Fighting on the Champs Elysées last weekend between French security forces and the so-called 'gilets jaunes' led to more than 100 arrests. According to the police, roughly eight thousand demonstrators took part. Barricades were built – and set alight – by what looked from a distance to be groups of rampaging lollipop people in dayglo yellow tops. But the gilets jaunes are not championing pedestrian safety: their revolt has been prompted by a sharp rise in the price of diesel and unleaded petrol at the pump, which they blame on President Macron's fossil fuel tax. This is a drivers' movement, at least at first sight, and despite the turmoil on the Champs Elysées, it is deeply provincial. Macron responded on Tuesday not with a U-turn, but with a concession enabling parliament to freeze the carbon tax – which is set to keep rising year on year – when the oil price goes up. A freeze is a very different proposition from a reduction and the gilets jaunes don't like it. They were out in force again on Wednesday and another big demonstration looks likely in Paris tomorrow.

The movement took off in mid-November, when thousands of people in hi-vis jackets turned out across the country at major junctions and minor roundabouts. The aim was to slow up traffic, or halt it, and share their anger with other motorists idling in neutral (racking up their CO2 emissions). The gilets jaunes also set up human chicanes – between 20 and 200 protesters – outside petrol stations and supermarkets where they could buttonhole consumers who'd dodged the roundabouts by taking by-roads to their nearest Auchan, Intermarché or Leclerc. Drivers in France are obliged to have hi-vis tops in their vehicles at all times: people who support the gilets jaunes – or claim to – have taken to placing theirs in a hi-vis position, wedged between the dashboard and the windscreen in a show of solidarity (or hope of a laisser-passer). In the rural south-west, where I live, most vehicles – commercial vans, family cars – are still sporting the tabard as they whizz by.

The gilets jaunes claim that they are being hammered into the ground by fuel tax, of which the carbon levy is only one component. Taxes on fuel have scarcely gone through the roof: the average increase since 2007 is roughly two centimes per annum, which environmentalists argue is not enough. (Duty on diesel is now rising faster, and it will soon be taxed at the same rate as unleaded.) Timing, however, has been a problem: The new carbon tax figures were set in 2017, when the price of crude averaged $50 per barrel. Last month it peaked in the region of $80 – which, combined with the tax hike, meant that diesel was 23 per cent more expensive (14 per cent for unleaded) than in October 2017. The tax is set to go up again in January and the government has no plan, at the time of writing, to put this on hold.

Carbon tax in France is part of a long term strategy to phase out fossil fuels (one ambition is to be levying CO2 emissions at €100 per tonne by 2030; another to end sales of diesel and unleaded cars by 2040). But the overall tax on fuel – roughly 65 per cent of the cost to consumers – is non-progressive, a central objection for the gilets jaunes. Those who can't claim it back oppose the addition of VAT on a consumer item whose price consists largely of tax. They mistrust many of the tax-lite regimes for business, aviation in particular. And they're stuck with their cars. Inhabitants of big conurbations and bijou cities are abandoning the car as public transport offers affordable alternatives. But that still leaves about 13 million people who live in the countryside. The conspicuous rich in rural areas drive 'me-first' utility vehicles whose manufacturing footprint is daunting, even though emissions are low: they can afford to pay. But millions with modest incomes above the poverty level – variously defined in France as households with less than 50 or 60 per cent of average national income – are disproportionately hit by the tax. So are their neighbours, the rural poor: roughly 1.7 million people, according to a government report in 2009: that figure has surely risen in the last ten years.

There are no gilet jaune leaders, only eccentric figureheads and pop-up advocates. One is Jacline Mouraud, a fifty-something accordion-player who has composed a new French national anthem (she didn't like the violence of the Marseillaise). She rose from obscurity with a Facebook video in which she savaged the government for squeezing the less well-off: she is now a go-to figure on gilet jaune grievances.

Another is Frank Buhler, a far-right non-entity who was excluded last year from Marine Le Pen's Front National (now Rassemblement National) and began buffing up his social media presence. He was a tireless advocate for the demonstration in Paris last weekend. The gilets jaunes, province by province, have taken their distance from him.

Far more significant is Priscilla Ludosky, a Martinican 33-year-old living in built-up peri-urban countryside an hour south of Paris. She put together a petition last month for lower fuel taxes. It is ticking towards one million signatures. A poll published on Wednesday put support in France for the gilets jaunes at 84 per cent.

Last week the movement appointed eight official spokespeople (Ludosky is one, Mouraud is not), but it's still acephalous and averse to party-political appropriation, whether from the Rassemblement National – likely to make a strong showing in the European parliamentaries next year – or the tatters of the Parti Socialiste. La France insoumise has its eye on the gilets jaunes as raw material for a 'left populist' project of the kind proposed by the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, a key intellectual for Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But LFI will have its work cut out if, as some in the press are saying, the gilets jaunes are really a Poujadist phenomenon. Pierre Poujade led a populist anti-taxation drive in the 1950s, and spoke with an invective against government that the gilets jaunes have yet to surpass. Parliament, Poujade said, was a brothel, and MPs were a bunch of 'pederasts'. Unlike Thatcher, Poujade was a premature opponent of finance capitalism; like Thatcher, he was an enemy of big government and organised labour, a ferocious chauvinist who championed 'the little guy' as a Prometheus in chains. Poujade's dream died with the reappearance of De Gaulle in 1958 and the founding of the Fifth Republic.

