Gilets Jaunes face big decision as Macron fights back

By Lucy Williamson
BBC Paris correspondent

Image source, EPA
Image caption, Thousands of yellow-vest protesters joined forces with a left-wing union for the first time this week

After almost three months of protests, France's yellow-vest movement, which rejected any formal leadership or political affiliation, has split over the question of whether to enter electoral politics.

This citizens' movement has already forced President Emmanuel Macron's first policy climb-down. So far, five separate groups have emerged with plans to contest upcoming elections - either the European parliamentary elections in May, or the French local elections next year.

One recent poll suggested a single list could garner 13% of French votes for the European elections - mainly drawing voters away from the far-right and far-left parties of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Why fight elections?

"We know we can't stay on the roundabouts forever," said Come Dunis, a candidate with one of the newly formed parties, the Citizens Initiative Rally.

"We can't demonstrate every Saturday. We have to enter the electoral system."

Media caption, During the latest protests on Saturday scuffles broke out at Place de la République in Paris

Mr Dunis is second on the party's list for the European elections. The transformation from protest movement to political party, he says, is about "turning the page on a political elite that has despised us for 40 years."

"We'll show that unemployed people and forklift truck operators can sit alongside technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels," he told me.

The gilets jaunes have so far drawn strength from their diversity and breadth of appeal.

Without recognised national leaders, a cohesive set of demands, or even an agreed political outlook, it was a difficult movement for France's government to negotiate with – and Mr Macron ended up offering more concessions than many had initially expected.

So why change the formula?

The yellow vests were forced to organise or die, according to Olivier Costa, research director with France's National Centre for Scientific Research.

"They were cornered," he told me.

"Participation [in the protests] was declining, and the government will not agree to their main requests for new elections or more referenda, so they found themselves continuing to protest – without knowing what for, or where they're heading."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, The protests started out on roundabouts but have gradually expanded

But Mr Costa believes the same constraints on their influence on the streets will hamper them in electoral politics.

"No gilets jaunes leaders have the knowledge, qualities or resources to become a strong [political] leader," he said. "They're not good at talking or writing, they're not rich like Trump, they don't have the network or the connections."

They are discovering that outside the system it is difficult to have much political impact in France, he believes.

Will Macron be the ultimate winner?

The diversity of the movement has caused problems in organising themselves into a single political bloc. And few of the groups have a coherent list of policies.

But even if yellow-vest candidates won just 7-8% of the vote in the European elections, Olivier Costa argues the real loser would be the far right, for whom it would be a "disaster".

"The main winner would obviously be President Macron," he says.

Image source, EPA
Image caption, Far-right leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally is seen as the biggest opposition to Mr Macron's party

"His big task is to be ahead of the far right in those elections – and with the gilets jaunes running, he will be."

The risk of inadvertently helping President Macron is one reason why some gilets jaunes are boycotting plans to enter traditional politics. Others believe it would also weaken the movement itself.

"These lists will only serve the executive's power," said Benjamin Cauchy, one of the founders of the movement who is based in Toulouse.

"Whereas on the roundabouts, there are people from the left, extreme left, right, extreme right - all united together in a common desire to have more fiscal and social justice - they won't be able to agree on issues like migration.

"If they want to make a list they must choose a political side, and this will lead to a division of the gilets jaunes."

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, President Macron has travelled the country taking part in lengthy debates to assess people's grievances

Another of the gilets jaunes who has come to national prominence, Jason Herbert, says he has refused two requests to join the new party lists.

He believes the protesters do not want to commit to politics and their goal is instead to persuade France's existing representatives to take certain political decisions.

How Macron has responded

President Macron has tried to stem the sense of disgruntlement in the country with what he's calling a "grand debate" - a series of local meetings across France to discuss political, economic and social reforms.

His poll ratings are up and he has ruled out the one reform that unites many gilets jaunes: making it easier for citizens to trigger referendums on key issues.

But he has suggested that he may "ask our citizens if they agree" to a few constitutional changes selected by the government, such as reducing the number of MPs in the French parliament, or limiting the number of terms they can serve.

"There's a risk the debate will create frustrations," said Said Ahamada, an MP for Mr Macron's party, LREM, in Marseille.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Said Ahamada says the electorate is losing confidence in MPs

"We weren't able to answer the expectations of the French people," he admits. "And 18 months after the elections, they are impatient. French society believes less and less in its political leaders."

So does that mean that French leaders should be fearful of movements like the gilets jaunes, who seek to change the country from outside its established political system?

Olivier Costa says not.

"France is an old democracy and people are critical of its institutions," he told me. "But this is not the Arab Spring and this is not a dictatorship."

"There were polls at the beginning of this movement saying that 80% of French people thought it was positive and interesting. That doesn't mean 80% of French people are ready for a gilet jaune to be the next president."

More on this story