The Yellow Vest Movement: A New French Revolution?

/Marthe de Roos/

In the beginning of this year I went on a trip to Bordeaux. Upon arriving we were warned about the weekly gilets jaunes protests that would take place that weekend. The next day we witnessed a large amount of people wearing yellow vests with banners and garbage bins with ‘Macron’ on them – all through an air filled with tear gas. What sparked this mass movement?

In May a petition was started by a woman from the Seine-et-Marne department on the change.org website that after just a few months almost reached a million signatures. Parallelly to this, two men from the same department launched a Facebook event for November 17th to ‘block all roads’ in opposition to the increase of fuel prices. President Macron announced more taxes on fuel starting on the 1st of January in 2019, to combat climate change. During the first protest on November 17th, nearly 300 000 people protested in the streets of France. Motorists started blocking highways by setting up barricades and driving around slowly in large groups of trucks. The protesters wore fluorescent yellow safety vests, which drivers in France are required to have in their vehicle by law. The demonstrations were backed by rural France, where most people are dependent on cars for movement.

Two days after the first demonstration, a snowball effect started. A large movement emerged, calling not only for lower fuel taxes, but also for the reintroduction of the solidarity tax on wealth, a minimum wage increase, the implementation of Citizens’ initiative referenda and Macron’s resignation. Students also seized this moment to protest against new education reforms. In short, a diverse group of people is protesting for a diverse set of goals.

Most of the protests were peaceful, but the demonstration on December 1st became the worst riot Paris has seen in years. Anti- government demonstrators clashed with security forces. The security forces reacted with tear gas and water cannons. There were pro- testers involved who destroyed everything that crossed their path. All over Paris shops were damaged and looted, cars were set on fire and the words ‘The yellow vests will triumph’ were written on the Arc de Triomphe. During the protests especially journalists trying to report on the events have been targeted. Some media outlets decided to send a bodyguard with every journalist they sent out on the streets.

How is the movement organized? There have been some informal leaders, but the movement is conceived in a leaderless horizontal fashion. They are not associated with a specific political party, and it spreads mostly via social media. Some call it a Facebook movement, due to the reason that they organize their protests mostly via Facebook. Since they are leaderless, it makes it hard for the government to respond to their demands. How does one negotiate with a leaderless movement? Since nobody is in char- ge, no one tries to work on public relations or the content of social media messaging. At the same time no one is taking responsibility for the consequences of the actions of the yellow vests. 1700 demonstrators have been injured, along with 1000 members of the French police forces. The public’s opinion on the actions of the police differ. Some condemn the security forces for their tactics, especially after the French police started to use rubber bullets the size of golf balls against the protestors. During one of the demonstrations in Bordeaux, one of the protesters, Jean-Marc Michaud, was hit in the eye by the rubber projectile fired by the police. His right eye was completely destroyed after this.

What is the impact of the protests on the economy? According to the Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, they have hit the economy hard. Especially during the Christmas shopping season, commerce in shops, hotels and restaurants was falling significantly. What about the President? He keeps praising the police on his Twitter account and in his New Year’s address he referred to the Yellow Vests as a ‘hateful mob’. Macron’s opponents call him the ‘President of the Rich’, especially after he ended the wealth tax.

Is the movement radicalizing? Or are hooligans disguising themselves as Yellow Vests, but actually just want to cause violent riots and damages costing up to a million euros? Some even claim far-right members are involved in the protests, and that they are the ones trying to challenge the security forces. However, it should be mentioned that the numbers of yellow vests going on the streets is decreasing. Nevertheless, the Yellow Vest movement has also dispersed to other countries. In the Netherlands, there have been protests against prime minister Rutte and the Netherlands’ membership of the European Union. Therefore, they are protesting in Maastricht: the place where in 1992 the Treaty on European-Union was signed and the European Monetary Union established.

On January 27th, a counter-movement appeared in Paris. Thousands of people joined a march in Paris, and were calling themselves Foulards Rouges, the Red Scarves. The foun- der of the movement states that ‘citizens are being penalized every day by the yellow vests’ methods.’ They are denouncing the ‘insurrec- tional climate installed by the yellow vests and reject their threats and constant verbal abuse’. The Red Scarves are acknowledging the consequences of the tactics used by the Yellow Vests. They cannot get their kids to school on time, because of the roadblocks and the demonstrations are bad for business. Since this new movement is still developing, it is causing fear that it might lead to a possibly violent confrontation on the streets with the Yellow Vests.

What is the power of this cheap fluorescent yellow vest? It makes it easy for the protestors to make themselves visible on the streets and for pictures to go viral online. When looking back at history, the French are known for taking to the streets to express their anger at the government. Will the Yellow Vest movement win the battle? And what will ‘win’ mean in this context? It is not clear what they exactly want, and it keeps changing over time. The movement has definitely put pressure on the president, and Macron’s popularity is decreasing. They were hoping to benefit from France’s revolutionary tradition and become a new symbol of resistance. Yet the public image of the Yellow Vest is becoming more negative. The violence being used by both sides is alarming. Rumor has it that Yellow Vests trying to negotiate with the government are receiving death threats, whilst at the same time videos are going viral of French ‘‘security’’ forces using excessive violence.

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