There is a scene in 'The Godfather II' when Michael Corleone, in Cuba to do a deal with the Batista regime, sees a Castro rebel kill both himself and a police captain with a concealed grenade. Unlike the police, Corleone reflects, the rebels are unpaid. So, what does that tell him? 'They can win.'
I had something of a Corleone moment on Saturday, concerning the gilets jaunes protests. We were driving home to Montpellier from Pézenas, while the radio relayed accounts of pitched battles between protestors and police in the Champs Élysées. But it was not the scale of those distant ructions that struck a chord, nor the vocal knots of hi-vis tabard-wearers creating modest traffic delays around the main junctions into Montpellier. What it was, was the dashboards.
Our route ran along the landward shore of the Bassin de Thau, a coastal lagoon fringed with vast sandy beaches. People here are rarely roused, unless it is over prices for their famous Bouzigues oysters, Picpoul de Pinet wine, or Noilly Prat vermouth. The docile traffic looked much as it does any other day…until you noticed how many dashboards had a yellow vest casually laid across them.
By my count it was around three in every five, maybe higher. You might wonder why this was remarkable. French law requires every car to carry one of these vests for nocturnal breakdowns. We have one in the boot, which is where everybody keeps them. But motorists had been urged to show support for the protests by displaying their gilet at the windscreen. The response was astonishing.
And this was miles from the nearest traffic pinch point. It gave the lie to government claims that the protests were the orchestrated work of far-right agitators, or that diminishing numbers turning out to disrupt the cities meant dissent had peaked. It showed how far the grievance had spread from its starting point of resentment among drivers who'd been persuaded to buy diesel cars when diesel was thought ecologically advantageous, then clobbered by punitive duties when science decided it wasn't. This wasn't just broken glass in the first arrondissement. Rural France was angry too.
Defiance comes easily in France, a country that debates its politics more vehemently than do the British. The challenge always is to work out whether the latest hoo-hah is in any way exceptional. There were initial reasons to think not. French fuel price protests come around with almost Olympic regularity: 1995, 2000, 2004, 2008. The UK suffered just as disruptive an outbreak in the early days of the Blair government. Then, as now, mobile communications empowered activism behind the not unfamiliar distaste of the haulage industry for paying tax. And actually, formal marches in support of the gilets jaunes, at least in this part of the country, have been smaller, cheerier and less destructive than the demonstrations earlier in the year against public sector reform.
For the same reasons of volatility, the old adage that opinion polls measure breadth better than depth is especially useful in France. For sure, polls show that Emmanuel Macron currently has a lower popularity rating than bubonic plague, and that three-quarters of voters broadly back the gilets' cause. But such numbers can change with the wind, and few yet imagine that a new presidential run-off between Macron and the far-right's Marine Le Pen would end differently from the last time.
Besides, most French presidencies run like this. It is the legacy of a republic forged in revolution. They begin with radical election plans to reboot an economy that everyone agrees needs it, then run into fury as the pain of reform manifests, becoming a trial of strength between state and vested interests which culminates in soggy compromises and resumed inertia. Macron was different only in the audacity, and early appeal, of his ideas. Turning ideas into public policy is always the hard part.
What the dashboards tell you is that the gilet has become a symbol of resentment about much more than diesel prices; and that feelings are raw even in quiet places like coastal Languedoc. These are not just the familiar mass demonstrations that interest groups like the public service unions or the farmers can whistle up at will. There were a lot of those this year, and they seemed to attract less public endorsement than usual. That is what makes the gilets so significant.
The French economy, which has never really regained momentum since the banking crisis, has responded more slowly and marginally to Macron's stringencies than he or anyone else had hoped. Modest GDP growth is making little headway against the torments people have endured for a decade: high unemployment, reduced purchasing power, and relentless carnage of the micro-businesses – restaurants, cafés, boutiques, artisan victuallers – that the French hold so dear.
Until now, the governmental response to the gilets has been to stand implacably firm: to deplore the violence of the front-line conflicts, blame right-wing provocateurs, highlight diminishing numbers turning out to make trouble, and insist with a shrug that good medicine always tastes sour. But something changed this past weekend. 'The current crisis goes far beyond just a question of fuel,' economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, acknowledged on Sunday. 'It is time to listen to the French.'
Yesterday (Tuesday) Macron delivered a speech hastily rebranded as a presidential reply to the protests. It seemed he had accepted the second part of Le Maire's comment, but not the first. Agreeing only to heed world energy price movements, he instead tried to shrink-wrap the debate by reconnecting it with the climate change agenda – where his credentials are consistent – and setting out a national clean energy strategy, including a programme of nuclear power station closures. 'We need to explain to people what their taxes are doing,' he said. The transition to greener energy was 'just, democratic and clear.'
Macron is nothing if not a conviction politician. Whether he has done enough to convince critics that the fuel duties are an environmental imperative rather than a green fig leaf for a stealth tax must be doubtful. The contrasts with his earlier tax cuts for the privileged remain stark. But, if the policy has not greatly changed, the tone has. This thing isn't over yet.