Decoding les Gilet Jaunes
The yellow vests movement popularly known as les Gilet Jaunes enters its sixth week, making it one of the largest protests in the recent history of France. These protests are the result of growing discontent among the middle and lower-class population over several measures implemented in past one year. Though, it has become scattered over time. Will it remain imprinted in French minds for a long time?
Emmanuel Macron was sworn in as the youngest president of France in 2017. In his first speech, he said, “I am convinced that the power of France is not in decline, as we are at the dawn of an extraordinary rebirth.” Further, he says “Nothing will affect only a part of the population…”; all this raised hopes among the population who saw him as a young and visionary leader for un nouveau France.
In 2018 subsequent unpopular reforms in labour rules and railways, then slashing of wealth tax led the critics dubbing him as “President of the Rich”. But the final nail in the coffin came with planned fuel tax hikes last month. When there was already a 20% increase in diesel prices at the beginning of the year. President Macron said it is necessary to protect the environment and combat climate change. These necessary measures were an effort to move away from less efficient fossil fuel powered vehicles.
In the famous words of Maximilien Robespierre,“People do not judge in the same way as courts of law; they do not hand down sentences, they throw thunderbolts; they do not condemn kings, they drop them back into the void, and this justice is worth just as much as that of the courts.” This is exactly what happened, a woman’s petition on change.org website uploaded in May 2018 gained traction in October. Along came the Facebook event for 17 November to block all roads and protest against an increase in fuel rise. The iconic high-visibility yellow vests became their weapon to make a point to the political authorities.
The nationwide protests have attracted around 200,000+ people, many of them obstructing fuel depots, traffic circles, highway exits. Initially, the movement got overwhelming support from French people. But as violence increased, it started to dwindle within weeks. The protests have led to 10 civilian deaths along with thousands getting injured. In his televised address on 10th December 2018, President Macron revoked his decision to increase the fuel taxes. He also pledged to increase the minimum wage in 2019. Even after these reversals, the protests continue in France.
The Real Deal
There has been a steady rise of discontent among French population which is attributed to migration, higher living costs, rising taxes and unemployment. France has one of the highest fuel taxes in Europe – 64% on petrol and 59% on diesel. The unemployment rate is at 10% as of August 2018. In terms of terrorist attacks, France is the most affected nation in the European Union. It got around 100,000+ asylum applications till 2017, out of this only 26.8 % were accepted. Ultimately the discontent erupted on 17th November across France and behind this veil of fuel hike protests, lay the anger of working class towards the policies of President Macron.
President Macron got support from both right-wing and left-wing supporters in the 2017 election. Still, he faces the biggest challenge in his presidency with the divisions left wide open among the classes. There were speculations that Russia is meddling in France in form of supporting the far-right parties and the recent yellow vests protests. But there aren’t any concrete pieces of evidence on the same. Patrick Gaspard’s article in Politico highlighted Steve Bannon’s grand plan to campaign on behalf of far-right political parties for the 2019 European Parliament election and he was invited by French far-right leader Marine Le Pen this year. And, it was Marine Le Pen who was up against Emmanuel Macron in the election.
In the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, the biggest surprise was a leaderless movement. It all happened through social media platforms and crowds came on their own in unison to fight for a cause. But in the garb of protests, certain fringe elements tarnished the real motive. Then, it got support from all different communities such as climate change activists, nationalists etc.; who had their own demands. This is why the relevance is slowing being lost in the last few weeks.
Overall, the movement has created a stir across France and Europe. It has led to similar protests in various countries such as Taiwan, Belgium, and other European countries. Due to its limited agenda, the protests didn’t spread like wildfire across Europe. Though, President Macron is going to have a tough next year. He has to cover the lost ground and work on improving his public image; in order to prevent another wide-scale protest in France. Else the next time we could be witnessing a similar incident (at a small scale) that happened in spring of 2011.
*Utkal Tripathy is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti