Yellow Vests and French Protest Culture

The French seem not to believe in sucking up their problems. This may apply to the quotidien complaining after a day of work, but especially when it comes to their government. They believe they must challenge the system if it is to change for the better. A common enlightenment ideal, the government being the result of an enlightenment revolution after all, French people commonly believe the system is there to serve them, and it cannot stand unless it’s doing its job. Thus it must be forced to, directly. The French revolution’s heritage is this. The greatest win for the French people was the result of protests on the streets of Paris hundreds of years ago. It has proved to be a good strategy. French take to the street with their problems, never letting the government forget where their power comes from. The protests of 1968 were also legendary reminders to French politicians to listen to the people. Students and workers occupied the streets, created barricades, threw cobblestones, went on strike, and caused the closing of universities. As a result, “The national assembly was dissolved, and parliamentary elections called.” Trade unions also gained a 35% increase on the minimum wage and shorter hours.

Looting and vandalization follows many protests (like the randoms that trail BLM protests and smash in car windows), even when they are peaceful. The difference between American and French protests, in this sense, is only their receptions; the French widely accept that protestors are not to be blamed for those that take advantage to loot, especially since they often end up cleaning up after in their locations. But while protests are mostly peaceful, there’s also often violence, tear gas, and dramatic vandalizations--whatever gets media attention. The Yellow Vest protests easily fall into the “riot” category. Cars were torched and rich Parisian neighborhoods vandalized. Hundreds were injured and four killed. There are other similarities and differences. Protests are often either unionized strikes (too much of a digression but very interesting, please read up on unions and their power in France to further understand its protest culture in a larger context) or party-organized. Here, grassroots movements are created over facebook.

So, what do they want exactly? A coherent answer is lacking. Since they have no leadership and different members have different intents, it is hard to say. These different intents are additionally polarized by the fact that this movement is from the whole political spectrum. Much like (and arguably in reaction to) Macron, they do not identify with any party.

One point of clarity is that they have not been satisfied by the president’s concession. The movement was not just about a fuel tax, but about the terrifying and increasing class slippage. While they aren’t getting paid any more, taxes are rising, and already some of the highest in Europe (already was more than 6$ a gallon, and although the increase was only 12-28 cents depending on whether its regular or diesel fuel, every bit adds up. By the way, the rate stays around 3$ in the US).

Politicians don’t know how to react, as the movement doesn’t even have a specific plan of attack. The movement just knows it is not satisfied. Macron’s six month suspension of the gas tax doesn’t cut it. Last year, “The median earner in 2016 in France took home about 1,700 euros ($1,930) a month, but that means that half of the French took home less. The income has to cover rent, food, utilities and clothing, as well as the cost of fuel.”

They yellow vest, generally, is a movement against Macron, and a populist movement of the rural and working class. This can also be seen in the United States. “The sociology of the people in revolt is the same… These are the people who feel endangered by the current economic model,” which doesn’t “integrate the greatest number,” Marc Lazar, a specialist in Italian history said to the NY Times. One of their biggest points is that this tax unequally and unfairly affects those that cannot stop using fuel anyways, so it does not even complete the goal of reducing energy use. It only takes more money from them, for the government (for investing in businesses. Speaking to the NY Times, a professor at Berkeley, Daniel M. Kammen, said “Of the 34 billion euros, or $39 million, that Macron hoped to raise from the fuel tax, less than a fourth was earmarked for environmental measures”). They are rural people and suburbanites who don’t have the Parisian metro to get around with. This is not the best thing for the people or the environment, suggesting falsely that environmentalism is inherently hard on the poor. Hoping to lessen these disparities, protesters want more purchasing power. Having enough money to buy newer and thus more fuel efficient cars is much more environmentally helpful (they have no alternative to using fuel, so making it more expensive through taxes is actually detrimental). Purchasing power also means less taxes in general, higher salaries, and wages. Thus having put in this counterintuitive plan, only 20% of France still supports Macron, while 80% supports the yellow vests. Unfortunately, Macron’s politics only represent the interests of Parisians, putting him at odds with the rest of the country and fueling the polarized political climate.

The yellow vests know this much: France needs change. But is France strong enough for a change this big?

Writer’s note: This was written in early December, the beginning of the movement. Since, Macron’s authority has been weakened and the movement expanded to unexpected places like the streets of Tel Aviv and Taiwan, gaining global traction.