Many local business people in south-west France support the gilets jaunes: bakers, plumbers, roofers, electricians, small farmers, and most of the shopkeepers left standing now that the supermarkets have put weaker contenders out of a job. All depend on their cars and those of their customers to stay afloat. But the small business contingent isn't enough to justify the description 'Poujadist'. This is a leaderless, spontaneous surge of impatience against an 'elite' which is thought to spurn poorer citizens or milk them dry. All the same, when more incisive commentary describes the movement as a jacquerie – and likens the hi-vis vest to the 'jacques' (a short, padded jacket) worn by the peasants of the 14th-century Grand Jacquerie – we're told the comparison is condescending. I find the term 'Poujadist' far more derogatory, and I'm guessing that the vests are worn to make a simple point: 'don't pretend you can't see us.' The press have now taken to referring politely to a 'fronde'.

The protests have produced many minor road injuries and at least two fatal accidents: one involving a man on a motorbike who collided with a van reversing out of a blockade, another a sixty-something woman activist, run down by an edgy mother in a 4x4 taking her child to the doctor. While the gilets jaunes are the proximate cause in both, panic and road rage bear the burden of blame. The same can't be said of racist episodes: 'Go back to your own country,’ a gilet jaune said to a black mother and her children at a roadblock in Charente. Or homophobia: a gay couple harassed at a roadblock north of Lyon. Or the near-lynching of journalists in Toulouse last Saturday: TV journalism is seen by many protesters as an instrument of soft power wielded on behalf of Macron. Other gilets jaunes have taken their distance from racism, anti-gay sentiment and violent journophobia – a growing trend in France. To judge from the graffiti in Paris after last weekend, the left have a presence in the movement, but as long as the gilets jaunes are unaffiliated, with no trade union figurehead or party-political leader to deplore the odd aberration, the rest of us are left to make up our own minds about who they really are.

There are hundreds of activists in my nearest towns. Often their message is smuggled in under a joke. Two gilets jaunes in their fifties at a go-slow in the Gironde opened the doors of my car and proposed that the three of us elope to a tropical island. Perhaps they were thinking of Réunion, a French Indian Ocean outpost 9000 km from Paris, paralysed by intransigent gilets jaunes, where the overseas minister had a ferocious reception on a recent visit. The refrain from protesters in the Gironde, like those of Réunion, is that they have 'nothing'. Poverty for local gilets jaunes is not just about the flat labour market or the price of fuel. It's about a sense of being left behind, as the state withdraws from poorer parts of 'la France profonde': schools under pressure, 'medical deserts' spreading, Republican institutions shrinking (town halls opening maybe three days a week or less), food prices rising, and the thriving world of non-profit associations – sports clubs, youth groups, cultural groups – suddenly short of money: since Macron abolished the wealth tax, the rich are no longer making tax-deductible gifts to these low-key, crucial NGOs.

In the Dordogne last Sunday, the gilets jaunes were filtering consumers into our local supermarket. They don't like supermarkets for the right reasons (plus the produce on offer, in Jacline Mouraud's rough and ready appraisal, is 'la merde'). But like everyone else they're forced to patronise them: where else on a Sunday at noon can you can pick up forty baguettes and a few dozen merguez to cook over an oil drum brazier for hungry, rain-drenched pickets? A gilet jaune in her twenties told me she detested the state's attention to 'immigrants' when indigenous poor and homeless were so obviously vulnerable. Another, in her thirties, argued that the French benefits system served the unemployed so generously that she was losing faith in her ill-paid temping on the hourly minimum wage (€9.98 or £8.80, better than the UK equivalent). Their comrade – thin, well-kempt, approaching forty – spoke eloquently of his disdain for metropolitan technocrats and politicians. Immigrants, scroungers, politicians … we might as well have been in Brexit Britain, the Lega’s Lombardy or small-town Hungary. Left-wing parties will find these attitudes challenging, if the gilets jaunes eventually engage in dialogue with the political class. I suspect they may, and I also suspect that many activists will be drawn to the right, which is why the movement, now and for the foreseeable future, leaves the Elysée and the government dangerously exposed.

Macron has embarked on an admirable policy to mitigate climate change but he's failed catastrophically to heed the advice of the former environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, who resigned in August. Hulot said the project would only work with grants, attainable tax incentives and green job creation for less advantaged sectors of the population. Not nearly enough of this is in place, or even in the offing. Meanwhile the people now blocking the roads in France have been left to suck up the blame for climate change. But there are few Jeremy Clarksons among them – the motorheads are mostly the ones who try to power their way through a go-slow – and no gilets jaunes I've talked to can afford to trade their elderly diesel vehicles for low-emissions alternatives, even with the subsidies announced in January, which are aimed at more prosperous classes and the car industry.

A recent survey carried out for the European Commission finds that transport is still the main source of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, and that 'rural living' raises the per capita footprint significantly outside the cities. Nevertheless the decisive factor across urban and rural communities alike is how much money we have: the wealthier we are, the larger our footprint, by anywhere from 150 to 450 kg per person per additional €1000 in earnings. This is why wilderness-free Luxemburg has one of the highest carbon footprints in the EU and countries in the former eastern bloc – notably Romania and Hungary – have the lowest. It is inconceivable that Macron, a technocrat and number-cruncher before his entry into politics, is ignorant of these conclusions and similar findings in other climate-change studies. Why has he chosen to comply with the caricature put about by his enemies: Macron, 'president of the rich'? Probably because he is. But shouldn't he be bluffing by now? Even just a bit?