Paris — The world looked on as yellow vest protesters set their city on fire for the eighteenth straight weekend. Glass littered the streets of the famous Champs-Élysées as luxury store owners shattered their own windows to replace them, and French law enforcement rushed visitors away as a national bank went up in flames.
Men and women in yellow vests, or “gilets jaunes,” flooded the streets of the French capital to face police, who had prepared for the potentially violent protests beforehand by blocking half of the city’s roads with armed barriers and trucks. They were right to do so: Yellow vest protesters met them with stones and glass; the police responded with tear gas and water cannons. Sixty people, including 17 police officers and one fireman, were injured during the outbreak, and nearly 200 people are being held in custody while they await questioning, according to CNN.
What began as a protest against French President Emmanuel Macron’s planned gas tax increase has turned into multiple violent confrontations. Despite Macron’s best efforts, the yellow vests refuse to settle the debate civilly, ignoring his pleas for a public debate and channeling their anger into eruptions on the streets.
“No doubt: they are calling for violence and are here to wreak havoc,” French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner wrote on Twitter as the protests erupted. “Professionals of damage and disorder, equipped and masked, have infiltrated the protests. My instruction to the police: Respond very firmly to these unacceptable attacks.”
The civil unrest in Paris is pervasive and unsettling. One French wine shop owner in Montmartre told me he is preparing for “another civil war.” And another café employee told me most Parisian residents are “nervous” about what is to come.
But as the protests wear on and the French government moves forward with the tax hike, the “gilets jaunes” have begun bickering among themselves. They have no real leader — Macron has attempted to negotiate with the group but their demands are as vague as their leadership.
More than 10,000 yellow vests marched on Saturday, compared to the nearly quarter of a million protesters that turned out for their first ever protest on Nov. 17, according to the French Interior Ministry.
Despite this, the yellow vests show no sign of stopping. Their discontent with Macron’s government is rooted in far more than just a gas tax: This is a classic political uprising in which an urban, popular movement has arisen to stare down the urban elites.
France’s socialist policies, like universal healthcare and free education, are failing the middle and lower classes. French residents outside the cities stretch their incomes to the end of each month, a Parisian resident whose family lives in the countryside told me.
Macron, however, seems unwilling to face reality. He continues to push a leftist agenda that would drive the nation even further into a sinking deficit.
The French president has the right idea. He’s toured the country to talk to citizens and find real solutions. But what he doesn’t understand is that his ideological-driven agenda puts the French people at a disadvantage, both politically and economically.
Organized protests are all too common in France, as citizens take to the streets more often than the voting booths. But the “giles jaunes” look familiar. The discontent and lack of belonging voiced by the yellow vests is rooted in the same grassroots, populist movement that drove Americans to the polls in the 2016 presidential election and the British during the recent Brexit vote, in which the English chose to leave the European Union.
Whether he’ll admit it or not, Macron’s “great debate” with the yellow vests has become a great debate on the sustainability of socialist policies. But until Macron changes his agenda to prioritize French prosperity and happiness over carbon efficiency and reduction, people will continue to get hurt.
Alas, Macron could learn a thing or two from his fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville.
“After having thus taken each individual one by one into its powerful hands, and having molded him as it pleases, the sovereign power extends its arms over the entire society; it covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated, minute, and uniform rules, which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot break through to go beyond the crowd,” de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America.”
“It does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them and directs them; it rarely forces action, but it constantly opposes your acting,” he continued. “It does not destroy, it prevents birth; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, it represses, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally it reduces each nation to being nothing more than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”