BOURGES, France — In a world seething with anger over the widening gap between the rich and everyone else, France stands out as a country elaborately engineered to protect social peace.
It has less economic inequality than the United States, Canada and Britain, according to the World Bank. Its people enjoy comprehensive health care under a national insurance program. Only Denmark, Belgium and Sweden spend a larger percentage of their economies on social welfare programs for working-age citizens, according to an analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Even so, France is consumed by a ferocious and sustained outpouring of social unrest. The tumultuous, intermittently violent protests of the so-called yellow vest movement have shaken the country since they began in November. With the demonstrations intensifying in recent weeks, President Emmanuel Macron was preparing on Monday to address the nation to detail new measures he plans to deliver in response.
The anger drawing people to the barricades reflects forces at work in much of the developed world, as the bounty of economic expansion flows disproportionately to the wealthy. But the demonstrations have also drawn fuel from more narrowly French laments: The traditionally generous social welfare system is increasingly neglecting key slices of the populace, especially young people, tripping deep-seated notions about fairness that date back to the French Revolution.
“The government promotes equality very strongly,” says Louis Maurin, director of French Inequality Watch, a research institution in the city of Tours. “In every school in France, it’s written on the walls: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Yet everyone thinks people are gaming the tax system. The feeling of being cheated can make you really angry.”
Though France may seem a bastion of egalitarianism compared with conspicuously unequal societies like the United States, it has seen a widening of the gap separating the affluent from the rest of the nation. Average incomes for the richest 1 percent of French households doubled between 1983 and 2015, while the bottom 99 percent saw incomes rise by only one-fourth, according to the French economist Thomas Piketty.
Beneath these broad indicators, France is cleaved by profound forms of inequality: between urban and rural communities; full-time employees and temporary workers; graduates of prestigious universities and the plebeian masses. And not least, between retirees, who maintain the divine right of pensions, and younger people excluded from social welfare programs.
The yellow vests reverberate as a primal scream from working-class France at the tax-avoiding, wealth-hogging Parisian glitterati enabled by a government now headed by one of its own, Mr. Macron, a former investment banker. But the movement is also consumed with a historical French aspiration: protecting and even expanding national welfare programs in the face of worries over mounting debts and stagnant economic growth.
Such tensions were already active when Mr. Macron assumed the presidency two years ago.
He prescribed reforms aimed at rejuvenating the economy. In his telling, outdated strictures on business and institutionalized hostility toward the wealthy hindered entrepreneurialism. A labor code forged over centuries to protect workers discouraged investment, yielding an unemployment rate stuck above 9 percent.
Mr. Macron vowed to make France hospitable to global capital, trading worker protections for economic revival. He made it easier for employers to fire workers on the assumption that this would enhance their inclination to hire. He cut taxes on the wealthiest French households.
Outside France, financiers celebrated the young, charismatic new president who had replaced the narrative of decline with vibrancy. Yet inside France, and especially outside Paris, Mr. Macron’s agenda resonated as class warfare.
Eager to avoid perilously unpopular cuts to social welfare programs, he increased a range of taxes on the middle class and working poor. He was cutting taxes for people in designer suits, his fellow members of the Davos set, while sticking the bill on those donning work boots for a living.
Such policies would probably produce anger anywhere. In France, where equality is more than a word engraved on monuments, but a moral code, it yielded rage.
“Macron is out for the rich people,” says Nadia Benkmis, 36, a mother of six here in Bourges, a modest town 130 miles south of Paris. “He wants to exterminate poor people, like the way the Jews were exterminated.”
She says this while standing in the parking lot of a local food bank, bearing two shopping bags full of donated groceries. The shelves inside offer a cornucopia befitting France: gleaming leeks, beefsteaks, Camembert cheese. For Ms. Benkmis, her weekly visits are a mortifying reminder of her lost station.
“My family was rich when I was growing up,” she says. Her own life has traced the arc of downward mobility. She used to clean houses, but gave that up when the youngest of her six children was born a year ago. She does not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Her husband does not work, either. If he did, they would surrender the government benefits that now sustain them: some 1,200 euros ($1,350) a month in cash assistance for their children, plus a monthly housing subsidy of €500.
These sorts of calculations are enmeshed in the daily life of Bourges. Once a hub of munitions factories, the town has lost jobs in recent decades. Remaining operations are inclined to hire temporary workers, mirroring a national trend.
Over the last 18 years, open-ended labor contracts in France have remained flat at about one million, while the number of contracts lasting less than a month exploded to 4.5 million from 1.6 million, according to Philippe Askenazy, a labor economist at the French National Center for Scientific Research. Only about half of those on short contracts are eligible for unemployment benefits.
“Bosses prefer taking on temporary workers,” says Virginie Bonnin, 40, who works in local auto parts plants. “We are disposable.”
A single mother of three girls, Ms. Bonnin earns €1,900 a month. She learns on Thursday nights what her hours will be for the coming week. When her jobs end, she is sustained by unemployment benefits of about €1,400 a month.
