Not for the first time, an Oval Office tweet missed the point by the sort of distance normally found only in astrophysics. Donald Trump had been watching TV reports of France's gilets jaunes disturbances. What had struck him, he announced, was that the protests 'don't take into account how badly the United States has been treated on trade by the European Union, or on fair and reasonable payments for our GREAT military protection'.
Well, you have to hand it to the Oaf of Office. He wasn't wrong. Indeed, he had chanced upon one of the very few topics that these protests are not
about. They have nothing whatever to do with EU trade policy or NATO contributions. What is harder to say, four months into the gilets jaunes phenomenon, is what exactly they are
now all about.
This lack, or rather dissolution, of focus is one reason why, at long last, the remarkable insurgency of the gilets jaunes is losing momentum. At first its great strength, having started with a narrow objection to fuel price rises, was the ability to accumulate and absorb other grievances and thereby mobilise an expansive coalition of discontent with President Macron and his reforms.
But now these multiple goals look more like weakness. A disparate agenda is reflected in increasing structural fragmentation and dissonance. There is no agreed leadership, and vituperative disagreement about strategy. Different factions accuse one another of hijacking and betrayal. This, plus the unwholesome nature of some of those dominating coverage of the protests, is chasing moderate supporters from the fray. When career idiots from the far extremes of left and right find common cause, it is usually time for sensible folk to be somewhere else. Once people told you: 'I don't approve of the violence, but…'. Now they say: 'I still support the cause, but …'.
That it has taken so long for disillusion to set in bears testament to the breadth of dismay at the damage done to France's way of life by a decade of economic torpor, to the failure of Macron to engage with the dispossessed, and to a tacit acceptance of the well-timed riot as a legitimate means of capturing political attention. So, week after week, people find their thoroughfares blocked, their transport disrupted and, here and there, windows and heads being broken amid smoke, tear gas and flying missiles. Every Sunday they wake to the latest toll of injuries, arrests and deaths, and to fresh ministerial denunciations of the provocateurs said to be orchestrating the mayhem.
The fuel tax grievance was shelved long ago. The minimum wage has been raised, and austerity eased by some 10 billion euros. A 'national conversation', reminiscent of the street-by-street discourse that brought Macron's En Marche movement to power, has been launched to show that the president has a receive mode as well as a transmit one, whatever his manner. It got off to a pitiful start when the committee set up to run it rebelled against ham-fisted government attempts to confine its curriculum, but the scale cannot be faulted. There are public meetings in every town, debate supplements in local newspapers, travelling trailers in marketplaces, letters to every home. Meanwhile, emergency laws target known agitators, and the riot police lay about them freely with all the unpleasant weapons in their arsenal. Prominent protestors have been arrested, like Eric Drouet, or wounded, like Jerome Rodrigues.
Until very recent weeks, none of it has seemed to be doing much good. Even when the violence was at its worst, public support for the underlying cause held remarkably firm. Adverse headlines seemed to make little impact on a movement welded together by social media. Two million people were said to be in touch in this way. One public poll in January showed that 85% deplored the violence, but 72% continued to support the cause. Here in the Languedoc and elsewhere, a high proportion of drivers continued to show solidarity by displaying a gilet on their dashboard. They were especially ubiquitous in white vans, the lifeblood of an economy heavily dependent on small traders, growers, caterers and retailers.
Suddenly, though, one detects a distinct weariness. The numbers counted by the cops on the streets each Saturday have subsided to around a fifth of what they were. But it is the dashboard solidarity which, on my own unscientific count, has shown a much sharper recent decline, especially in the city. There is a deepening disconnect between the boisterous marchers who gather in Montpellier's Place de La Comedie, and those who show up later in face masks to goad les flics and smash ATMs in defiance of global capitalism. More and more citizens are ignoring the cabaret and getting on with their lives. In Paris, this has been amusingly encapsulated by foulards rouges (red scarf) marchers, asserting their right to get to Galeries Lafayette without impediment. More significantly, women gilets have marched to 'reclaim' their movement from the headbangers.
'Macron en va se fâcher', proclaims a bluntly unpunctuated banner at one Montpellier roundabout. 'Macron, we are getting angry.' But ask what they're angry about, and you'll hear as many answers as there are gilets. In rural areas, it is about the economic pull of the cities. In the cities, it is contempt for snooty elites. For some it is taxes, or wages, or purchasing power. For others, it is about migrants, or Europe, or corporatism, or the eternal arrogance of Paris. Besides which, there is a long tradition in France, dating right back to 1789, of simply poking la classe politique in the eye whenever opportunity presents.
The number of bandwagons in the caravan means that anyone who cares to can jump on. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of the left-wing La France Insoumise, has been as supportive of the protests as Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally, both undoubtedly with an eye to the upcoming European elections. Every possible interest group has hastened to add its own pet grievances to the agenda. Even Italy's deputy premier, Luigi Di Maio of the right-wing Five-Star party, has provoked a full-scale diplomatic incident by cheering on the gilets jaunes as vanguard troops for Europe-wide 'populism'.
At the same time, fissures are increasingly apparent in matters of strategy. It is not just the chasm between peaceful protest and bottle-throwing bampots. One group of agitators has formed a party to contest the European elections, mortifying those who thought the whole point was to set up an alternative infrastructure to elective politics. Another faction favours citizen assemblies. There is disagreement about whether to talk to ministers. Some want a referendum on Macron's policies – an idea that the president himself has reportedly considered. The trade unions, as is their wont, demand a general strike, and the anarchists a revolution.
Most insurgencies end up arguing more vehemently among themselves than with their opponents. Pierre Poujade's 1950s Poujadist movement, of which the gilets jaunes are a conscious echo, was a case in point. It is not hard to imagine them dissolving into fractiousness, and thereby losing the one characteristic essential to a so-called populist movement: popularity. But it is also too soon to make that call with any certainty. Establishment incompetence or heavy-handedness, and there has been plenty of both, could yet reignite grassroots indignation. Or the movement could find a unifying grievance around which to regroup. All we can be sure of is that this grievance won't be EU trade discrimination against America.