Rather than a traditional French confrontation between the right and left, the rise of the gilets jaunes represents a conflict between insiders and outsiders. Under Macron’s leadership, the two historic major parties’ elites have met and merged, as has happened, in a way, in Germany’s grand coalition and in the British parliamentary coalition to stymie Brexit. All Western politics is realigning this way, and it may be a contingent matter that the United States began its realignment with Trump the outsider and France with Macron the insider. Had Hillary Clinton been elected, she would have shown Macron-like traits, and France has a half-dozen Trumps waiting in the wings.
From the beginning of his career in electoral politics, just three years ago, Macron has made himself a scourge of populists, describing the various European nationalist movements in a vocabulary so laced with contempt that the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano ran a recap of Macron’s rhetorical flourishes under the headline “From ‘Leprosy’ to ‘Vomit.’” Now he has his wish, for better or for worse. He is the standard-bearer for the European establishment and the European Union, and, as Angela Merkel’s career nears its end, the last best hope of both. The gilets jaunes are the French rallying point for those, left and right, old and young, peaceful and disruptive, who want to see this hope dashed. They are “everyone else,” just as they were at the beginning of Macron’s term.
The gilets jaunes, much written off, much misunderstood, have an appeal that is both mysterious and durable. If they have shown signs of degenerating into a mob, they have also shown signs of evolving into the voice of a people. When they appeared on the scene last fall, they fit the “populist” archetype through which we understand such movements in the Trump age. The grievances that gave rise to the movement resemble those you could hear in western Pennsylvania. But the movement’s culture is evolving into something that more resembles Occupy Wall Street, or French and Italian “anti-globalist” movements from the turn of this century. (François Ruffin, a street activist and Michael Moore–style filmmaker who became a member of the National Assembly in 2017, recently shot a film about the gilets, scheduled for release in April.)