Labelling Leave voters racist bigots did not end “well” in Spring 2016. Neither did calling Trump supporters a basket of deplorables in September 2016. Now it is the turn of the French Gilets Jaunes, in 12 Acts so far, to have thrown French politics into turmoil. They are the latest incarnation of the “Somewheres”, rooted, nationalist and social conservatives, as depicted by David Goodhart in the UK in opposition to the “Anywheres’, the socially mobile, liberal, cosmopolitan urban elites. The Gilets Jaunes are the “France Périphérique” described by French geographer Christophe Guilluy, the working and lower middle classes living outside the big globalised cities. Now these previously overlooked, voiceless and invisible French have donned high-viz jackets to be heard.
The Gilets Jaunes (GJ) movement takes its name from the high-visibility yellow vests that France’s drivers are required by law to carry in their cars at all times. It is an apt symbol as this obligation was the first of several government initiatives pertaining to cars and perceived as getting pettier and pettier, more and more difficult to accept – all part of the War against the Car.
This is not an exhaustive presentation of the GJ, books are already being written on it! Also, our embedded GPers in French rurality would be better placed than I am to attempt to analyse the GJ movement and I hope they’ll correct me and add what they’ve witnessed or read. I needed to make sense for myself of what has been unfolding since last mid-November, as I dismissed the first outing of the GJ as just another demo in France! I’ll concentrate on the beginnings (some might find ideas there…), then look at numbers and end on the prospect of a GJ party in the forthcoming European Elections.
The GJ discontent began before the announcement of President Macron’s fuel tax increase that we all heard about.
The rumbling of the GJ’s anger had begun with the reduction of the speed limit on A-roads from 90 km/h (56 mph) to 80km/h (50mph), to help avoid, it was said, between 350 and 400 road deaths a year (or raise more radar revenue, as some would have it). It came into effect on 1 July 2018, affecting around 400,000km of two-lane departmental roads, about 40% of France’s road network. Around 70% of the population was opposed and it formed a key trigger for the roundabout blockades that were to bring France’s road network to a halt.
The fuel tax hike, announced for 1 January 2019, wrapped in the justification of the defence of the environment, was going to hammer those who live outside the big cities and who rely on their cars to get to work, go shopping or to the cinema and it was the last straw. A large proportion of cars in France use diesel, the price of which has risen by 23% in the past year. Anger had been mounting but two women arguably provided the spark: on 18 October 2018, Jacline Mouraud posted a video message addressed to President Macron about his unfair car taxes. The last straw for her had been the announcement of a “congestion charge” on entering big cities. Her video was viewed by 5 M people. On 22 October “Le Parisien” newspaper mentioned the online petition that Priscilla Ludosky had started several months earlier, which had been languishing. It was signed by 800 000 + people in one week, going viral.
Mme Mouraud’s video:
OÙ VA LA FRANCE ? Parce qu il y en a marre et que se taire, c est se rendre complice. Faites chacun votre petit mot au président !
Gepostet von Jacline Mouraud am Donnerstag, 18. Oktober 2018
The two women were invited by all the TV channels, the discontent was beginning to snowball, a Facebook group called for a national demonstration on 17 November. The name for the movement was involuntarily found by Ghislain Coutard, who shot his own video in his truck and posted it on his Facebook page to encourage many people to turn up on the 17th with the comment “Je veux voir le max de gilets jaune [sic] sur les tableaux de bord pour le 17 nov 2018” – I want to see a maximum of yellow vests on the dashboards on the 17th. The video also reached some 5M views in a few days.