“I’m not the worst off,” she says. “But it’s tricky. In those times, I will not eat meat so that the kids can eat meat.” Her last summer vacation, a sacred French institution, was two years ago.
Ms. Bonnin was provoked into joining the yellow vests by the same measure that mobilized much of the country, a tax on gasoline that was to take effect in January.
Mr. Macron promoted it as a means of adapting to climate change. Outside major cities, where people rely on cars to get nearly everywhere, it supplied proof that the president was indifferent to the working class. “Macron is concerned with the end of the world,” one yellow vest slogan put it. “We are concerned with the end of the month.”
That accusation endured even after Mr. Macron suspended the gas tax in the face of yellow vest furor.
“Having to make sacrifices while rich people aren’t paying taxes anymore,” Ms. Bonnin says, “there’s a sense of despair, as well as a sense of social injustice.”
This notion animates many of the yellow vest participants. More than a threat to livelihoods, Mr. Macron’s reforms constitute a breach of the French social order, an attack on the understanding that the state looks out for struggling people.
Such thinking holds special currency among white people born in France, who dominate the ranks of the yellow vests. Many echo sentiments heard across Europe amid an influx of Muslim migrants, and in the United States, where President Trump has fomented fear of immigrants. They claim that outsiders are capturing benefits that should be going to French-born working people.
Coralie Annovazzi, 20, still lives with her parents as she works temporary waitressing jobs. She gets no cash assistance from the government, because people under 25 are not eligible.
Poverty among French people 18 to 25 years old leapt to 14 percent in 2015 from 8.8 percent in 1984 after factoring in taxes and grants from the government, by Mr. Askenazy’s reckoning. Over the same period, poverty among those age 51 to 65 dropped to 7 percent from 11 percent.
“There’s not enough for young people,” Ms. Annovazzi says, as she sits inside a tent at a yellow vest camp.
But her harshest words are reserved for the migrants living in a nearby motel, alongside a lifeless stretch of highway.
Nearly 100 young men from Afghanistan, Sudan and other war-torn countries sit listlessly in their rooms, unable to work while they wait for their asylum claims to be processed. They subsist on state grants of about €200 a month.
To Ms. Annovazzi, their presence reveals how native-born French people have seen their status usurped.
“These migrants, they have gotten the latest sneakers, the latest smartphones,” she says. “All of that is paid for by the state.”
Claudine Malardie, 53, nods excitedly.
“If you’re French, you don’t get any assistance,” she says. “Give me a pot of black paint and I’ll paint my face black, and then I will get benefits.”
In fact, Ms. Malardie does receives benefits, an €860-a-month disability payment. She pays €300 a month in rent for a state-subsidized apartment.
Such attitudes have distanced the yellow vests from minority communities.
In Grigny, a remote suburb south of Paris, African and Arab immigrant families fill dilapidated 15-story apartment towers. Elevators are frequently out of service, forcing even pregnant women to climb stairs. People complain that they cannot secure jobs, because a Grigny address is a mark of ill repute.
“We are treated like foreigners,” says Checkene Sacko, 18, who was born in France, the son of immigrants from Mali.
He and others in Grigny applaud the yellow vests for demanding better wages. But they recall how local protests over police brutality in 2005 were largely dismissed by the French public as the work of thugs, in contrast to the lionizing of the yellow vests. A tax on gas, they note, is a problem only for people who can afford cars.
“Those are people who have jobs,” Mr. Sacko says. “They are mostly white people.”
If black people had thronged the demonstrations, he adds, the police “would already have given themselves permission to shoot them all.”
Racist tropes notwithstanding, the yellow vests have divined a decisive truth: Working poor people can no longer take for granted the succor of the French state.
For most of the 20th century, France was ruled by the notion that progressive taxation and publicly financed social insurance programs were the best way to preserve amity.
But in the early 1980s, the government began cutting support for low-income people. By 2014, barely 20 percent of government cash benefits were going to households in the bottom fifth of French incomes, according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That was less than Finland (42 percent), Britain (33 percent) and even the United States (22 percent).
Reversing that trend confronts difficult arithmetic. French government debt amounts to 97 percent of the nation’s annual economic output, according to the International Monetary Fund. As one of 19 nations that share the euro currency, France is severely constrained in its ability to run further deficits, limiting social spending.
In the face of the yellow vest demonstrations, President Macron dropped some tax increases and lifted the minimum wage. But that failed to mollify the protesters, leaving France in a familiar place: unable to jolt a stalled economy with spending, and unable to bolster aid for poor people. Unless, that is, Mr. Macron suddenly gained a proclivity for taxing rich people.
In Bourges on a recent Saturday, Ms. Bonnin and other activists dawdle in a crosswalk, blocking cars in a show of dismay for the trajectory of French life. Three police officers ask them to allow traffic to flow, bringing a feint of compliance.
One demonstrator carries a speaker blasting a protest song. “Macron, shut your mouth,” the chorus resounds. “That will be good for France.”
The demonstrators shout the lyrics in unison, and one of the policemen laughs.