Saviour of Europe Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

The French really are different. A spontaneous movement of ordinary people has put the frighteners on Europe’s most glamorous and ambitious government, that of President Emmanuel Macron. The brilliance and ruthlessness of the gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) tactics might be envied by the best organised political campaign. Yet, it has sprung from nowhere, with its unifying symbol, the high-vis yellow jacket, seemingly thought up by an anonymous lorry driver. What a symbol this has proved: Cheap, universal, classless but with a hint of honest toil, giving those wearing it a kind of modest authority, and making the unnoticed suddenly highly visible. Now the whole world recognises them. Genius!

The French have a nose for political weakness, and a government that stumbles can expect no mercy. Macron’s government has offered financial sweeteners — extra welfare payments and a Christmas bonus from employers who think they can afford it. This has been rejected with contempt by a leaderless movement that thinks the government is on the ropes. Besides, there is more to life than handouts. An anonymous gilet jaune — visibly a manual worker — has just told the cameras that “this is a movement that will go down in the history of France”.

France has more of this kind of history than anywhere else. It really is the country in which, for centuries, crowds in the streets have shaped the nation. A crowd storming the Bastille began the 1789 revolution. A crowd attacking the royal palace overthrew the monarchy in 1792. A crowd brought democracy in 1848. A crowd proclaimed a republic in 1870. A street uprising in August 1944 started the liberation of Paris. And, of course, student riots in May 1968 marked a cultural revolution across Europe. Everyone in France knows these dates. Everyone knows that getting out and demonstrating — often with a threat of violence — guarantees government attention. Respectable people are not too shocked to have their interests defended by people setting fire to cars and smashing up shops; so 73 per cent of the population agrees with or sympathises with the gilets jaunes.

Every French regime since that of Louis XVI has been the target of the crowd. Every political party and tendency — communist, conservative, socialist, royalist, liberal, Bonapartist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, fascist — has been ready to use the street. Some of the biggest-ever demonstrations have been by Catholics defending church schools. In short, what we are seeing now is influenced by tradition — a political passion-play in which everyone knows the scenario and the stage directions.

But it’s not just folklore. The Fifth Republic, created by and for General de Gaulle in 1958, was intended to provide strong and authoritative leadership, and it did. But it is a rather remote government: A “republican monarch” in the Elysee Palace, and a downgraded parliament. Over the years, governments have been surprised by a hostile popular reaction against policies that people felt had been imposed on them without consultation. Most famously, the May 1968 riots effectively got rid of General de Gaulle himself, saviour of the nation though he was. Many of today’s demonstrators would like to ensure a similar fate for Macron.

Reining in welfare

Macron, by an irony of politics, finds himself in a more exposed position than de Gaulle. It was his own brilliant victory last year that eviscerated the rival parties of centre-Right and centre-Left, marginalised the extremes and left many people without political representation. Most welcomed him as a lesser evil than the far-Right and far-Left, but it did not mean that they warmed to him personally. Most French people do not like his plans for reform, which include reining in welfare and reducing the size of the state. Neo-liberals in France call periodically for a “French Thatcher”, but now they have one, most people don’t like it. With opposition parties reduced to impotence, the street seems the only place to say so.

This is all an important test for Macron, France and even Europe. Macron has put himself forward as the saviour of a faltering EU. To be credible, he needs to reform France first. But now its financial weakness, aggravated by the gilets jaunes’ derailing of Macron’s economic programme, is patent. Its budget deficit is sure to remain or worsen. It will need to borrow large amounts from the European Union (EU), and this will create dangerous financial and political strains for the whole system. Revolutions are intoxicating: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!” They bring purpose, hope and optimism. But they rarely end happily.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018

Robert Tombs is the emeritus professor of French history at Cambridge.