Opinion | Flashing Yellow Light in France

The Yellow Vests have been coming out to demonstrate in Paris and other large French cities for 13 straight Saturdays now, bedeviling the government of President Emmanuel Macron with the vagueness of their demands and the lack of a leadership to negotiate with. How it plays out could have consequences well beyond France’s borders.

The size of the protests has been shrinking, and Mr. Macron’s approval ratings have been creeping back up from a devastatingly low 23 percent in December, after the demonstrators first emerged, initially to protest a rise in the tax on gasoline, which already costs more than $6 a gallon in France. But the Yellow Vests show no sign of ending their weekly invasions of the capital anytime soon, and polls show that a majority of the French continue to support them.

Their protests have morphed into a popular movement, an uprising of provincial towns and villages — what urban French idealize as “la France profonde,” the deep, timeless France — against a sense of being forgotten in their picturesque countryside with incomes that barely stretch to the end of each month.

Though organized protests by unions, students or other groups of the left or right are a fixture of French public life, the Yellow Vests are something new and unfamiliar in their absence of an organization, defined demands or ideology. Violent fringe groups have latched onto the weekly protests, clashing with the police, setting cars on fire and smashing store windows, but a large majority of the Yellow Vests are neither violent nor radical.

Mr. Macron, elected by a decisive majority less than two years ago but now a central target of the protests, has made considerable concessions — including the lifting of the gas tax increase that triggered the protests — and has begun what his government calls a “great debate,” a nationwide series of town hall meetings to air grievances. Mr. Macron himself has attended some, rolling up his sleeves and responding to complaints for hours on end.

That is meant to address one of the major sources of discontent behind the protests — that the urban, self-perpetuating elites running the country from their ornate government palaces have no idea about what’s going on in the rest of France. To the demonstrators, Mr. Macron and his economic programs have become the embodiment of that arrogance.

The grievances may be specifically French, but the sense of alienation is very much a part of the grass-roots discontent behind the vote for Brexit in Britain and for President Trump in the United States, and the populist movements pulling Europe apart.

That was underscored last week when contacts between the Yellow Vests and the populist government in Italy caused a serious diplomatic rift. It happened when Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement and a deputy prime minister, met with a group of Yellow Vests in France and declared that “a new Europe is being born” of them. An outraged French government called its ambassador back for “consultations,” the first time that has happened since 1940, when Mussolini declared war.

Mr. Di Maio had come to discuss elections to the European Parliament scheduled for May, in which some Yellow Vests, despite the absence of any organization or platform, are planning to run. That pleases the Italian populists, who want to turn the elections into a Europe-wide revolt against the European establishment. That is another establishment Mr. Macron embodies.

Mr. Macron’s “great debate” with the Yellow Vests has thus become a great debate on the future of Europe, with the May elections looming as a major test. The 41-year-old president is right to stick to his reforms and his vision of European unity, but if they are to survive, he must convince his own heartland that he really feels its pain.

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