanuel Macron’s government against the gilets jaunescan be explained using ideological power, or legitimacy, which focuses on the ability to get others to do what you want willingly. Another aspect of the protests is the demonstration of the importance of the effectiveness and efficacy of the government. The efficacy of a government is seen when a government can find solutions to basic problems, which relates to effectiveness because a government must also be able to implement the solutions it finds. When a government fails to have legitimacy, efficacy, or effectiveness, in some cases citizens become impatient with the instituted democratic processes.
Macron’s rise to power came with promises to introduce reforms to fix growing economic inequality. One of these reforms, the fuel tax, was meant to support environmental protection but was viewed by many as a policy that disregards those who are not rich because it would cause a spike in fuel prices. Initially, many of the protesters lived outside of the major metropolitan areas and required a car to commute. Now, many low- and middle-class citizens have joined the protests as well.
The power of the protests is unprecedented—the government has backed out of the fuel tax yet it is still struggling with how to respond to the demands of the protesters. When the yellow vest movement gained momentum, it certainly did not help Macron’s image in many of the minds of the protesters that he refused to respond to them for days. Many of the surveys conducted within the first month showed that nearly 75% of the French population supported the movement. Because of this support, Macron felt the need to respond by scrapping the fuel tax (a first for his government) and promising future reforms for salaries. His subsequent promiseshave not returned any of the legitimacy that he lost—power that is necessary to run France effectively.
The loss of Macron’s ideological power has not been sudden. It is the result of a numberof his policies. Many perceive him to be attacking France from all angles: labor laws, university admissions, and even the railroads. He has also cut taxes for the wealthy and made unfortunate comments about “those who are nothing.” This style of top-down governance and policies perceived as favoring the wealthy coupled with his arrogance has led to a massive surge in loss of willingness to go along with the Macron’s ideas. Some analysts describe this loss of poweras cyclical, starting with the French Revolution when the people overthrew the monarchy, culminating in a months-long Reign of Terror.
Louis XVI, the last king of France, was slow to recognize the needs of the people. After a poor harvest, they were at wit’s end with being taxed excessively. Historians estimate that nearly 8,500 rebellions had taken place in the 130 years preceding the fall of the monarchy, yet none had been successful. Weakened by wars abroad and outrageous spending, Louis XVI convened the Estates General in order to appease many of the incensed. However, he refused to give legitimacy to the poorer and more numerous Third Estate. His actions culminated in his execution—actions that were interpreted as selfish and paranoid.
While the French monarchy was clearly authoritarian, there were some aspects of democracy, such as the Estates General. The perceived failure of these democratic processes (reforms never came quickly or were hardly reforms) led to uprisings that led to anarchy and civil war. Both of these leaders have faced a loss of both efficacy and effectiveness, which undermined their legitimacy. The king’s ignorance of the people led to his downfall—and it is possible that the people will use their votes to get rid of Macron come the next presidential election. Without being the ability to find solutions and then putting the correct policies to achieve the desired outcomes, both have been weakened greatly.
The patterns between both Louis XVI and Emmanuel Macron are significant: both are not seen as strong by the people, both have faced crises of rising costs of living, and both are seen as favoring the wealthy. There is even comparison between the wives: many hold dubious beliefs about Brigitte Macron, just as they held dubious beliefs about Marie Antoinette. Without strong efficacy, the people could continue to become more and more discontented with the government.
However, just like Louis XVI, Macron is not just a product of his own decisions. He inherited the government from one of the most unpopular presidents ever in France. He also is having to face many issues, such as immigration and Europeanization, that have plagued the French government for decades. Macron will have to not just open dialogue about the issues that matter to French citizens, but also be willing to compromise in order to appeal to those who do not agree with him.
*Photo taken by K. Sparks. Yellow vest protesters in Lyon, France, Dec. 8th during the Festival of Light.