Macron’s “Great Debate” – Les Gilets Jaunes in France

John Bryan, Writer on Euopean Affairs

21 February 2019

Yellow Vest Protesters in Montpellier, France

Yellow Vest Protesters in Montpellier, France


A violent and determined popular movement has sprung up in France, presenting the greatest challenge yet in Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. What are the “yellow jackets”, how has Macron responded, and what iss at stake?

What are the Yellow Jackets?

Les gilets jaune – the “yellow jackets” or “yellow vests,” is an anti-establishment movement originating in France – though movements of the same name have sprung up across the world. They take their name from the high-visibility jackets they wear, symbols of the working-class they claim to represent.

On 17th November, 2018, 290 000 people took to the streets across France to block roads and obstruct traffic. The initial protest was sparked by a hike on fuel taxes instituted by president Emmanuel Macron and his La Republique En Marche (LREM) party, which dominated the French political scene in the 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections.

While these tax hikes may have been the spark that set the flame for unrest, Macron had been unwittingly laying the kindling for some time. He was elected partially on a platform of expansive labour reform, and in his first year in power he has attempted to create significant structural change.

Since the initial protests, the movement has carried out a succession of protests, framed as “acts”. For instance, on February 9th, they carried out “Act 13”, with numbers totalling 12,000 protesters. The average number of protesters has declined significantly since the first Act. However, this hasn’t necessarily meant clear skies for Macron. While there has been significant property damage and injury, perhaps the worst damage has been to the President’s popularity. Shortly after Act 1, Macron’s approval rating dropped to 26 percent – worse than both his predecessors (Hollande and Sarkozy) at the same time into their presidencies. His approval ratings have since climbed to 36 percent, after a low of 23 percent in December.

What has been Macron’s strategy?

Macron has decided to engage in a massive program of consultation, dubbed the “Great Debate.” Thousands of local meetings, combined with online responses, are meant to collate the viewpoints of the nation on a variety of issues. Taking a page from fellow liberal Justin Trudeau’s playbook, Macron has even taken part in long town-hall style discussions.

Macron and his party have also introduced policies meant to quell the flames of the gilets jaunes. For instance, a package of alleviating measures (such as an increase in minimum wage) were introduced in December. Nevertheless, Macron will not abandon his support for reform, commenting in a New Year’s Eve video address that “we cannot work less and earn more.”

The strategy could potentially be leading to a referendum, to be held on May 26, designed to be the culmination of the ‘Great Debate.’ If such a referendum were held, it would put many of the issues in consultation directly to the people.

A referendum has the benefit of seemingly putting things to rest, which Macron desperately wants. His struggles with reform in France don’t augur well for greater plans of EU reform. However, as referendums in countries like Italy have shown, the discourse can very quickly morph into a plebiscite on the leader themselves, rather than on the original issue. If it isn’t framed properly, a resounding defeat in a referendum could threaten Macron’s legitimacy as a ruler.

What has been the international impact?

The signature yellow vests have been donned in countries across the world in protest against establishment politics, such as Iraq, Belgium, Hungary, and even in Canada.

A number of world leaders have shown their support for the movement. For instance, a diplomatic row was caused after Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the left-populist 5-Star party Luigi Di Maio met with yellow jacket notables, and expressed his support for potential yellow jacket candidates in the upcoming EU parliamentary elections.  

The effectiveness of Macron’s strategy could colour the strength of the movement across the world. Many prophesied the end of Macron’s reign in the face of a tidal wave of popular anger. However, it is easy to forget how he stormed the presidential palace on election day. The words of former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s are salient here: “a week is a long time in politics.”