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France’s Yellow Jackets: a Short Guide for Foreign Observers

The situation on Wednesday, December 5th

You have probably all seen images from Paris on Saturday: burned cars, violent clashes between protesters and the police, lootings of various stores etc..

The protests, that began as peaceful road blockades finally turned violent and gave to foreign news outlets a formidable opportunity to depaint France according to somewhat accurate stereotypes : the eternal Frenchman, forever discontented with his ruling class, was back in the streets to try to start another revolution.

Of course, the yellow jackets weren’t responsible for most of the pillaging and vandalism that took place last weekend. As usual during mass protests, suburban thugs, black blocks and even some far-right skinheads invited themselves to the party and went on to clash with the police and to destroy public or private property indiscriminately, as they always do when given the opportunity.

As they are a movement without any structure or security service, the yellow jackets couldn’t identify and exclude these people from their ranks.

In the chaos that characterized saturday’s protests, we were fortunately also able to witness heart-warming actions from protesters. For example, when some thugs wearing yellow jackets tried to attack the tomb of the unkown soldier and deface it, dozens of protesters assembled to create a protective barrier around it to prevent further attacks. In another protest, riot policemen took off their helmets to show their respect to the yellow jackets facing them. They were rewarded with cheers and a vibrant Marseillaise, France’s national anthem.

The French government is of course weakened by those protests, and the many destructions that occured,  especially the ones that happened at the Arc de Triomphe site, the famous Napoleonic monument, gave to the media and the people the impression that Macron couldn’t maintain order against a few thousand violent protesters. This is why many are now worried about what could happen next Saturday, when the yellow jackets go back to the streets. The thugs will be there as well, emboldened by their exactions from last weekend, the protesters will be more radicalised, and Macron could be tempted to act very firmly to make up for his previously weak response.

In the meantime, the government has invited various leaders from France’s main political parties, Le Pen included, to hear their point of view on the situation and to try to appease the political climate. Prime minister Edouard Philippe has announced yesterday a moratorium on the fuel tax, that will be months long and could potentially mean that the tax hike will be cancelled.

The movement

The yellow jackets movement was first started on social media, when opponents to Macron’s decision to increase the fuel tax called for people to get on the streets wearing the yellow security jackets they are legally obligated to have in their car. A woman from Brittany in particular seemed to have emerged as a figurehead when she published a video critizing Macron’s policies on Facebook, that was viewed by more than 4 million people.

During the first day of protest, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Frenchmen went to the streets to block roads, bridges or tunnels, in the countryside and in big cities alike. One protester tragically died and hundreds of others were wounded trying to effectively block the car traffic.

Despite the many disturbances it created, public opinion stayed firmly on their side, and Macron’s government refused to cancel the tax hike, probably hoping that the movement would slowly lose in popularity and die.

However, this has not happened. Of course there are less people in the streets now ( 130 000 last Saturday according to the police ) but they have oriented their actions towards the government and the state directly, and they have been joined by many other groups such as the farmers and the high school students. During their last protests, they went ahead to block tax offices with vehicles or to mure their doors with bricks and cement, or more generally gathered in front of local government offices.

There is no doubt that the yellow jackets partook in violent actions, against the riot police or private property ( some luxury cars were destroyed by the mob ), and a town hall was set on fire. However it must be kept in mind that these type of incidents often happen during large scale protests in France, although it cannot be denied that the movement has become more radicalised, and that it has more potential for violence, since it isn’t controlled by any trade union, political party or even by any sort of chain of command.

Indeed, political parties, either left-wing or right-wing, have expressed their solidarity with the yellow jackets but the movement has staunchly refused to be hijacked by any political structure. Trade unions remain sceptics, as it seems they are increasingly losing their monopoly on protests and social action.

Journalists, no matter the news outlet they were working for, have also received harsh treatments from the yellow jackets. Many were insulted, called pawns of the governement, or even sometimes physically threatened or abused.

Last week, the movement tried to send representatives to negotiate with the governement. However, as they were chosen by a few local committies only or even in some cases self-appointed, the representatives were under heavy fire from the base, and only one of them finally accepted to meet the prime minister to try to find a meeting ground to exit the crisis.

Unsurprisingly, the reunion was unsuccesful and no solution was found. The representative committe then proclaimed its own dissolution, as it felt it wasn’t representative enough and was lacking legitimacy to negotiate in the name of the whole movement.

Before that, they wrote a list of demands to the government. This list was composed of a few dozen measures, mainly consisting of more social spendings, tax cuts, and increased taxation on the wealthy and on top companies. There were even a few points on immigration, asking for asylum seekers to be well-treated but effectively sent back to their country if they weren’t eligible for asylum in France.

Overall, a « populist » and « catch-all » program, reflecting the higly heterogeneous composition of the movement. This heterogeneous nature allowed by a lack of leadership is both a weakness and a strength: it is uniting people from the entirety of the political spectrum, left-wingers and right-wingers alike, but it is also making it very difficult to find representative spokepersons to lead talks with the government and therefore to find a peaceful and consensual solution to the yellow jackets crisis.

This is what makes the movement so dangerous for the current government: mobs are in the streets and yet they have nobody to talk to.

Despite its diversity, the movement seems to be united around a few topics or ideas: they reject Macron’s economic policy, they also reject more taxes on the middle and working classes, and ask for the wealth tax on millionaires that the government just scrapped to be reinstated.

This is no longer a movement focused on repealing the tax hike on fuel, but rather a popular movement fighting for the economic interests of common people, and above all, this is a social expression of the Frenchman’s deep resentment toward the political class and the various governmental policies of Macron and his predecessors. The fuel tax was merely the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In many ways indeed, the French people feel that for many years now, they have been confronted by an ever growing fiscal pressure, and simultaneously, a constant decay of public services.

«  Where does our tax money go ? » , essentially, could be the rallying battlecry of the yellow jackets.

Some other ideas seem to be popular, although not hegemonic. For example, criticism of free-trade and economic globalism appears to be widespread among yellow jackets, and immigration is a topic that often surfaces when they are interviewed, obviously not in positive terms.

Some of them even brought up on T.V the subject of the UN Marrakech treaty on migration, but nevertheless it remains mainly a movement focused on economic and fiscal issues for the common people. The common people who were too often forgotten by governments, pensioners and workers who increasingly struggle to make ends meet, and very often people who never went to a single protest in their life…

Judging by the observable ethnic composition of most protests, this is also mainly a native French movement, the very backbone of the nation, that was used to being quiet and silent until now.

What’s next ?

French observers are usually left perplexed by the yellow jackets movement, and have a hard time understanding it. Nobody really knows when or how these protests are going to end. Some are calling for Macron’s resignation, and others vow to fight until either Macron or his successor(s) hear them out.

Meanwhile, the movement remains incredibly popular as 72% back the yellow jackets, despite last week’s violent incidents. In the same time, 90% say the governement wasn’t up to the challenge during the latest protests. The president has remained surprisingly silent and only spoke briefly to condemn the violent outbreaks that happened on Saturday.

Ultimately, the outcome of this crisis will depend on next weekend’s mobilisation. If it remains the same or even increases, the yellow jackets will have proven they can sustain a long term battle against the governement, and the latter will be forced to back down on its economic policies. If it decreases significantly, Macron will then be allowed to hope for a quicker and more painless exit to the crisis.

However, it is clear that the wound will never truly heal, and that it will be consistently harder for him to implement his political agenda.

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