There Really Is a French Exception

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PARIS — Nowhere else have the hardships of a vast segment of the population turned into a social movement like this — one that refuses to bear the brunt of economic liberalization, points out real inequalities, is active over large swathes of the country, is resolutely modern in its use of social media and the internet, and is widely supported by the public at large. Nowhere else have the authorities responded to a crisis of this magnitude by holding a “grand débat national,” (great national debate) with the head of state’s direct participation, sometimes live on television.

But after four months of protests and as that nationwide discussion, started on Jan. 15, is supposed to end, the Gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) seem to be running out of steam, both around traffic circles and in opinion polls. President Emmanuel Macron’s popularity ranking, for its part, is back up; that of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe even more so. And last week, Mr. Philippe cautioned the public not to expect too much of the consultation and warned that many might be disappointed.

What exactly did he mean? The comment may have been intended simply to manage expectations. But it also seemed to reveal the strategic dimension — the cynicism? — of the whole exercise.

No doubt, the “grand débat” has already had major political effects — above all of giving Mr. Macron a chance to steady himself and then regain the upper hand. When the powers-that-be invited the people for that great big consultation, it wasn’t really the Gilets jaunes they were addressing or wanted to hear from. And it remains to be seen whether the government will take seriously all the claims and complaints that have been gathered.

Yet the Gilets jaunes — and France as a whole, which largely backed them — deserve no less. This protest movement, unlike a number of others across Europe, hasn’t devolved into nationalism or populism. Yes, it is somewhat skewed toward political extremes, notably the far right. Yes, it has had some ugly lapses, notably anti-Semitic incidents. And the violence displayed by some participants, or free-riders — as well as the occasional brutality of the police forces — has increasingly overshadowed the substance of the movement, on social, fiscal and institutional issues. But at bottom, the Gilets jaunes have steadily pointed out valid concerns and suggested reforms that deserve a full hearing — like raising the lowest incomes and the minimum wage, reinforcing state services in disaffected areas, adjusting retirement pensions to inflation and introducing some forms of popular referendum.

In mid-December, after a long period of uncertainty, Mr. Macron did make concessions that were major and costly, in more ways than one. A spate of social measures worth up to 10 billion euros was announced, even though the expense will bog down the national budget and risks turning France into a bad pupil of the European Union. The protests were sparked in part by a rise in gasoline prices, and when Mr. Macron later backtracked on that increase and some of his government’s green measures, he undercut France’s efforts to cast itself as a world leader in the fight against climate change.

Then came the “grand débat.” After a chaotic start, thousands of meetings took place throughout the country. In an inevitable reference to the French Revolution of 1789, local authorities collected “cahiers de doléances,” books of grievances. By late February, more than a million proposals had been submitted online on a dedicated site. Robots, algorithms and other digital tools are supposed to analyze all the input.

The effort has been amply criticized. Some people question whether the data can be processed properly. Other complaints, more politically driven, accuse the government of having staged all this in the service of its campaign for the European elections in May.

But two other points are more worrisome still.

The first is that this nationwide debate won’t have allowed the Gilets jaunes to really express themselves. It’s true that even at the height of the protests, the movement was representative of only some parts of French society — mostly the residents of towns and rural areas that are depopulating; working-class and lower-middle-class people who struggle to make ends meet; car drivers, for whom gasoline prices are critical. The movement did not really represent, say, the unemployed, residents of large cities or major suburbs, or students.

Still, the impression that prevails today is that the government isn’t listening enough to the Gilets jaunes’ concerns, as though it still hadn’t appreciated the seriousness of the crisis. And hasn’t the so-called great debate mostly served the president so far?

Saying so might be going a bit far, or mistaking effects for intentions. But it’s worth noting that the government hardly set up any meetings or direct exchanges with the Gilets jaunes as such. Instead of reaching out to them, Mr. Macron preferred to engage with local officials or other ordinary citizens.

Nor has the great debate spawned any real representatives among the Gilets jaunes — a vacuum that makes concrete negotiations difficult. The movement’s very nature contributed to this, of course, since time and again the Gilets jaunes themselves pushed back against any attempt to structure or formalize their efforts. For a brief moment there seemed to be an impulse to create a political party from the movement or at least let emerge some official spokespeople. But that no longer seems remotely possible.

Mr. Macron, even when faced with the breakdown of the political system itself, has continued to tackle problems from the top down and without resorting to intermediaries. Instead of moving away from this vertical approach, he has exploited it. His only credible political opponents now are parties at the extremes, on the far left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise) and the far right (Marine Le Pen and le Rassemblement National). According to polls, the president’s party is leading the race for the European elections.

Was all this a strategic calculation? Quite probably. In any event, the situation today is a far cry from auguring the renewal of this democratic system. The most that has emerged so far is a handful of proposals from civil society — for example, the program for a greener economy jointly put forward by Nicolas Hulot, a former environment minister, and Laurent Berger, the head of France’s leading (and reformist) union, the Confédération française démocratique du travail (the French Democratic Confederation of Labor).

France, unlike other countries, has been fortunate enough to experience a popular upheaval that has raised serious economic, social and institutional questions. Elsewhere — in Britain, the United States, Italy, Poland, Hungary — the discontent immediately lapsed into populism, nationalism or withdrawal. But if the French government doesn’t adequately address the legitimate, or at least reasonable, concerns of the Gilets jaunes, it runs the risk of pushing them, as well as other French people, toward the pitfalls France has avoided so far.

Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist, is the head of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, in Paris, and a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council. This essay was translated from the French by The New York Times.

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