Je veux voir le max de gilets jaune sur les tableaux de bord pour le 17 nov 2018Partager Avec comme hashtag Twitter ect… #BlocageNationalCarburant #17Novembre
Gepostet von Ghislain Coutard Vestman am Mittwoch, 24. Oktober 2018
Some 150 Facebook groups were created and called for meeting at local roundabouts on 17 November. The number of such “rendez-vous” grew exponentially! “Le Parisien” tried here to draw a map of 700 + meet-ups:
In the end there were about 2 000. Since then, the GJ movement has been characterised by roadblocks at roundabouts, “snail operations” to slow traffic, open motorway tolls, the destruction of speed cameras, fuel depot blockades, pickets of petrol stations and shopping malls, and large rallies in Paris and other large cities every Saturday.
I was retrospectively struck by the fact that the weekly news magazine “Valeurs Actuelles” published this cover below, with a 12 page dossier inside, on the “ras le bol fiscal” of the GJ (i.e. they’ve had it up to here with increased taxes) even before Act I had taken place (the magazine was out for sale on Wednesday 14 November).
This is actually part of the reason why for a while the GJ movement confused me. VA is a liberal-conservative, also called right-wing, magazine, voicing its readers’ concern about mass immigration, islamification and insecurity, but very pro-law and order. It was the first newsmagazine, if not the only one, to feature an interview with candidate Trump, then Bannon; Houellebecq and Zemmour, the sulphurous writers, have positively adorned their front and inside pages. The only time I’ve seen VA support a street demonstration was at the time of the Manif pour Tous (the anti-gay marriage protests), – which figures. Week after week it has shown support for the GJ when other news magazines have been critical or focusing on negative aspects (the violence, the manipulation, the hatred for the President, the far-right…).
Front covers of Le Point, focus on violence: L, after Act III, “The Last Days of the French Model” (with photo of the damaged statue at Arc de Triomphe. R, after Act VIII, “But when do we put a stop to this?” (with guide inside on the falsehoods peddled by the GJ)
Similar remarks could be made about TV channels: RT France has been more sympathetic to the GJ than the other channels. And the people I asked about the GJ whom I would have expected to agree with their grievances, did not. Also disorienting, one of the leaders of the May 1968’ers, Daniel Cohn-Bendit “views the gilets jaunes not as revolutionaries but as a movement veering dangerously into authoritarianism”. In an interview with the Observer, Cohn-Bendit, now a friend and adviser to President Emmanuel Macron, said: “This movement is very different to May 68. Back then, we wanted to get rid of a general (Charles de Gaulle); today these people want to put a general in power.”
From toppling the establishment in 1968, to being the establishment in 2019!
As we know here in the UK, the MSM have hardly covered the weekly demos and we also all know why: The atmosphere is febrile, the anger against the onslaught on Brexit has become palpable, certainly quite audible on the airwaves, and BBC, Sky et al are doing their best not to show British viewers what power ordinary citizens can yield. Civil disobedience, widespread disruption and chaos could be contagious.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (MMLP) drew the parallel recently at the Oxford Union: “Yellow jackets are very similar to your Brexiteers. … We are in the midst of a populist movement. Behind the word populist, there is the word people, people who have been abandoned, people who are not represented.”
The GJ have inflicted on the elites, the media, the intellectuals and the celebrities the same shock as Brexit in the UK. As it is a movement that is more populist than progressive, few of the above-mentioned have shown much sympathy!
Another reason why the MSM have shied away from reporting the GJ is that this movement unites Left and Right, certainly in the first weeks. It is a popular and apolitical movement, carried by social media and it has been largely leader-less but widespread.
MMLP’s aunt, Marine Le Pen, and another Right-wing politician, Dupont-Aignan, were the first to lend their support. Mélenchon, on the far-Left, did so later.
What do the Gilets Jaunes want
By 17 November itself, which turned out to be Act I, the protest movement was already encompassing other grievances, like the cost of living and the erosion of purchasing power.
Once the government had suspended then cancelled, after Act III, the fuel tax rise, and increased, after Act IV, the minimum wage as well as making overtime tax-free, the GJ’s demands became less economic and more political: a citizens assembly, regular referenda etc. The list of their 42 demands published at the end of December is here in translation:
or here (with an additional 25 unofficial demands):
Macron’s concessions will cost the State some €10 Bn and it is to be feared that the principle, “less taxes from me but more from the others”, is causing a decrease in the level of support or even sympathy from the rest of the population (48% in a recent poll).
