France has always suffered from a division between the Paris and, not only the rural areas, but the rest of France.
Paris and its elite looks down on the rest of the country and regards them as a bunch of peasants. The rural population in particular regard the Paris based political elite as being in great need a visit from Madame Guillotine or at very least a big demonstration and a punch up with the riot police. The French authorities also have history of behaviour.
While mostly it manifests itself as little more than class based snobbery, it can become very political. France has lots of small, barely economic farms. What they lack in income, they make up for in organisation. The Farmers are a Labour Union to be reckoned with and French Ministers are wary of them because they are quite up for a fight.
Macrons taxes are regarded as unfairly penalising people who are dependent of diesel fuel in the rural areas. But now lots of other groups are joining this anti-government protest. There is a tradition of street demonstrations in France. Sometimes they are quite unusual in that may involve not just the downtrodden workers but professional groups as well. When they are angry that they are not getting their slice of the pie they take to the streets and shout about it.
The people doing the damage during the riots are ‘casseurs’ - thugs - who often hijack excitable street demonstrations and try to take advantage of the situation while the police have their hands full. They usually want to smash and loot luxury goods shops. Some are political, some are just opportunistic criminals. You get the same fringe groups attaching themselves to popular political demonstrations in other countries as well. It is not just a French thing. Social media makes big demonstrations much easier to organise. It also helps fringe groups organise their escapades and the police seem a bit unprepared.
However, the underlying cause is Macrons economic policies and tax rises. He has rolled them back and is trying to defuse the tension. I expect he will beef up the police response, try to improve their intelligence on fringe groups and be a bit more prepared for the next confrontation. He will then be careful of his next move in economic reform, try to carry the people with him. In that respect he seems to be losing it. His popularity is very low. I am not sure if the conditions are right for Macron to make much progress. There are too many vested interests who are nonetheless doing well in stagnant economy with a lot of debt.
The protests are not like the new nationalist - populist movements in other countries. In France the nationalist party is long established and famously corrupt. That position is taken and they are almost part of the establishment. Nonetheless there are the ‘left behinds’ in France as well, the same frustration that gave rise to Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK. Both were, in part, giving the finger to the political establishment. So too in France, there is a deeply unhappy group who feel the changes to the economy has passed them by and they are suffering from the worst of government austerity measures. This is that group expressing their frustrations on the streets.
Macron claims to be not Left or Right, but a new broom, a progressive economic reformer. That is a tough sell in France where there is a lot of cynicism about politics a the best of times. The French would probably be happier with someone who is less ambitious who would continue the stodgy economic policies of the past. The country would have to be really on the economic ropes before they would accept any change.