The roundabout on the departmental highway, at the exit for the Super U supermarket and gas station, the closest place to buy fresh milk, has been occupied by the Gilets Jaunes, demanding cheaper diesel. They wear the emblematic yellow safety jackets of their movement, although some are orange. Passing motorists sound their horns and display their own yellow gilets on the dashboard, to show solidarity. There is no barricade, traffic flows rather freely. It is all rather jolly. One man is cooking sausages on a barbecue.
I slow down, as seems to be protocol, wind down my window to smile, shake a few hands, say a few bonjours. Hearing my accent, I got a chorus of ‘haffanicedays.’ I smile some more. A lady sends me on my way with a madeleine.
After just ordering an electric car, with the aid of a €4,000 tax subsidy from the French taxpayers (merci à tous) I am no longer automatically sympathetic to tax privileges for diesel fuel. My whizzy new motor, from Korea, will charge up at night, on cheap off-peak electricity from the local nuclear centrale. But one question does pose itself. How could Macron, who is supposed to be a genius, be so stupid?
Not even former president François Hollande fell into this hole. When it was suggested that the tax privilege on diesel be lifted, his environment minister Ségolène Royale ignored the green whines and saw the proposal into the long grass.
No matter that Paris has been rendered almost uninhabitable by poisonous diesel fume miasma, and many other cities, too. Or that almost 1,000 French people die every week from respiratory diseases (also maybe smoking too much). Or that Renault and PSA Peugeot Citroen make a lot of diesel cars. Forget all that. But more than anything else, political science 101 folks, do NOT raise taxes on fuel, because it is politically explosive.
Who are these gilets? Where are they going? They do not know themselves. They have no real leaders and no objectives, other than lower fuel tax. Macron might even blink a little on this, although the concessions that seem currently dangled are meager.
I am not sure this movement is over yet but whether it is durable is another question. The object itself, the gilet jaune – the yellow tabard that is required to be carried in all cars and that became a symbol of la France actif, the France that needs their cars to get to work – has been hijacked, devalued, even random. Antifa, who in France call themselves Black Block, were all immaculately turned out in gilets jaunes in Paris on Saturday, over their black designer combat uniforms.
After the violence in Paris on Saturday, the government and much of the media are demonizing the gilets. Ministers are blaming Marine Le Pen and the right, others the left, and there are even theories that the Russians are involved. I do not see the competence in Le Pen or the subtlety in the Russians. Possibly this really has been an authentic howl of rage from French people, with stagnant incomes, no jobs for their kids, a superstate that consumes at least 57 percent of national wealth, who have for years paid more and more for less and less, who have now been betrayed successively by right, left and center.
Pictures of flames over the Champs Elysées are hardly useful to President Macron’s effort to persuade foreigners to invest in France. He does not come well out of this at all. He is incapable of explaining anything to anyone without coming across as preachy and condescending and certain he is the smartest person in the room. His narcissism reminds one of Trump.
His set-piece TV interview the other day on an aircraft carrier with a Rafale jet as a prop was yet another display of imperium and grandiosity. He practically spoke without stopping. He has no humility in his body. Not even pretend humility. His hypomanic schedule in which he is constantly in motion on his fleet of jets, announcing a European army one day, lecturing the Africans the next, telling the Brits to suck-up the Brexit ‘backstop’ the next, is actually unsettling. He tweets like Trump then disappears when Paris is burning.
He will get a bloody nose at the European elections. That will not dent his executive power or control of the French national assembly. It is unlikely he is capable of becoming an empathetic human. The great disaster is that France needs the economic and structural reforms that Macron has promised, but his project is menaced by his own toxic personality. His only grace at the moment is that there’s no visible alternative.
Jonathan Miller is a writer based in France.