Yellow vests : what’s going on?

Le journal écossais The National, dans son édition du dimanche, m’a demandé d’expliquer la crise des gilets jaunes à ses lecteurs. Embourbés dans le Brexit, les Britanniques (et plus encore les Ecossais qui ont massivement voté pour le maintien dans l’Union européenne) ont leurs propres emmerdes problèmes à gérer mais les violences répétées lors des manifestations du samedi inquiètent et interrogent. Surtout vues de loin où l’on a du mal à imaginer que la France va si mal. Nous sommes l’un des pays les plus riches de la planète, nous avons une qualité de vie que le monde nous envie, nous bénéficions d’une protection sociale qui amortit les accidents de la vie, et pourtant une large part de la population se sent négligée, abandonnée, laissée pour compte. Ce sont ces inégalités et ces injustices que dénonce légitimement le mouvement des gilets jaunes, mais le déchaînement de violence qui a affecté les commerces et les entreprises juste avant Noël ne peut être que contreproductif pour les salariés modestes. Par ailleurs, l’aspiration à la consommation et à un mode de vie fondé sur la voiture (illustré dans cet article polémique du Monde) s’entrechoque avec les impératifs écologiques. Facile à dire quand on n’a pas de problème de fin de mois mais la demande d’une société plus juste s’exprime souvent dans une injonction à taxer les riches plutôt qu’à changer collectivement de modèle de consommation. Et le gouvernement actuel n’a clairement pas été innovant en la matière comme l’a démontré la démission tonitruante de Nicolas Hulot.

J’ai tenté de mettre ces événements en perspective en rappelant les nombreuses maladresses de langage d’Emmanuel Macron depuis son élection (Gaulois réfractaires, trouver un emploi en traversant la rue), car les lecteurs britanniques ne sont pas au fait de toutes ces péripéties. Mais je souligne aussi que la colère compréhensible des gilets jaunes n’est pas représentative de tout le pays et surtout que le combat se gagnera ensemble, car nous sommes tous dans le même bateau face aux enjeux de développement durable, quel que soit notre niveau de vie, notre origine sociale ou notre capital culturel. C’est la volonté de vivre ensemble autour de valeurs communes qui fonde une société et les discours de division que l’on entend actuellement ne sont pas porteurs de solutions. Je reproduis l’article in extenso ci-dessous, ainsi que le lien ici.


Gilets jaunes are not the only voice that must be heard in France

NEARLY four years ago, millions of French citizens peacefully took to the streets after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo to claim that terrorism wouldn’t divide them. Last July, thousands of ecstatic football fans gathered on the Champs Elysées to catch a glimpse of their beloved team who had won the World Cup. Yet over the past few weeks the country has appeared more divided than ever and the Champs Elysées have been the stage of scenes similar to civil war.

Every Saturday since November 17 a minority of demonstrators have set up barricades, put cars on fire, smashed store windows and thrown cobble stones at police forces. On December 1, they stormed the Arc de Triomphe, a Paris landmark at the top of the famous avenue.

“Macron resignation” and “No Christmas for the bourgeoisie” were among the inscriptions you could read on defaced buildings. Parisians and residents of other cities such as Lyon and Bordeaux have become used to locking up on Saturdays and contemplating the damage the next morning.

Although the tragic events in Strasbourg on Tuesday reminded them that the terrorist threat was still upon them, the French have confirmed their reputation as an unruly and uncompromising people.

Since Bastille Day, they have taken to the streets to reclaim their rights and the outcome has often been painful for their rulers. At the time King Louis XVI asked ‘‘Is it a revolt?’’ His counsellor answered: ‘‘No Majesty, it’s a revolution.” But is France in 2018 really like 1789?

It is difficult to sort out the true meaning of the gilets jaune (yellow vest) movement, to make sense of the understandable despair of low-income families who can’t make ends meet and the horrific outburst of violence from a minority of protesters.

The French media and intellectuals are at a loss to understand the real demands of a disparate group with no leader, that spreads all over France in the form of blocked roundabouts and tollgates.

