What started as a protest against fuel price increases has morphed into wider discontent at government economic policies and increasing inequality.

France is experiencing some of its worst riots in more than a decade.

The mass protests, now in their third week, represent a serious challenge to Macron’s government elected just 18 months ago.

With riots engulfing Paris over the weekend scenes of large-scale street protests with police officers engaged in running street battles with protestors wearing ‘yellow vests’ or “gilets jaunes”.

Macron has called the protests “shameful” with scenes of torched cars and looted shops being broadcast around the world.

The scale of protests and the violence involved can potentially put Macron in a position where he will find it harder to sell progressive liberal policies as an antidote to fight the rising wave of populism and nationalism in France, and Europe in general. The burning barricades at the Champs-Elysees mark what voters perceive as an out of touch elitist government.

Not just about fuel

The protests began over fuel tax increases that were meant to burnish the government's environmental credentials.

The tide of public resentment against the fuel protests has morphed into something altogether different with thousands of young people joining the anti-government protests.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), France has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the European Union at more than 23 percent, after Greece, Spain and Italy who were ravaged economically after the 2008 financial crisis.

Against this backdrop is Macron’s sinking popularity.

A poll by Kantar in late October showed Emmanuel Macron’s approval ratings have sunk to 26 percent with more than 71 percent of the people surveyed disapproving of the job he is doing, making Macron almost as unpopular as the previous French President Hollande who was one of the most unpopular French leaders in more than 40 years.

French Spring?

The protests that initially started in France have now spilt into the streets of Wallonia, a  French-speaking autonomous region of Belgium.

On Friday last week, hundreds of protestors took to the streets to protest against the increased burden on living standards and rising inequality. The region of Wallonia, in particular, is known for being a relatively poorer region of Belgium with more than 18 percent of Walloons living below the poverty line compared to the much richer Flemish autonomous Dutch-speaking region.

Belgium is known for having some of the highest tax rates in the world alongside France, another driving force behind the protests.

Without a clear leadership structure, the protests have evolved quickly reminiscent of the Arab Spring protests.

Charles Lichfield an analyst from the Eurasia Group explained, "web-based expressions of anti-elite resentment have quickly morphed into a physical protest movement."

Government Response

Macron’s government has found it difficult to understand the breadth of the discontent surrounding the protests.

Initially, the government spokesman attempted to frame the protests as a far-right movement against the government. However, this has been an increasingly difficult position to maintain as protests have spread throughout France.

Benjamin Griveaux a government spokesman over the weekend suggested on Europe 1 radio that a state-of-emergency declaration was a possible option. "We have to think about the measures that can be taken so that these incidents don't happen again," he said.

On Monday the government seems to have pulled back from this position while not ruling out any future measures.

The protests have so far resulted in three deaths and hundreds of arrests and casualties amongst the protestors.

Why they wear yellow vests?

Drivers in France are mandated by law to carry high visibility yellow jackets or "gilet jaune" as part of safety equipment in the event of a breakdown or accident which must be worn by the driver outside the car.

Failure to follow this law in the event of a breakdown or accident can result in a fine of $153 under a law introduced in 2008.

The high visibility yellow jackets have been symbolically adopted by car drivers signalling their discontent at increasing fuel prices but have since snowballed into wider discontent towards the government.