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Gilet jaunes: What do the vested protesters actually want?

Grass-roots protest: gilets jaunes and police clash at the Place de l’Opéra in Paris in mid-December. Photo/Getty Images

France’s fiery gilets jaunes protesters continue to take to the streets in challenge to Emmanuel Macron. So, what do they want?

They’ve been at it for more than six months. Every Saturday, in Paris and in many towns and cities across France, protesters gather for mass marches, wearing gilets jaunes, fluorescent reflective vests that the law requires all motorists to carry in their cars. Their uniform is now being copied elsewhere in Europe: during the European Union elections last week, police in the Belgian capital, Brussels, clashed with demonstrators who have become known by the name of their vests.

Almost 300,000 attended the first march on November 17 and nationwide the Saturday average remains about 35,000. They continued to challenge the authority of President Emmanuel Macron as he and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern were leading their Christchurch Call social media summit in Paris. And although gilet jaunes candidates failed to make a mark in the EU elections, Macron’s centrist party was beaten into second place by the French far right.

So, are these demonstrations a popular revolution, or just a general, vague expression of the French term “ras-le-bol” – being fed up or pissed off?

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It depends on who you talk to. When I visited France late last year, my taxi driver from Orly Airport to central Paris had very firm views. They’re just bloody nuisances, he fumed, with police blocking off main roads and forcing him to navigate through obscure backstreets.

Shopkeepers and restaurateurs in Toulouse and Bordeaux in the south-west, were equally furious at the way their businesses were being disrupted every Saturday by street closures. Banks and some shops were regularly boarded up for the day.

Even the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux was forced to shut on protest days, because it backs onto the town hall where the city’s gilets jaunes assemble, in an almost carnival atmosphere, to wave banners and chant as police helicopters buzz overhead and riot squads assemble. They gather on the Place de la Bourse, next to the Garonne river, for their long march through the city to the town hall, shouting slogans amid the explosive booms of pétards – large firecrackers that sound like artillery shells – that are regularly thrown along the route.

The marches can turn violent: on December 8, 70 people were arrested and 26 injured in clashes with police who fired tear gas to disperse the protesters. As the demonstrations continued into 2019, Bordeaux’s popular mayor, Alain Juppé, announced his resignation, a year before the end of his third consecutive term, to take up a position in the national government.

French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo/Getty Images

Lunatic fringe

Any mass protest movement attracts a violent fringe. In January, the French press concentrated on “casseurs” (smashers, or vandals) from both the far right and the far left – small, destructive groups who have attached themselves to some of the gilet jaunes demonstrations, especially in Paris. These groups include everybody from neo-nazis to “bloc noir” anarchists and militant anti-fascist Antifa. They smash shop windows, daub slogans, fight with police and sometimes overturn and burn cars.

According to the centre-left magazine L’Express, by February, more than 3000 members of these fringe groups had been arrested. In that month, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe sponsored strong “anti-casseur” laws, extending police powers of arrest when demonstrations turn violent.

In the endless panel discussions that dominate some French TV channels, these measures were condemned as an attack on civil liberties, but the laws passed.

Responding to more riots in February and March, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner ordered that gilets jaunes be forbidden from marching up the Champs-Élysées. After fire gutted Notre-Dame, they were also banned from the Île de la Cité on which the cathedral stands. A contingent was involved in the big Paris May Day riot, when there were 380 arrests. But that was less a gilets jaunes affair than the usual confrontation between police and the militant left that happens on most May Days.

Rural rage

As for the gilets jaunes themselves, they are an amorphous bunch, channelling many different forms of discontent. They are “all things to all people”, according to political journalist Thomas Legrand. When the protests began, the yellow vests were worn in what was essentially a rural outcry at tighter speed limits, the increased number of speed cameras on country roads and a new carbon tax.

Macron claimed all these measures were necessary to protect the environment, but in France’s towns and villages, his ecological motives were questioned. The new regulations were seen as raising petrol prices and forcing growers of primary produce to pay more to transport their goods to cities.

In a long think-piece in the New York Review of Books, James McAuley, the Washington Post’s Paris correspondent, characterised gilets jaunes as mainly lower-middle-class people who had been driven out of cities by gentrification and rising house prices. Although this might have been true to begin with, their modest acts of dissent transformed into a general rejection of Macron’s whole economic agenda.

