A demonstrator holds up a placard during a yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) protest at the Arc de Triomph in Paris, France. (Photographer: Anita Pouchard Serra/Bloomberg)

France's Yellow Vests Are Starting to Enjoy the Radical Life

(Bloomberg) -- The morning after Emmanuel Macron ditched his entire budget strategy to appease the protesters who have roiled France for the past month, some 20 “Yellow Vests” gathered at their usual spot at a roundabout outside a small town in Burgundy.

They didn’t really agree on what they hoped to achieve, but they were there all the same in the high-visibility jackets that have become a symbol of their dissent.

France's Yellow Vests Are Starting to Enjoy the Radical Life

“We’ll still be here next July 14,’’ said 63-year-old Jean-Marc Foyard, a retired railroad worker, grinning at his reference to the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.

What started as a textbook tax revolt has morphed into something much more dangerous for the French president: a cultural movement.

Macron’s 2017 election victory may have glossed over the divisions in a country where almost 50 percent of people backed extremists of one stripe or another in the presidential vote.

But after 19 months of bold European initiatives and economic reforms, people across France are pulling yellow vests from the trunks of their cars to express all kinds of grievances. The only thing they really have in common is their contempt for the 40-year-old former M&A adviser in the Elysee Palace.

"He’s a young, arrogant banker who thinks he knows it all," Foyard said.

Macron sought to defuse the protests with a televised mea culpa late Monday in which he promised to raise the minimum wage, abolish a tax on pensions under 2,000 euros a month, and scrap payroll taxes for overtime. He yielded to the Yellow Vests’ original demand that he roll back increases in gas prices the previous week.

France's Yellow Vests Are Starting to Enjoy the Radical Life

Social Event

But Lionel Goyer, a 46-year-old farm worker, was out again the next day, campaigning alongside Foyard in Villeneuve-la-Guyard, about an hour’s drive southeast of Paris. Macron’s action plan did little to calm the collective angst that is swirling through the country, he said.

“We all talked about what Macron proposed and it was soon clear that not a single one of us was affected,” he said. They all either earn more than the minimum wage or their pensions exceed the tax-free threshold.

Protests in Paris may have turned violent at times, but the Yellow Vest phenomenon is becoming something of a social event, at least in Villeneuve. The numbers at the roundabout have swelled to 100 or so on the weekends, with many more stopping by to chat or drop off food and coffee.

Mostly men, they range in age from mid-20s to late-60s and spend most of the day waving to passing vehicles and urging drivers to honk in support, which many do. Goyer said local police agreed to let them slow traffic “occasionally” but never block it.

Michel Simon, a soft-spoken 59-year-old engineer, said he joined the movement out of “solidarity” -- he makes a decent living selling communications equipment and can’t really complain.

He’s upset at the salary and benefits that go to elected officials and now that he’s nearing retirement, he wants pensions indexed to inflation.

It’s a pattern that’s being repeated across the country as more people embrace the urge to voice their complaints on a whole host of issues, according to Sylvain Boulouque, a historian who’s written books on popular movements.

“For many members of the Yellow Vests, this is their first political experience, which is why it’s difficult to really detail their objectives,” he said. “Side-by-side, you find specific financial demands as well as more general class or nationalist demands.”

Foreign Fruit & Veg

Take Philippe Matias, one of Villeneuve’s pensioners-turned Yellow Vests.

Matias said he considers himself lucky that his job at the state railroad allowed him to retire at 56. His main concern is what the future holds for his son, who can’t get a job that pays more than the minimum wage despite studying software at a university. He also said he’s bothered by all the foreign fruit and vegetables he sees in local stores.

Charlie Cheron, a retired bus driver in his 60s, said he’s most indignant that Macron eliminated the so-called wealth tax on millionaires. Chantalle Charpentier, another activist who retired before she was 60, said she wants more aid for low-income parents. Goyer, the local protest leader, wants more policy measures decided by referendums.

No one offered a clear idea of what it would take for the movement to stand down.

But there was one scrap of consolation for the embattled president: They don’t want him to quit, either.

They worry about who would come next.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.