These concessions are going to make a difference to those struggling to get by, but it has not been enough to end the strife. Beyond fiscal anger, what the GJ want is to be taken seriously, listened to, – they want more democracy. This has become a crisis of legitimacy for the President. So Macron announced solemnly on 15 January 2019 the launch of a Great National Debate, with Cahiers de Doléances, books of grievances, opened in town halls, and public meetings. He is hoping to defuse the anger that way, but also hoping they won’t end like Louis XVI’s Cahiers de Doléances in May 1789. The consultation lasts until mid-March 2019.
Interestingly, on the official online forum which organised a three-week consultation, the demand that in two days came first was: Abrogate gay marriage! This shows that a powerful lobby group was in action there with a strong degree of mobilisation! Since then it’s been made clear that not everything is up for discussion: Gay marriage, abortion, death penalty, EU, the cost of mass immigration… Let a thousand debates flourish but certain topics are off-limits (i.e the ones ordinary people care about).
The books already reveal a mass of resentments and contradictions: lower taxes but higher social welfare benefits; cheaper diesel but more action on climate change; lower prices but higher wages; more university places, no selection but no fees (not even for foreign students). It has been said, hopefully more symbolically than literally, that the movement gathers one third of « far Right » activists, one third of « far Left » militants and one third of pensioners, single mothers, employees on the minimum wage, SME entrepreneurs, shopkeepers and tradesmen! Another thing is that the rural GJ in the West are different from the retired GJ in the South who are different from the unemployed GJ in the North!
A common denominator is distrust of the President. At this point, it is useful to remember that Macron was elected by default, after Fillon was side-lined, after the great face-off Macron-MLP, and that 40 % of the electors in the 2017 presidential election are represented, since the parliamentary elections one month later, by … 24 deputies out of 577.
I don’t know how much further Macron can go in his economic concessions but the feeling that work does not pay and in particular a demand for a halt to taxes rising remains the top grievance. As one of the original GJ, Ghislain Coutard, said recently: “It’s not enough. We still have to fight the current taxes, the ones that have been in place for years. We should have woken up years ago, and now we have to make up for the years we missed.”
I suspect a large proportion of GJ know they are going up because they are supporting an ever-growing number of assorted non-productive people…
Below is an incomplete table with the estimated numbers of GJ in Paris and across France, from Act I to Act XII.
|date||Ministère de l’Intérieur (Home office)||Ministère de l’Intérieur (Home office)||yellow counter||yellow counter|
|Act I||17 Nov 2018||288 000|
|Act II||24 Nov 2018||166 000||8 000|
|Act III||1 Dec 2018||136 000||10 000|
|Act IV||8 Dec 2018||126 000||10 000|
|Act V||15 Dec 2018||66 000||3 500|
|Act VI||22 Dec 2018||38 600||2 000|
|Act VII||29 Dec 2018||32 000||800|
|Act VIII||5 Jan 2019||50 000||3 500|
|Act IX||12 Jan 2019||84 000||8 000|
|Act X||19 Jan 2019||84 000||7 000||147 365||20 000|
|Act XI||26 Jan 2019||69 000||4 000||87 700|
|Act XII||2 Feb 2019||58 600||10 000||73 300||13 800 acc. to a media collective|
NB: Only the police was providing estimates for the first nine weeks (The table may not render well on mobile devices)
Clashes and Casualties
On Saturday 2 February, Act XII, 13 800 people (according to a media collective) marched in Paris to pay tribute to the GJ injured and killed in the context of the protests.