In Paris, media outlets initially dismissed gilets jaunes as unsophisticated bumpkins who knew nothing about finance and politics. Yet, there was something ambiguous about their contempt. It was often mixed with the same growing criticism of Macron’s government that the protesters display. In January, the mass circulation magazine Le Point ran an editorial scolding gilets jaunes for naively imagining that there was unlimited wealth the government could draw on to raise pensions. But a long cover story in the same issue was headed “C’est qui le patron?” (So, who’s the boss?). It depicted Macron as the helpless puppet of technocrats.

This is the problem. In the general election of May 2017, Macron’s new party, La République En Marche, thrashed the centre-left Socialist Party and centre-right Republicans (formerly Gaullists) to take over France’s lower house, the National Assembly, with an absolute majority. At the same time, the two rounds of the presidential election left Macron winning 66% of the vote against Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Rally.

Macron seemed a young, vigorous reformist and he enjoyed huge approval ratings. But it was soon clear that he was something like a French version of Tony Blair. He was telegenic and young, with a firm commitment to the European Union, but he was also a neo-liberal dedicated to encouraging business, easing up on corporate taxation and, if possible, saving money on social services. He was soon criticised for failing to revive France’s tax on the very wealthy, the ISF, which had been abolished under the previous president, François Hollande.

Within months of his election, Macron’s party lost seats in France’s upper house, the Senate, and his approval ratings slid. They were not helped by the condescending manner Macron sometimes adopts in public appearances. Nor by the rates of unemployment in France that remain at nearly 9%, worse than all but three EU countries.

Macron’s first response to the gilets jaunes was a promise to raise pensions and lower taxes for low-income earners. His second was to launch a “grand debate” in an attempt to forge “a new social contract” with the nation. Ending only in April, this saw Macron spend more than two months attempting to connect with people outside Paris. He visited small towns, holding public meetings with mayors to sound out local concerns. Opponents dismissed this as a personal charm offensive, and the campaign has done little to revive his popularity in the polls. The gilets jaunes have not gone away. After the Notre-Dame fire, they complained that Macron could find funds to rebuild the cathedral, but couldn’t find the money for their social needs. Macron’s response was to announce he would cut lower- and middle-income tax by €5 billion. He also suggested that he would reform the École nationale d’administration, France’s university for bureaucrats and budding party leaders. Populists often see it as crushingly elitist.

Casseurs: small groups from the far right and far left have attached themselves to the gilets jaunes protests. Photo/Getty Images

A tide of ras-le-bol

A disturbing aspect of the gilets jaunes is that their “programme” is so vague – tax the rich, smash the bankers, down with Parisian elites – that it can appeal to populists of either extreme right or extreme left.

During the marches, the protesters generally rally around the French Tricolour, but hammer-and-sickle flags, gay-pride-rainbow flags and the red-yellow-purple flag of the Spanish republic (a symbol of left-wing activism) are also flown. Flags alone suggest there are various causes and political persuasions, both right and left, in the gilets jaunes mix.

Then there are the slogans painted on banners. Many are directed at Macron or “Macron and the 40 CAC thieves” as one banner read. CAC is a measure of the 40 richest companies listed on the French stock exchange, so this was a jab at Macron as the perceived friend of plutocrats. Some slogans call for the reinstatement of the wealth tax, but most are generic populist statements such as “Citizen, not slave”, or the Victor Hugo quotation, “It’s the hell of the poor that makes the heaven of the rich,” or even “Pend ton banquier” (Hang your banker).

The gilets jaunes protests have so far been free of overt anti-immigrant sentiment, unlike recent marches in Germany, Italy and Spain. However, Le Pen sought to rally right-wing gilets jaunes to her cause for the EU elections and in mid-February, in Paris, the French-Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut was reportedly surrounded by the protesters yelling anti-Semitic insults.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, left-wing politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon was prepared to welcome gilets jaunes into a unified list with his La France Insoumise party for the EU elections. However, most are opposed to engaging in electoral politics. The very few gilets jaunes candidates who stood for the European Parliament failed to reach the threshold for election, but it is possible that the votes of many in the movement helped boost Le Pen’s party, which outpolled Macron’s to become the largest French contingent in Brussels.

Another concern about the gilets jaunes is their demand for so-called direct democracy in the form of referenda. But regular prejudicial referenda have been a favoured tool of dictators and demagogues, not of democracies.

As yet, this is still a movement without a clear leader. Should one emerge and real policies be formulated, the movement could rapidly disintegrate into left and right and then tear itself apart.

The gilets jaunes phenomenon is a social upheaval. But in the end, it is not a revolution – more an ongoing tide of ras-le-bol.

Nicholas Reid is an Auckland writer and historian.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.