On the one side sits a hugely powerful global leader who made his fortune as an investment banker, then in his 30s took power of the world’s seventh-biggest economy. Pitted against him: A growing mass of protestors seething with frustration and contempt, who opinion polls said this week have the support of two-thirds of the country.
Emmanuel Macron is that leader, of course. The French President landed in Argentina this week for the annual G-20 summit, as one of the group’s most pivotal leaders. But it must feel like a vacation compared to the mess back home 7,000 miles away.
For the past two Saturdays, a protest movement calling itself the gilets jaunes, or yellow jackets, has stormed the streets of Paris in fluorescent safety vests. The protests have attracted a huge array of people, with some setting alight barricades, blocking access roads, smashing windows and hurling chunks of concrete at riot police on the Avenue de Champs-Elysées.
The yellow jackets — so-called for the high-visibility vests they wear — are vowing to take to the streets again this Saturday, and security forces have begun massing in Paris, boarding up luxury stores on the grand avenue and erecting barricades of their own.
“There is an atmosphere of civil war,” said Thierry Paul Valette, a self-appointed spokesman for the movement, over lunch with TIME on Friday. “Macron has a big responsibility now. He can either calm the situation, or enflame it,” he says. “The president might be in Argentina. But he is not in exile.”
The spark for the movement came in mid-November, after Macron announced he would increase fuel taxes, in order to help finance his plan to transition France to renewable energy. The increase could add about 10 euros ($14) to a family’s monthy household expenses. And while that is a significant sum to many poor families, for many others, the pronouncement seemed simply to be the final straw — It was “la limite,” Valette says.
The fuel tax appeared to crystallize perceptions of the French leader as disconnected and arrogant, and lacking in empathy for those who had not, like him, sailed through life. Macron has proposed changes that economists and policy analysts have thought necessary in France for years, in order to resolve endemic social and employment problems. But in addition, he has emerged in the minds of many as a rich know-it-all who believes he is never wrong. His blunt talk—like telling a long-time unemployed man to cross the street and work in a café—has only deepened that sense.
“He is detested,” says Valette, 42, an artist and writer. “He does not discuss, he does not debate. He is authoritarian,” he says. Looking ahead to Macron’s chances of winning a second term as president in 2022, he says, “It is impossible. It will take a miracle.”