The yellow uprising – inspired by the safety vest everybody has to carry in their car – started in mid-November after the government announced a rise on petrol tax as a way to fund environmental policies.

Car owners were encouraged to invest in more ecological vehicles but the middle class saw it as a proof that its daily hardships were overlooked by the politicians in power. How could you care about the end of the world – as in, global warming – when you couldn’t even plan the end of the month? How could the government ignore that, for a tremendous number of people in a rich country like France, an extra €50 bill (£46) was a lot of money? How could they not know that with €1150 a month (£1035), the minimum wage in France, you sometimes had to choose between having a meal and filling the tank?

Rarely heard in the national media, la France périphérique (peripheral France), a phrase coined by geographer Christophe Guilluy, suddenly made the headlines.

It depicts a country of small towns, neither the suburbs nor the countryside, where public services and local shops are closing down. Their inhabitants are not unlike voters for Trump and Brexit, mainly white lower middle class people afraid of globalisation and climate change. It would be easy to assimilate them to right-wing voters but lots of them don’t even bother to vote anymore.

Demographer Hervé Le Bras, who studied the recent gatherings, calls it a ‘‘France of emptiness’’ mostly represented in the least populated areas, an east-west axis from the Luxembourg border to the Pyrenees. For the researcher quoted in Le 1 magazine, the common thread between the protesters is their car, a symbol of freedom to access services and cheaper housing that has become a trap with the rise in petrol prices.

Not only is the lower middle class afraid of losing its social status, but it sees that the more well-off are not required to make the same efforts.

Upon his election, President Emmanuel Macron abolished the wealth tax like he said he would, a move aimed at preventing tax exile. He campaigned on the promise that he was neither left nor right-wing and took good ideas from both sides, but has proven that he was closer to the interests of industrial lobbies than those of the working class.

Being in power since May last year, the 40-year-old head of state can’t be held responsible for decades of bad policy, but his behaviour over the last year has appeared haughty and condescending to lower classes.

Several sentences have shocked opinion, such as ‘‘you just have to cross the street to find a job” or “the French are stubborn Gauls” (“des Gaulois réfractaires”). His aim is to promote entrepreneurship and self-empowerment, but the son of an upper class family from Amiens, in the north of France, seems disconnected from the challenges faced by the less privileged.

THE anger against his policy has evolved into pure and simple hate for his person, and despite the numerous measures he announced in a TV address last Monday, including a rise in the minimum wage, most gilets jaunes insist that they will continue their blockades and demonstrations through Christmas. It seems that no conciliatory gesture will satisfy them unless the president quits.

In the general opinion, the protest has been largely supported, at least until the Strasbourg attack. According to a poll, the day after Emmanuel Macron’s TV address, on December 11, 54% of French people wanted the movement to continue (down from 66% on November 22). Although under 100,000 people are taking part in actions, 20% of the French consider themselves as gilets jaunes, which means 13 million people.

Some put the vest on their dashboard as a sign of solidarity. As a consequence, political parties on all sides have tried to pre-empt the movement, or exploit it. The leader of the right donned the vest in front of the cameras then pathetically denied doing so after a weekend of mayhem.A leader of the left compared the protesters to the Arab uprising in Tunisia and Egypt which seems farfetched: Macron is not Ben Ali and France is not a dictatorship.

All over the country, high school students, who added their own demands, have mimicked the gesture of teenagers who were arrested by the police after causing havoc, down on their knees and hands on their head.

But the comparison with the Black Lives Matter campaign in the US is invalid: no one was shot in these law enforcement operations. The yellow rage is sui generis, engrained in the French psyche, comparable but not identical to other protests.

It is the outcry of people who feel they are never listened to. They are not all of France, but they are part of it, and their voice matters.

But so does that of shop owners who make up to 30% of their annual turnover before Christmas and are worrying how they are going to pay their employees’ salaries.

And so does that of the thousands of participants in the climate march on December 8 who called for a change in our way of life.

The impression is that the real revolution we are experiencing is environmental, that we all have to make efforts to save our planet, and that we have to make them together.

Pascale Caussat is a French journalist based in Paris

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