Yellow Vest protests: Why President Macron is to blame for the anger spilling out on France’s streets

When Macron became president, he gave hope to people. The deception is in proportion to the promises made. But the protesters are not taking this lying down.

 |  5-minute read |   10-12-2018
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As of December 9, the principal figures released by French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner are: 1,25,000 people demonstrating in the streets, 118 civilians and 17 policemen wounded, and 1,385 taken in for questioning or arrested.

Although we naturally tend to focus on Paris and the images of violence at places of cultural significance, such as the Arc de Triomphe, it is important to note that this social outcry has diffused nationwide.

Major cities — from Toulouse to Bordeaux and Lyon and Grenoble — have seen their share of violent protests, burning bins and charred cars in recent days.

Lakhs have poured on the streets, thousands detained, hundreds injured. Lakhs have poured onto the streets, thousands detained, hundreds injured. (Photo: Reuters)

The disruptions have been many: from schools being closed on protest days, parents advised to warn children on security, traffic jams caused directly as a result of drivers clad in “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests)  slowing traffic down on the highway, and public transport being cancelled.

Even those who are not out on the streets cannot help but be partakers of the movement.

The onlookers are few, the marchers are many.

In purely economic terms, shop keepers have been warned to keep their shutters down and designer brand flagships have been obliged to board up their shop fronts — all this, just two short weeks away from Christmas.   

With continuously increasing taxes and the rising cost of living, what we are seeing today is the result of the fiscal exasperation of the tax-paying working middle class. It goes beyond the continuously rising costs of fuel. It is about a middle class that feels betrayed by the many campaign promises made by Macron, most of which spoke about putting The Republic back into the service of the people.

For the “Gilets Jaunes”, it is probably with some surprise that the social media organisers realise this movement has spontaneously swelled beyond their imagination, both in size and velocity. 

It might be interesting to know that by a law passed in 2008, the French are required to have one of these highly visible, fluorescent, safety jackets in their cars at all times, in case of car trouble. The fine, in case of not wearing one when you pull over on the side of the road, is 135€. Considering that the cost of buying one is barely 2€s or less, most people have one tucked away under their car seats.

This unplanned combination of both easy availability and visibility was an unintended stroke of ‘marketing genius’ that set the tone from the outset for the success of this 'Yellow Vest' movement.

The French are required to these highly visible, fluorescent, safety jackets in their cars The French are required by law to keep in their cars these highly visible, fluorescent jackets, which the protest has come to be indentified by. (Photo: Reuters)

From the revolution onwards, protests have always been part of the political landscape of France, and many attempts have been made by French experts to find parallels to this in the past. However, according to Michel Pigenet, a professor at the Sorbonne and author of a book on social movements in France from 1814 onwards, this movement distinguishes itself from almost any historical comparison. 

In France, it is being qualified as ‘inédit’, or novel and unprecedented. In the recent past, we can talk of the 1995 protests under the Juppe government and before that, May ’68. In both these cases, the unions were heavily involved, which is not the case this time around. Another distinguishing factor is that in 1995, it was the civil servants that were pitched against private sector employees.

Despite many being against the actual violence of the protests, up to 70% of the French population supports the movement.

There is a unified social block made up of both independents and employees that represent France’s silent working class majority.

This silent majority is refusing to slink back into the traditional crevasses of the political scene. Importantly, this diffused movement remains, for now, non-partisan, as there has not yet been a declared alliance to any particular political party. Marine Le Pen (far-right) and Jean-Luc Mélanchon (far-left) may be celebrating Macron’s discomfort and hoping to cash in on it, but for the moment, they are biding their time.

Since his election, he has not lived up to the image of the empathetic people’s President. Since his election, Macron has not lived up to the image of an empathetic people’s President. (Photo: Reuters/file)

A parallel movement that has come about is the student protests regarding the baccalaureate reform. Sketchy and vague, the information regarding how the reform will affect students and how institutions of higher education will adapt is causing great concern to parents and students alike.

That said, this movement does not have the same grounds or support as the Yellow Vests, and can even be qualified as a piggy-back. Some would go as far as to say that it is mostly about a few young people expressing a more general bored discontent, and turning to violence as a diversion. Change has always made people uncomfortable, and this most recent educational reform is no exception. But here, the government’s fault may be in inadequate planning, wanting to go too fast and showing a lack of communication, rather than the very real disgruntlement of the larger Gilets Jaunes movement.

When Macron became president, he gave hope to the people. The deception is therefore in proportion to the promises made.

When Macron became president, he declared that he would reform and not give into protests. His about-turn on the fuel tax this week is all the more significant.

Since his election, he has not lived up to the image of the empathetic people’s President. Instead, he comes across as someone disconnected. 

These past weeks, the Forgotten French have taught their sequestered President an important lesson: ‘You cannot govern against the people’.

The Yellow Jacket strikers have succeeded in putting the ‘social’ question at the centre of the political game.

Also read: Why Christian Michel has put corruption back in the 2019 Lok Sabha election narrative


Nandita Perret Nandita Perret @nandita_perret

Founder and principal consultant, CTD Cultural Insights

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