A protest against petrol prices two years ago led to a near revolution in France. Angela Diffley looks back.
On Saturday 17 November 2018, over a quarter of a million men and women wearing yellow jackets, or gilets jaunes, brought France to a standstill. They blocked access to roads and motorways across the country in protest at a fuel price rise that had left the trendy bike-riding city-dwellers who voted for Emmanuel Macron 18 months earlier largely unbothered.
Who were the Yellow Vests?
It is hard to establish a clear profile of the protestors. The movement was never a card-carrying organisation but, in the early days, a picture emerged of citizens in low-paid jobs or running small businesses who struggled to pay bills and felt they received little in return for their taxes.
Jérôme Fourquet of the polling organisation Ifop described them back in November 2018 as “people who are too rich to receive welfare benefits but not rich enough to live well. Not the poorest but just above that.”
A majority of those who backed the Yellow Vests had voted for Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election, according to Ifop.
A key feature of the movement was the fact that it emerged on the outskirts of towns and cities or in the countryside. The protestors relied heavily on their cars and resented environmental policies that impacted hugely on their daily lives.
The Yellow Vests felt let down by political parties and had no time for trade unions either.
The new movement had no official leaders, no clear demands and no structure. It quickly attracted militants with varied and sometimes contradictory grievances.
Before long it span out of control as the original protestors hardened their stance and were joined by far-left activists, anarchists and rioters intent on violence and looting.
Shops were smashed up, paving stones were hurled and streets were sprayed with graffiti.
The government dropped the tax that had led to higher fuel prices.
Then, in a sombre speech on 10 December 2018, after weeks of protests, Macron announced a package of measures costing 10 billion euros including a significant increase in the minimum wage and the abolition of tax on overtime.
Some of the protestors were satisfied but others continued.
The movement morphed into a frenzy of anti-capitalist outrage. An effigy of Macron was decapitated and his wife Brigitte was compared to a latter-day Marie Antoinette. At the height of the mayhem, amid specific threats targeting the president, a helicopter was made available to whisk him to safety should the mob try to storm the Elysée palace.
But by January 2019, protestors and public alike wondered why the demonstrations, so harmful to the shop workers and small retailers who had originally been supportive, were continuing after the original demands about tax had been met.
The protests began to lose momentum although there were many further violent clashes before it finally petered out in autumn 2019.
What did they achieve?
The Yellow Vests certainly succeeded in forcing the government to drop the fuel tax, but the movement’s most significant result was the impact it had on Macron and his team.
The president was said to be hugely shaken by the eruption of a movement he had not seen coming. The episode revealed just how detached he and his band of young highly-educated metropolitan types were from ordinary people outside the capital.
But his detachment was unsurprising.
Macron had worked for an investment bank and glided into politics where he served as a minister under François Hollande. He dazzled in his presidential campaign and built a political party from nothing, and had no history of the epic defeats and dramatic failures that are the stuff of a normal politician’s journey.
On his way up, he had not had to shake enough hands or attend enough forgettable village meetings to understand the country properly.
Only weeks before the Yellow Vests emerged, he had downgraded the annual rendez-vous with France’s 35,000 or so mayors in a sign that he placed little value on their relationships and connections to ordinary citizens in thousands of towns and villages.
The Great Debate
Macron was chastened and in March 2019, in a bid to demonstrate that he had learned from it all, the president launched the Grand Débat (Great Debate), a series of question-and-answer sessions in towns and cities throughout the country.
He impressed everywhere by his detailed grasp of local issues and a cool Obama-style ease with a microphone and rolled up sleeves.
The sessions launched a month of smaller discussion groups without the president, organised by groups of citizens around France who so wished.
There was also an online suggestions box and a promise that every single comment and idea arising from the Great Debate would be examined.
But the government was criticised for tightly restricting the subjects which could be discussed – explosive issues such as immigration or secularism were strictly off-limits.
And those who chose to join the venture were not particularly representative of the population either. Statistics showed they were mostly over 45, and the Yellow Vests themselves dismissed the idea as a gimmick.
Among the ideas taken on board by the government were a reduction in income tax for lower income workers and a plan to abolish the ENA, the graduate school which churns out France’s elite civil servants.
The debate also spawned a citizens’ convention on the subject of the environment which led – in the ultimate irony for the Yellow Vests – to calls for more green taxes.
Christophe Guilluy, a prominent geographer and commentator credited with first identifying the constituency that formed the Yellow Vests, fears the anger has not disappeared two years later, especially now with Covid-19 lockdowns likely to force the closure of many small businesses.
“These people are not represented in politics, in the world of culture or in the media”, he observes, predicting that they will be back again in a different guise.