Déjà vu as France's Yellow Vest protesters mark three years of struggle

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Three years on from the start of Yellow Vest anti-government protests, disgruntled participants say nothing much has changed. Fuel prices and the cost of living have gone up again and anger against President Emmanuel Macron has not abated. Some protesters are preparing events to mark their struggle on 20th of November.

"I became a Yellow Vest because I want to live, not just survive. I believe in this," Myriam Fabregat, primary school auxiliary assistant told French news agency AFP in Montpellier on Monday.

Since the beginning of the protest movement in 2018, Myriam has donned her yellow safety vest - known as a gilet jaune in French - at every Saturday protest held at a round about in the southern French city.

She accepts that the movement has lost some momentum, but she remains determined to share her message.

"I need to come here, it's vital, I really want people to wake up," she says, standing next to her homemade yellow banner which reads "Macron and his rules: out!"

"Three years on, I'm still in the red at the end of the month, I still sleep badly. I have to fight for my salary, for my rights, for my children. I believe, I want to continue believing," she says.

"Our struggle has not changed. What we want is still the same, it [has] simply been reinforced," says another protester, Sabrine Raynaud, a teacher in Montpellier and fervent Yellow Vest supporter.

Calls for Macron to resign

"We want the needs of the population to be met in terms of health, education, justice. That everyone should have a wage to live on, not just survive. We want a real democracy, not a sham one," Raynaud says.

On the 20 November, a number of protest groups around the country intend to hold a special celebration to mark their three years of existence, with concerts, debates and marches.

Richard Abauzit, a former work inspector and one of the key members of the Montpellier group is hoping this will also mark a "new starting point for the future."

"After three years, even if there are fewer of us here, we're still here. Things will pick up again and we'll get what we want in the end," he says.

But for many, there's a feeling of coming back to square one, of déjà vu.

Like all countries, France has been hit by a surge in oil and gas prices since the middle of the year caused by a spike in global demand and supply shortages.

It was anger over rising fuel prices and attempts to tax heavily polluting vehicles which sparked the often violent protests of 2018.

In October this year, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced a supplement of €100 euros for those earning less than €2,000 euros a month to help them with rising energy prices.

This will affect some 38 million people, he said, adding that "petrol prices will be frozen for the whole of 2022".

Among the remaining protesters, this solution feels like the "government is trying to buy us off," and is not nearly enough to quell their anger.

Since October, at a strategic round about in Chaumont, (Haute-Marne) in the centre of France, a group has restarted regular gatherings at weekends, spreading their message to drivers passing by on the way to Dijon, Vesoul and Basançon further south.

They say their presence is a reminder that the fight is not over, and it has "helped raise the political conscience of fellow citizens," one member said.

Transformation

The movement has morphed several times since the beginning, and key events in the last three years have prompted a split in the various motivations of the protesters.

Should it become a political party and run in elections? Should it join an existing political group and if so, which one? Should the demands be expanded? The list goes on.

"Alcoholism is rife among certain protesters, and this gives the movement a bad reputation," 25 year-old Vincent, one of the first to don the yellow safety vest told AFP, adding that violence used by some protesters has not helped their cause either.

"I've seen Yellow Vests throw snowballs with bricks hidden inside at police officers," he explains, which prompted him to throw his vest away in 2019.

"The episode at the Arc de Triomphe also marked a before and after," 33 year-old Yannick, a leading figure of the Chaumont yellow vest group told AFP.

"It branded us as violent, and that took all the media attention. We lost the support of the general public."

New reasons to protest

The arrival of the Covid-19 health crisis in 2020 was fatal to the momentum to the group, but opened up other avenues of struggle, notably over issues such as the global security law, which saw huge street protests, and opposition to the health pass.

Yannick, a health worker and supporter of the Yellow Vest movement has been suspended from his job since mid-September because he refused to show his health pass, now mandatory for medical personnel.

Another development over the past year has been the numerous reports of journalists targeted by Yellow vVst protesters, accused of being messengers of the state and taking direct orders from President Macron.

"I joined this movement in the hop of seeing progess for spending power of French people. Today, the movement is simply 'anti everything': anti-government, anti-health pass, anti-vaccination," regrets Vincent.

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