The official toll then was: 1 900 injured civilians, 1 200 injured police. As this does not differentiate according to the seriousness of the injuries, a look at an unofficial count is necessary: 144 seriously injured, incl. 14 who have lost an eye. It can be found here, updated on 30 January:
10 people have died in traffic accidents indirectly connected to the GJ protests.
Why has this movement initially benignly looked upon by local police given way to such violent clashes?
Clashes became inevitable, particularly in Paris, when masked black-clad rioters, with or without high-viz vests, appeared at nightfall, hurled stones, smashed shop windows and burnt anything in their way. As MMLP observed when she joined the GJ on 24 November: “When I arrived on the Champs-Elysées, the real Yellow Vests were long gone. The movement was totally absorbed by Left-wing activists. We heard ‘Death to Capitalism!’ If this is the far-Right, it has changed.” Very soon GJ were telling their comrades not to go to Paris but stay in their provinces so that they could not be associated with the rioters.
One of our GP correspondents in France, Whitestones, informed us on 24 January:
“When police moved to lift a Gilet Jaune blockade at a roundabout near La Ciotat yesterday morning one of the 15 protesters became belligerent and struck a cop. When they searched him they found he was carrying an automatic handgun. A search of his home revealed ten rifles and shotguns, legitimately licenced, the handgun certainly isn’t. The movement doesn’t need those clowns.”
There is no doubt that the GJ have been subjected to a level of infiltration. It has been said that there are two kinds of GJ: those who blockade the roundabouts and those who come out on Saturdays, especially at night. How do you differentiate between a genuine GJ and a casseur (rioter) donning a yellow vest?
Still. Seeing week after week robocops apply so much violence on their fellow French wo/men has made for very uneasy watching. When else have we seen the police be so violent and inflict such horrific injuries against other kinds of protesters, from the left or from the dindu and rop suburbs for example? The “LBD-40” (Defense Ball Launcher, rubber-ball projectile or flashball) has been used 9 000 times since 17 November! And are we sure that all the police forces using it are equally well-trained in the use of such a weapon? (trained riot police are assisted by plain-clothes “anti-gang” police to help cope at week-ends)
Even leaving aside these excesses, it is disturbing that French people are fighting each other, tear gas v. molotov cocktails, water cannons against iron bars and other projectiles, while their interior enemies, ropers et al assorted, watch and bide their time.
“Nativité”, a GJ who comments BTL on Breitbart, echoes this:
“We will probably never see the following hashtag #YellowVestLivesMatter on Twitter. Can you imagine that the French police is shooting on members of his own family albeit letting the scum from the suburbs doing whatever they want to do…This is a wake up call for all Europe, our movement may not bear fruit but every single person in Europe should be aware that not only their lifestyle but also their life is threatened by the leaders in power today !”
The excesses of police violence now allow the Left to vilify the police, who until now, and particularly since the terrorist attacks which plunged France into mourning several times in rather quick succession, had been well appreciated by the French. The Right does not like what it sees, the violence on either side. The VA letter writers, who were behind the GJ particularly on the identitarian and cultural but also fiscal issues, are very unhappy about the turn the movement is taking. And who profits from division and a pre-revolutionary ambiance?
Whither the Gilets Jaunes?
It is not over. However the movement is now divided between those who want to give it a political expression and more radical elements who don’t even want to take part in the National Debate. The fact that a number of GJ took part in the national strike on 5 February alongside the hard-Left represented by Mélenchon and the CGT trade-union will alienate the Right-wing GJ.
Meanwhile the cost to the economy is already considerable. The economic concessions have already been mentioned which will be borne by taxpayers. The figures that follow were estimated at the end of 2018 (after seven Acts).
