The Challenge of the Gilets Jaunes to the French Government
Photo Credit: France 24
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Challenge of the Gilets Jaunes to the French Government

Dec. 11, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Following the astonishing display of violence in Paris on the third weekend of the hitherto peaceful gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests in France — the worst rioting in the country since the student uprising of May 1968 — the movement has suddenly been transformed into a major crisis for the presidency of Emmanuel Macron. This was aptly symbolized by the storming of the Arc de Triomphe and the brutal defacing of the statue of Marianne — the personification of the revolutionary values of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and of the French Republic itself.

In her analysis of the crisis, Chantal Mouffe notes that “the gilets jaunes movement reminds us how important emotions are in politics. Something that technocrats have totally forgotten.” In particular, the anger of the gilets jaunes stems from “the explosion of economic inequalities between a group of super-rich and the middle class.” The people’s anger over their economic precarity has been exacerbated by the “crisis of political representation,” in which “citizens feel that they have no real choice between the political options on offer,” which hence has led to their realization that “the government’s policy can only now be opposed in the street.” Concurring, Frédéric Lordon highlights the fury of the gilets jaunes:

“Quite simply, you are enraged when you are pushed to the limit. The fact is that after thirty years of neoliberalism, topped up by eighteen months of Macron’s rabid social warfare, entire social groups have been pushed to the limit … Believing that what they are talking about doesn’t exist, the media didn’t see these enraged people coming. But here they are, the result of a long and silent accumulation of anger, which has just broken its dam. They will not easily be brought back into the fold. All the less so, since, with the naivety of ‘good people’, they experienced police violence on what was for many of them their first demonstration. At first, they were flabbergasted. Then, having recovered, inoculated for good.”

This anger energizes the gilets jaunes, many of whom became street fighters in Paris on the violent third weekend of the protests. These “self-proclaimed fighters,” who have “diffuse demands” and “no real organization or visible leader,” organized themselves for the protests through social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram. Their self-organization through social media platforms is particularly ironic given that many of the protestors have suffered immiseration precisely because of the French government’s embrace of new digital technologies — for instance, the government’s devastating deregulation of the taxi industry and its embrace of ride-sharing apps. As one aggrieved taxi driver bitterly complained about Macron:

“He ruined us, he broke our business. He wants everything new, digital, the new world, and he did it all without thinking of the cost for us. Replace everyone, have everything young, new? Yeah, well that’s not how you do things. Now it’s payback time.”

The lack of a unified political agenda among the gilets jaunes is striking: “Some want to restore the wealth tax, increasing pensions, raising the minimum wage, cutting the salaries of politicians, and even to Macron resigning and replacing the National Assembly with a ‘people’s council.’” Unlike other populist movements that have emerged in recent years, the gilets jaunes movement “is not tethered to a political party, let alone to a right-wing one. It is not focusing on race or migration, and those issues do not appear on the Yellow Vests’ list of complaints. It is not led by a single fire-breathing leader. Nationalism is not on the agenda.” Antonio Negri observes that the gilets jaunes movement is “a contradictory movement, divided internally along territorial, generational and class lines, among many others; what unifies it is the refusal to negotiate, the refusal to take a chance on the existing political structures.” Indeed, while the movement has its representatives, it is “essentially leaderless,” which has created significant difficulties for the French government’s attempts to negotiate with the protestors.

Following the unexpected violence of the third weekend of the gilets jaunes protests in Paris, the French state was better prepared for the fourth weekend, detaining almost 1,400 protestors across the country “before they could even reach the central site of the demonstrations along Paris’s main artery, the Champs-Élysées.” Within Paris, “the riot police fired tear gas and water cannons to control the crowds.” While such police actions may eventually end the gilets jaunes protests, the political damage the protests have done to Macron will not be so easy to repair.

What made Macron’s proposed carbon tax sting even more was his abolition in 2017 of the wealth tax, which meant that the “benefits cuts and tax changes in 2018 and 2019 will leave the bottom fifth of households worse off, while … the biggest gains will go to the top 1 per cent.”

