'Make or break' moment for France's Yellow Vest protesters as national strike looms

Adam Parsons, Europe Correspondent

France's Gilets Jaunes protest movement is facing a "make or break" moment, according to the man who first came up with the idea of using yellow vests as a protest.

In an exclusive interview with Sky News, Ghislain Coutard also said that he sometimes blames himself for the injuries suffered by Gilets Jaunes protesters during clashes with police, but claimed that the protests could still lead to a "new beginning" for his country.

France is facing a general strike on Thursday that threatens to paralyse much of the country's public services.

Up to 90% of scheduled train services will stop, while firefighters, police, air traffic controllers and many other sectors will also be seriously affected.

Around 250 official demonstrations will be held across the country, with many more where the authorities have not been notified.

The strike action is focused on protesting against changes to the state retirement age, but will also encompass widespread discontent with the economic reforms being pursued by President Emmanuel Macron.

It is likely to be the biggest wave of strikes and demonstrations that France has faced for decades, uniting trade unions and also the Gilets Jaunes protesters.

And wherever there are protests, there will, inevitably, be crowds of people wearing yellow vests - "Gilets Jaunes" as they're called in French.

Mr Coutard still has the original gilet jaune in the front of his car as we meet near his home in Narbonne, in the southwest of France.

He was working as an engineer last year, driving every day for his job, and wanted to join protests about planned rises to fuel taxes.

He recorded a video on his phone, expressing his anger about the government and suggesting that people join in using fluorescent yellow vests as a sign of protest.

The vests are commonplace because French cars are obliged to carry them, and his idea caught on immediately.

Since then, the yellow vests have become a common sight during a year of popular protest across France.

The protest movement has become known simply as the Gilets Jaunes, with protests taking place across the nation every weekend.

"I wasn't happy with taxes, process of petrol. So I did a video," he told me.

"When I was happy with what I filmed I saw the reflection of my gilet in the windscreen.

"Initially I thought, 'I hope that doesn't show in the video' and then I thought, 'Why not suggest it as a colour code for the movement'.

"We all have one in the car and I thought it could have a huge impact. And there you go. That was it."

His filmed message has now been watched more than five and a half million times.

"First of all I couldn't believe it but now I know it has become a symbol," he says.

"It was a total surprise but now it has become a political piece of clothing. Giving power to those who don't have it. It is almost more efficient than a vote."

And yet Mr Coutard's idea has also led to controversy and violence.

Those wearing the yellow vests have found themselves embroiled in battles with France's CRS riot police, resulting in arrests, many injuries, and even some deaths.

When I ask him how he feels about this, about the unintended consequences of the protest movement that he helped to mobilise, his face falls into a frown.

"There wouldn't have been these arrests, these injuries, these deaths," he tells me.

"I'm not very proud of the past year. Every time I see someone injured I feel bad that it might be because of my idea. It's more negative than positive.

"We have been branded in a certain way. A Gilet Jaune has been labelled as a lazy, jobless person, with drink problems, and who does nothing in life.

"We have been attacked. Police shout at us to go and get a job. We are accused of being lazy. It's so frustrating."

For the past year, the protests have happened, across France, every weekend. Yet in recent months the number of protesters has declined.

There were, already, those predicting that the Gilets Jaunes phenomenon was about to fade into history.

And yet now, as the general strike looms, perhaps it has a chance to reinvigorate itself.

Mr Coutard agrees. He sees this as a decisive moment for the Gilets Jaunes.

"For me, it's male or break. This is either a new beginning or it's the end," he says.

"We have lost so many people who've been injured. People are tired, and discouraged.

"The most determined are still in the streets every Saturday but we are gradually losing them, one by one. Huge arrests have been made.

"When we demonstrate, we don't know if we'll go home that night."