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Mass protests and demonstrations have always been integral to France’s social and political evolution. With a protest culture that is as widespread as it is effective, France has witnessed some of the largest scales, and often violent public demonstrations throughout history. Many analysts believe that this protest culture has its genesis in the festering and enduring spirit of the French Revolution of 1789, which unfolded amid unprecedented brutality and blood-letting. Several large protests were held in France in the 19th and 20th century; the most significant of them was the mass student uprisings of 1968 that gave vent to a steady accumulation of social anger. Interestingly, the design of the capital city of Paris was intended to render mass mobilisations of people unsuccessful. Against this backdrop, the ongoing ‘Yellow Vest’ or the gilets Jaunes protests can be seen as a continuation of the trend of organizing demonstrations to let political leaders know about public dissatisfactions and demands. 

The ‘Yellow Vest Protests’, began in November 2018 against the green tax on fuel, an unpopular environmental policy that was announced by French President Emmanuel Macron, which was to be effective from 1st January 2019. The early wave of protests began with motorists and middle class working citizens publicly rallying against the rising cost of fuel in the country and how unaffordable it was slowly becoming. The drivers and motorists wore the signature yellow coloured safety vests that all motorists are required by law to keep in their vehicles. Subsequently, paying heed to calls through social media, more and more people joined the protest wearing the yellow vest as a symbolic tool of protest, resulting in the movement being called the ‘Yellow Vest Protests’. 

The protest initially began as a grassroots movement in rural areas, but soon took an unprecedented turn and gradually became a mass movement with an expanding agenda of voicing disagreements about the larger economic policies of the government led by President Macron.  It may be mentioned here that France’s fuel tax is not the highest in Europe, and is, in fact, less than that of Germany, but the most prominent demand has been to repeal the green tax and in turn, make fuel more affordable for the middle and working classes. Subsequently, certain groups started demanding an increase in the minimum wage, better living conditions and pension plans, and even the resignation of current President, Emmanuel Macron. A former banker, Macron’s image as a leader favouring the rich and elite classes also didn’t help the government very much, keeping in mind the fact that he had loosened labour laws and reduced the wealth tax before increasing taxes on fuel. The method of protests initially ranged from mass demonstrations to road blockades. However, many times the protests have turned violent, with vandalism and clashes reported on various occasions. In several areas, protestors turned rioters have indulged in violence, thrown stones at the French police, looted shops, attempted to destroy public property and defaced famous monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe.  Notable areas of the capital city, such as Champs Elysees, were vandalised and became the scene of violent clashes between the police and the protestors. Police have, till now, attempted to control the situation by firing tear gas and on some occasions, live shells. The police have arrested thousands of protestors, and about ten civilians have lost their lives. However, this does not seem to have deterred the protestors, and public anger against the government seems far from over.

A poll conducted by Harris Interactive, a digital consultative market research agency, found that although 72% of the people supported the yellow vest protests, 85% were against the violence. Be that as it may, the economic damage due to the protests is pretty significant, with the capital city of Paris being hit the most.  According to French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, the protests have been a disaster for the national economy. Some believe that the French tourism industry could also be considerably affected, which could be a cause of concern for a country that is one of the most visited in the world. French authorities suspect that anarchists and rioters from the ultraleft and ultraright have indulged in activities of violence and vandalism. Ironically, attempts by far left and far right leaders to hijack the movement have been quite unsuccessful.

In many ways, the Yellow Vest Protests is a reflection of French citizenries’ rebellious tendencies that took root during the 1789 Revolution when French workers rioted over taxes, economic inequality and a perceived sense of social discrimination. However, it is still baffling as to why protests, demonstrations and street rioting have been a recurrent phenomenon in the evolution of political democracy in France. One main reason for recurrence of violent protests in the French polity could be that these methods have often succeeded. During the tumultuous 1968 students movement, the force used by authorities to suppress protestors brought French workers onto the streets, swelling the support for the movement that eventually brought France to its knees. The uprising led to a 35% rise in the minimum wage & a 10% increase in the salary. But it undermined the legitimacy of President Charles DeGaulle who stood down the following year. Mass demonstrations had also forced the French government to abandon plans to reform the university selection process in 1986, the reform of public transport, workers’ pension in 1995 and introduction of lower wage scale for recent university graduates in 2006. The memory of the 1830 and 1848 revolutions (which led to the creation of France’s second Republic) are also firmly etched in the French psyche.

The Yellow Vest protest, however, is fundamentally different from other previous protests since it remained apolitical since it began. Political leaders such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front), and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the far-left France Unbowed tried without success to latch on to the yellow vests. The inability of these two parties, which usually do well with groups who feel marginalized, signals that the yellow vest protesters are fed up with all figures of the political establishment (npr.org, December 4, 2018). The movement started at the grassroots level, had little organizational support and actively fanned by social media, resulting in popular sentiment being directed against broader economic reforms of Macron, which appeared to be favouring the wealthy and big business. Spontaneous nature of the protest also ensured that there was no clear structure or leadership, and it was difficult to determine who represents or even spearheads the movement. The agenda, to date, is also not clearly defined making it difficult for the government to negotiate with different demands. While the demand for lower taxes and a better standard of living is pretty omnipresent, different factions of the Yellow Vests reportedly have different demands.

Following widespread demonstrations by the Yellow Vests, the French government finally had to give in to the public demand, when Prime Minister Eduardo Philippe announced in December that the government would suspend the carbon tax temporarily, and later on, the government agreed to do away with the fuel tax indefinitely. Minimum wages were also raised by about 7%, giving the impression that overall, the protests have been successful to a large extent in achieving their initial objectives. However, the protests are far from over. The yellow vest protesters have kept on their activities, especially on the weekends. Violent clashes with the police and a large number of people injured in demonstrations they say are the result of police violence.

The continuation of the Yellow Vest Protests in many forms and the widespread support it is receiving from common citizens are a reflection of widespread disenchantment against the French economic system which is characterized by nearly stagnant wages, unemployment above 9%. In some way, this also reflects the unfinished agenda of the struggle of the French citizens against perceived oppression and discrimination, even as France has moved on from monarchy to democracy. Maybe the transition to democracy hasn’t been as participatory as could be expected after the French Revolution. During France’s journey from monarchy to democracy, French citizens have somehow felt left out of the crucial economic decision-making process under successive governments, and this sense of alienation has prompted the people to talk to those in power through the use of force and protests.



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Image credit: wksu.org

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Written By Mahananda Ray

Undergraduate student

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