The calls for Macron to resign, coupled with his plummeting approval ratings, have led to a significant decline in his political standing. As Gregory Viscusi notes: “Macron’s policies are seen to favor the wealthy, and poll after poll have shown the French electorate thinks the former banker is aloof and arrogant. His approval rating is at 28 percent, according to an average of seven polling institutes.” While the 2022 French presidential elections are still some time away, “European elections and a series of municipal and regional votes over the next two years could shape up as referendums on his policies.”

The gilets jaunes protests have also damaged the environmentalist cause of carbon taxes, that is, taxes on “gasoline, diesel, coal and natural gas” which are intended to “help pay for the damage they cause, encourage people to use less, and make it easier for cleaner alternatives and fuel-saving technologies to compete.” Macron’s proposed hikes in gasoline and diesel taxes — which have since been cancelled following the violent third weekend of the gilets jaunes protests — were “seen as especially unfair to the working classes in the provinces who need cars to get to work and whose incomes have stagnated for years.” This is especially the case in France since “four-fifths of commuters drive to work and a third of them cover more than 30km each way.”

While commentators like Leonid Bershidsky have argued that the proposed fuel tax hikes were actually insignificant — costing “less than two McDonald’s meals” — it’s important to remember that whether something is seen as expensive or cheap depends on one’s income. The French have suffered “declining living standards and eroding purchasing power,” and many of the gilets jaunes “are protesting how difficult it is to pay rent, feed their families and simply scrape by as living costs — most notably fuel prices — keep rising while their household incomes barely budge.”

As Adam Nossiter points out, the French poor who make up the angry gilets jaunes protestors find it difficult to make ends meet, and Macron’s proposed carbon tax was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As one testified: “We live with stress. Every month, at the end of the month, we say, ‘Will there be enough to eat?’” Indeed, the depth of the financial stress felt by the French poor can be seen in the fact that, under the Macron government, France has become “the most heavily taxed of the world’s rich countries.” Given the weight of such financial stress, Macron’s appeal to environmentalism was felt like a slap on the face. As another gilet jaune put it: “The citizens have asked for lower taxes, and they’re saying, ‘Ecology.’”

The anger and distress of the protestors is aptly reflected in their chosen symbol of protest: their yellow high-visibility safety vests. Intended for use as a distress signal in case of a traffic accident, all motorists in France are required to keep one in their vehicles. (There are similar laws in neighboring countries, and as we shall see, the gilets jaunes protests have likewise spread out of France.) Their deployment in the protests hence shows on a visual level the distress the protestors feel about their economic precarity. The powerful symbolism has also allowed aggrieved people in other social sectors such as high school students to participate in the protests, thereby expanding the gilets jaunes movement into other social fields.

Environmental economists hence see the gilets jaunes protests as a warning that carbon taxes have to be paired with initiatives that “enhance the welfare and incomes” of the poor. Indeed, Borenstein and Charlton note that the gilets jaunes protests are hardly the first acts of public resistance against fuel price hikes and carbon taxes: “In September, protests in India over high gasoline prices shut down schools and government offices. Protests erupted in Mexico in 2017 after government deregulation caused a spike in gasoline prices, and in Indonesia in 2013 when the government reduced fuel subsidies and prices rose. In the United States, Washington state voters handily defeated a carbon tax in November.”

What made Macron’s proposed carbon tax sting even more was his abolition in 2017 of the wealth tax, which meant that the “benefits cuts and tax changes in 2018 and 2019 will leave the bottom fifth of households worse off, while … the biggest gains will go to the top 1 per cent.” While the reform was intended to “encourage more savings to be channeled into the real economy,” it has instead led the gilets jaunes to see Macron as a “president of the rich.” Following the violent third weekend of the gilets jaunes protests, Macron’s government has suggested that the wealth tax may be reinstated.

Ominously, the gilets jaunes protests have spread to Belgium and the Netherlands. In both cases the protesters “appeared to hail at least in part from a populist movement that is angry at government policy in general and what it sees as the widening gulf between mainstream politicians and the voters who put them in power.” As one elderly Dutch protester explained: “Our children are hard-working people but they have to pay taxes everywhere. You can’t get housing anymore. It is not going well in Dutch society. The social welfare net we grew up with is gone.” The gilets jaunes have even inspired protesters in Iraq. The contagious nature of the gilets jaunes protests suggests that it is well on its way to becoming a normalized political phenomenon not just in France but also in Western Europe and beyond.


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