by Louise Edge
Along with the huge quantities of cheese and wine that are practically mandatory here, popular protest is amongst the many cliches I’ve experienced over four months of living here in France. In spite of this, I could never have anticipated the scale of unrest that has taken place during my time so far in ‘the hexagon’.
The gilets jaunes movement, named for the neon yellow vests that have become its emblem and uniform, found its roots in protests last November against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned rise in fuel tax, but has since gone much further, striking with tangible anger at the very heart of the French establishment. Despite a U-turn in December, when Macron announced conciliatory measures including an increase in the minimum wage and a cancellation of some planned tax hikes, the gilets jaunes have refused to fade away and accept what they see as token gestures that do not go far enough.
What has particularly struck me about the gilets jaunes movement is how similar its motives feel to the mood surrounding the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016. These are ordinary citizens lashing out against an elite political class that fails to look beyond a select Parisian elite, and which only looks out for the rich. Those who don yellow vests feel forgotten by a centralised government that they feel does not listen to their concerns.
This is why the fuel tax hike was such a key trigger; for those living in cosmopolitan, prosperous Paris, the effects of increased petrol prices were minimally felt as most people prefer to use public transport, a choice that comes with privileges of city living. While anti-establishment anger was expressed at polling stations across the UK on 23rd June 2016, it has manifested itself here on the streets and on social media, in the throwing of rocks and the blocking of roads.
The crisis has highlighted real-world problems stemming from taxes aimed at tackling fuel consumption; it is easy enough to talk in the abstract about measures to reduce harmful carbon emissions but this does not come without cost. This is not to say that the gilets jaunes are ideologically opposed to environmental legislation, but that they feel unfairly targeted by laws that punish the ‘little people’ rather than industrial giants. A resounding theme in the campaigners’ message is that the government have the luxury of being able to worry about the end of the world, when many French people say they are struggling to think beyond making ends meet at the end of the month.
Macron has not helped matters by continuously acting with widely-perceived arrogance towards ordinary people. In July 2017, he described regional railway stations as places where you could encounter ‘people who are succeeding and people who are nothing’. At a memorial for former President Charles de Gaulle, Macron told a group of elderly people protesting against pension cuts to ‘stop complaining’ and continued to cause controversy when he dismissed the French people as ‘gauls resistant to change’ on a visit to Denmark last summer.
One colleague of mine echoed the anti-Macron rallying cry when she described the head of state as ‘the president of the rich’, to audible murmurs of agreement across the room. Indeed, one of this unabashedly pro-business government’s least popular actions has been to abolish the ISF, a rare tax targeting the super-rich. The extent to which this tax was ever really effective is debatable, but for many people, that seems less important than the symbolic action of slashing sanctions on wealth while pursuing higher taxation for ordinary people.
The gilets jaunes crisis at once feels like both an entirely natural, if extreme, expression of political grievance, and an unprecedented moment in this country’s history of revolt.For both foreign and native onlookers here in France, there is a profound feeling, which manifests itself either as pride or resignation, that ‘this is just how we do things here.’ Many of the defining moments in the building of French cultural identity have been characterised by popular violence: one of my 16 year old students told me that she saw no problem with the violence in Paris because ‘our country was founded in revolution’.
French history has been indelibly shaped by violent protest in 1789, in 1848 and 1968. Even the name ‘gilets jaunes’, seems to hark back to groups historically linked to revolutionary or anti-government movements, from the sans culottes (without breeches), of the eighteenth century to the bonnets rouges (red caps), protesting truckers in 2013.
Yet, while the gilets jaunes movement finds its roots in the national revolutionary tradition, its emergence marks something very new. Unlike the last major period of significant civil unrest in France, in May 1968, these protests are not associated with trade unions or student populations. It is a movement still without clear leadership, despite the emergence of major figures like Eric Drouet, and its aims vary wildly depending on who you ask. Some protesters simply want a complete constitutional overhaul, some a referendum, while some simply demand Macron’s resignation.
It is perhaps the resolute reluctance of the movement so far to align itself with any one set of aims or ideologies that is key to its continued popularity. It is both a-political and anti-political, and, crucially, it can become whatever you want it to be. Support for the protests can be as committed as turning out to face down tear gas on the streets or as simple as placing a hi-vis vest on a car dashboard.
This weekend, my own town of Bourges, in central France, was the backdrop for ‘act nine’ of the movement, which saw over 6000 gilets jaunes protest, with many attempting to force their way into the labyrinthine streets surrounding the renowned cathedral. The iconoclastic and anarchic feeling amongst some protesters was summed up by graffiti on a nearby building: ‘Nous ferons tomber vos cathédrales’ (‘We will tear down your cathedrals’).
Walking through Bourges early on Saturday morning felt like the calm before a particularly unlikely storm – this is certainly no Paris, and on the average January weekend you might expect to see old ladies on their way to mass and to market, not hundreds of gendarmes in riot gear discussing tactics as a hushed and heavy anticipation descended on the cobbled town. Violence broke out later in the day, following the pattern which has played out in towns and cities across the republic over nine consecutive weekends.
The violence, when it does occur, is worrying. Scores of protesters and police alike have been injured by stampedes and flying missiles, and around 10 people have died, mostly in car accidents caused by panicked drivers at roadside blockades. However, one of the strangest features of this movement is its organised and limited nature.
When I returned to Bourges as night fell on Saturday, I fully expected to be dodging tear gas canisters and burning cars to get back to my flat. In fact, by 7 p.m., only a few gilets jaunes were left. A man walked home with a sharpened stick. The words ‘Macron, your mum’ were daubed on the wall of a water tower. The gendarmes huddled in steamed-up vans eating steaming takeaway from greasy boxes. The only signs of the day’s chaos were the charred remains of some unfortunate wheelie bins.
It’s starting to feel weirdly routine; week after week, towns where protests are planned draft in extra police, board up shops, secure building sites. Then, the protest march starts. By mid-afternoon, a few cars are alight, things have been thrown and tear gas has been used. And by Sunday morning, its as if nothing has happened.
The gilets jaunes will deny that the casseurs, ‘thugs’ responsible for criminal activity, have anything to do with the ‘true’ movement, yet they are unmistakably an expected part of this surreal weekly showdown. This is unrest via Facebook event. There is no strike action, so people have to be back at work on the Monday, and the chances of anyone in Bourges doing anything on a Sunday are minimal.
So what does the future hold? While the numbers of those attending weekly protests in Paris have dwindled in recent weeks, senior gilets jaunes hope that a shift in the focus of protests from the capital to regional centres like Bourges will bring about renewed momentum that Macron’s government will find difficult to continue to ignore.
Some believe the movement is close to running its natural course, while others hope, or fear, that it’s only just getting started. Whatever the outcome, it feels certain that the rise of the gilets jaunes is something the French establishment will not be readily allowed to forget in the foreseeable future.