'Macron forced me to become more political': a tale of two Yellow Vests

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Nathalie and Agnès joined France's anti-government Yellow Vest protests from the outset in November 2018. Sixty weeks of sometimes violent demonstrations failed to topple the President, but Emmanuel Macron inadvertently made them more politically aware, and they're now using that to vote him out of office.

Images of violent clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Paris and other big French cities made headlines around the world in late 2018 and early 2019.

Agnès and Nathalie left their sleepy small towns near Chartres, 100 kilometres west of the capital, to attend those marches. They not only witnessed the violence, they were kettled in by police and spent hours choking on tear gas.

It's left an indelible mark, but they feel the Yellow Vest movement should not be reduced to violence. While fuel taxes were the trigger, their grievances were far deeper.

“If it had only been fuel tax I probably wouldn’t have gone out [to the roundabout],” says Nathalie. “But it was a lot more than that – it was purchasing power, the health system.”

When her sister, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, had to stop work and couldn’t afford a carer, Nathalie started working part-time and took over the role.

“What happened to my sister was unjust, she’d worked for years and when she became disabled, she was worth nothing. That's how she felt.”

Agnès, meanwhile, had a disabled child to take care of, and had fallen into debt following her divorce.

“The state didn’t help me, it was the foodbanks,” she says. “I felt ashamed.”

Listen to a conversation with Nathalie and Agnes in the Spotlight on France podcast

The two women met on the roundabout in Chartres at the very beginning of the Yellow Vest movement, on 17 November 2018. They've since become good friends.

We sit in the living room of Nathalie’s modest flat in Luisant, on the outskirts of Chartres.

“I’m no longer ashamed,” Agnès says, "because when I joined the Yellow Vests on the roundabout I realised there were thousands of people like me.

"We were able to open up, help one another, find solutions.”

'Manning' the roundabouts

The roundabout was their HQ: they'd organise activities, write tracts, try and make France understand their demands for a decent living wage, more direct democracy and how residents in small towns with diminishing services felt they were not being heard.

Nathalie went to the roundabout "everyday for about two hours after work, right through to Covid”. The lockdown introduced in March 2020 effectively put paid to the gatherings.

Bearing the cold and rain, they huddled around fires. There were arguments, but no fights. ”There were rules, alcohol was banned,” Nathalie underlines.

The roundabout had to be manned 24/7 to stop the prefecture taking back control. Many of those present were women.

“There were probably more women than men, divorced women with children and pensioners like Marie who brought us coffee and biscuits everyday,” remembers Agnès.

“Didier, my partner, says women are tougher than men,” Nathalie says. “We refuse to give up. As we were more likely to do the daily shop, we were probably more aware of prices going up.”

And as mothers they were doubly protective of their offspring.

“When we saw we couldn't fill up the fridge for our kids, we were even more determined,” Agnès adds.

Handing out crumbs

As the cost of living continues to rise and fuel prices have surged, some say the conditions are ripe for a Yellow Vest revival.

Back then “a full tank cost 70 euros and now it’s 103 euros,” says Agnès. The government recently gave out a 15 cent per litre reduction, but the women say it's peanuts.

“That saves me €7.50,” says Agnes doing the maths on a calculator.

“We're sick of the crumbs they're handing out – 15 cents here, a 100-euro cheque there,” says Nathalie referring to the cheque the government issued to soften the blow of soaring energy prices.

“They're throwing us peanuts to keep us from taking to the streets,” she adds.

Meanwhile “corruption, tax evasion, conflicts of interest, they do nothing about that".

The government rolled out a number of measures to quell the Yellow Vest protests – abandoning the fuel tax, launching nationwide debates, injecting billions of euros in the form of tax-free bonuses for companies to offer their employees. The women say they’ve seen little benefit.

"We weren't included in the debates, and I got €6.57,” says Agnès. Nathalie insists she didn’t see a cent.

Indebted to Macron

But they owe Macron something which can’t be measured either financially or on a calculator.

“His disdain for the Yellow Vests, his inability to listen, everything he said about us – all of that forced me to become more politically aware,” says Agnès. “I thank Macron for that.”

She and Nathalie set up an online platform called “Objectif RIC” named after the citizens’ referendum initiative designed to get more direct democracy into France’s political system.

“I never would have thought back on 17 November 2018 that I’d be capable of so much,” says Agnès.

Both women are voting “against Macron” in the presidential election, though they won’t be drawn on the detail.

“Whatever women have achieved they had to fight for it, including the right to vote, so even if it's just for that, I'll vote," Nathalie says.

As I pack up to leave, Agnès thinks about what else they gained during those 16 months of protests.

"We didn’t get liberty, we didn’t get equality, but we did get fraternity through the Yellow Vests. People are no longer just looking out for themselves."

Agnès and Nathalie feature in a documentary film "Un Peuple" ("A French Revolution") by Emmanuel Gras, in which he follows the first six months of the Yellow Vests in Chartres.

"The film is important for us," says Nathalie, "to set the record straight, give us back our dignity. We didn't destroy a thing."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting