When French President Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election in May 2017, beating Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, the markets heaved a sigh of relief.
The populist wave that had led the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union and that propelled Donald Trump to the White House appeared to have been stopped – at least in France.
Macron embraced this victory and presented himself as the new leader of the free world: a champion of a newly unfashionable multilateralist, globalist vision.
Having changed the French political landscape with his candidacy, which he ran on the independent ticket “En Marche,” Macron promised to fix Europe, fight climate change, stand up to the US and take on the populists gaining ground elsewhere in the EU.
So it is perhaps surprising that he should have been so slow to see the populist threat growing from within.
As the “gilets jaunes” or, “yellow vests” began appearing at roundabouts and toll booths around the country in early November, the government seemed deaf to the growing rumble of discontent. The protests – named for the yellow high-visibility jackets French motorists must carry in their vehicles – began as a reaction to an eco-tax on gas but have since morphed into a much more political protest against Macron.
Even after some 282,000 people took the streets at the first mass yellow vest protest on November 17, it seemed that Macron had neither a clear strategy on what to do, nor even a grasp of the looming crisis.
This reinforced the sense of a president out of touch with the common citizen, one insensitive to their plight.
As one political analyst, Alexis Poulain, told me at the time: “Macron is the ultimate technocrat. He is at home in Davos. But here you have a man used to talking about millions of Euros, trying to listen to those counting in centimes. It cannot work.”
Especially when those who count in centimes are suddenly calling the shots.
After weeks of protests that turned violent, Macron eventually introduced some concessions. First, a cancellation of the tax increase that had sparked the movement. Then, a 10 billion Euro (approximately US $11.5 billion) package of social reforms, including an increase in the minimum wage, aimed at helping the purchasing power of those least well-off.
But by then the damage was done.
The yellow vest movement, having felt it was being ignored, now felt it was winning. So why stop?
Last Saturday, on the first weekend of 2019, the numbers of yellow vest protestors demonstrating on the streets were back up from the week prior, a suggestion that the yellow vests aren’t done yet.
But while the movement has stayed strong, it has changed in its focus and is now looking to change in its form.
From a fiscal revolt, to a battle over spending power, the yellow vest movement is now calling for more power to be given to “the people” through mass popular votes or “referenda d’initiative citoyenne” (RIC).
Next week, in yet another concession toward the protesters, Macron will send a letter to the public, outlining the themes of a big national debate.
The topics of that debate will span from spending power to the functioning of the institutions and climate change initiatives.
But even before that debate begins, the government has already ruled out a U-turn on Macron’s reform agenda or institutional reform.
So, what can emerge if not dissatisfaction with the debate, argue some observers of French politics who warn of the dangers involved in the process itself.
By placing himself in a dialogue with “the people,” they say, Macron – having already destabilized France’s representative democracy by the very nature of his candidacy – risks now taking on a mob that could yet force the dissolution of parliament and a set of legislative elections.
Meanwhile, some yellow vests have already decided to go into politics themselves, and are now preparing candidacy lists for the European elections this May. An Ipsos poll, ordered by Macron’s party, showed those candidates could potentially win about 12% of the vote, mainly at the expense of the far-right and far-left.
Macron has long warned that he expects that poll to be decisive to the future of Europe.
Le Pen’s far-right party is currently leading voting intentions in France. Other European populists, many of them Eurosceptics, are also expected to do well in May’s election.
Now, another populist force looks set to enter the European Parliament, becoming a new force and feature of the political landscape in France.
Far from putting an end to the populist wave, Macron appears to have overseen its expansion.