The Paris of the rich is ablaze – and that image will define Macron

It’s become a kind of ritual: every Saturday evening, there are new images of thousands of gilets jaunes (yellow vests) in the streets of Paris and other French cities. Every week, protesters are injured by the police. Every week, commentators claim the movement is fading. And yet, the following weekend, the yellow wave washes over France again. The attendance numbers may fluctuate, but the anger remains.
The 16 March protest was the most violent in weeks. Around 10,000 protesters marched in Paris. Shops on the Champs Elysées were looted, their windows broken. ATMs were smashed. Several newspaper kiosks were set ablaze, destroying the livelihood of their owners, an act as shocking as it is cruel – and stupid, especially for a movement that stands for better living and working conditions.
This day produced images that France had never seen before. “Fouquet’s is burning!” I exclaimed as I checked the news. Setting fire to public buildings obviously isn’t funny – but the act was so on-the-nose for the social movement that has consistently denounced the elitist attitude of president Emmanuel Macron, I couldn’t hold back a nervous laugh.
Few places embody wealth and power like the luxurious brasserie and hotel of Fouquet’s on the Champs-Elysées. A set menu at the restaurant, with champagne and foie gras, will set you back €86; you can savour 10g of caviar for €38 and sleep in the presidential suite for €15,000 a night. Most French people, especially gilets jaunes, who often come from the working and lower middle classes, could never afford to go there.
The brasserie has long been shorthand in France for a wealthy, out-of-touch lifestyle. It was Fouquet’s where Nicolas Sarkozy celebrated his presidential victory in 2007, inviting his rich friends and billionaire campaign donors to join him. The scene crystallised what would later be described as Sarkozy’s “bling” attitude and is still remembered in France as the symbol of the disconnect between the elites and the people. Sarkozy’s Fouquet’s mistake cost him so much that Macron was careful not to replicate it.
“Sarko”, who now acts as an unofficial adviser to Macron, is not remembered with much affection by the French. He was the first pretender to the title of “president of the rich”, however he has been dethroned by Macron, who not only rules for his wealthy friends (for example, by cutting taxes for high earners) but also has made an art of contemptuous references to the working classes, something that Sarko never quite managed to pull off despite his laudable efforts (most notably “Casse-toi pov’ con”, or “Get lost, you poor twat”, in 2008).

Macron didn’t need to be seen at Fouquet’s for the gilets jaunes to associate the high-end brasserie with him and his policies that favour the rich and successful. The image of Fouquet’s burning will join other symbols of the gilets jaunes’ anti-capitalism and anti-elitism. They “occupied” a Starbucks to denounce the company’s tax evasion. They picnicked at the chateau at Chambord to mock Macron’s private hire of the castle for his birthday. In the French regions, they regularly open highway toll barriers so that drivers can go through for free. They are an absolute mess of a movement, but have picked targets that resonate with French political and social history.
My bet is that history will remember Macron most for his absolute failure to deliver his promise to tackle climate change. But the image of Fouquet’s burning – and the rejection of Macron that it symbolises – will come a close second.
• Pauline Bock is a French journalist based in Brussels



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