The forced inactivity of trucks unable to deliver has led to a degree of paralysis of the French economy. According to the Ministry of Work, some 58,000 people have lost their jobs or been partially unemployed by the crisis, mostly in SME companies. The damage to the equipment and infrastructure of the motorways is estimated at several tens of millions of euros in damage. It is estimated that the damage caused in Paris over several Saturdays will cost €10 M euros. Retail suffered, particularly before Christmas: the national retail federation estimated then that it had suffered a €2 Bn loss. To this loss of turnover must be added the cost of repair to damaged shops. More than 2,000 companies filed claims for property damage and the interruption of their business. 4,000 claims insurance were filed for damaged vehicles, a few hundred more for damaged homes. The insurance federation believes they will pay between €100 and 200 million. The association of food industries estimated losses of €13 Bn for the agricultural sector. Lastly, tourists are keeping away: International air arrivals and hotel bookings in Paris dropped by 10%. Air France/KLM claimed it has lost €15 M in sales.
The Ballot Box
On 23 January, two GJ announced the list of candidates they will field for the elections to the European parliament which will take place on 26 May. Instantly, the “Ralliement d’Initiative Citoyenne” (RIC) was contested by more radical GJ who accuse them of selling out. Hoping to become a politician when one decries representative democracy is a tad contradictory. Such a list also raises the question, – should street movements get involved in party politics? What would be the input of any RIC MEPs in Brussels?… There are now four GJ lists…
It is feared that the RIC and others will dilute opposition to Macron and will divide the right-wing vote. The GJ, if they voted at all, have voted in the past for the extreme Left (Mélenchon’s “France Insoumise”) to the so-called far Right (MLP’s FN, now renamed “Rassemblement National”, – RN), with votes cast for “Les Républicains” (Sarkozy and Fillon’s party, – LR), “La République en Marche” (Macron’s – LREM), socialists (Hollande’s) or “La France Debout” (Dupont-Aignan’s) in-between.
An opinion poll (published on 23 January) shows that RN would be the main loser:
The column on the Left is without a GJ list, the column on the Right with. MLP and her RN are in purple; Macron and his LREM in orange.
The GJ list would come third with 13% of voting intentions, behind Macron’s and MLP’s. Yes, incredibly, the latest opinion polls show Macron’s list coming FIRST in the European Elections. Puzzling or what?
At a time when Euroscepticism is rising everywhere and when it would have seemed crucial, from the Government’s point of view, to ensure that it would not come top of the vote, it was reported, on Sunday 4 February, right after Act XII, that the Government was considering organising a referendum on the same day as the EU elections.
A referendum?? The last one took place on 29 May 2005 and the 55% of French voters who opposed the EU Constitution were roundly ignored. The EU Constitution was dropped and morphed into the Lisbon Treaty! It has transpired, since the EU referendum in the UK and the beginning of the GJ protests, that a sizeable number of these voters have not forgotten.
Readers of the right-wing paper “Le Figaro” do not want a referendum on 26 May:
This on-line readers’ poll was taken on 3 February. An overwhelming No, without the question/s being decided on and not knowing what would be made of the answer/s.
Among the GJ, even though we’ve seen the odd EU flag being burned or the odd “Frexit” placard during the demonstrations, there is not a lot of evidence that the EU is at the heart of their grievances. However many of their demands could not be implemented as long as France is in the EU! At some point they’ll have to articulate that debate.
Surprisingly Macron’s handling of the GJ crisis has caused his approval rating to go from a low of 23% in October to 34 % in a poll published on 6 February…
France at a Crossroads
Roundabouts became ubiquitous in France in the 1970s. They were called “ronds-points anglais” then! France rather took to them. It has up to 50.000 ronds-points, half the roundabouts in the world (10.000 “only” in Britain!). They are usually ugly and are the emblem of the French malaise. It is fitting that they have been taken over by the GJ who turned them into places of protest, against taxes and against the destruction of their way of life, but also into places of friendship and solidarity.
Whatever happens to the movement, whether it splinters, is taken over, goes mainstream, or changes France forever, we shall never view a yellow vest in quite the same way again, as it has become a symbol of the new resistance, along with a red MAGA hat!
© Sunshine & Showers 2019