‘Too little, too late’: France’s ‘yellow vests’ vow to push on with protests

The gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters in France have vowed to continue their protests despite the French government trying to calm their anger by suspending a planned hike in fuel taxes. That spells bad news for president Emmanuel Macron and the Paris police force.

'Too little, too late': France's 'yellow vests' vow to push on with protests
Photo: AFP
Despite their efforts to appease the 'yellow vest' protesters after the violence seen across parts of France on Saturday, it seems France's leaders haven't done enough to stop a possible repeat performance this weekend. 
French PM Edouard Philippe announced on Tuesday three significant measures, including the freezing of the controversial fuel tax hikes, aimed at calming the anger and sparing Paris and other cities from more violence.
Many of the members of the protest group who have spoken out since the French PM unveiled the measures on Tuesday afternoon have said that they failed to meet their expectations and were not enough to stop further protests. 
The measures include a six-month suspension of the fuel tax hike, a freeze on regulated electricity and gas prices and stricter vehicle emission controls set to kick in in January 2019 will also be suspended, one of the demands of the “yellow vest” movement which erupted last month.
Centre-right politician Damien Abad described the measures as “too little, too late”.
And prominent figures associated with the 'yellow vest' movement made it clear that the measures did not go far enough.  

Is it really wise for tourists to come to Paris in the run up to Christmas?

Photo: AFP

“This is not what we wanted,” spokesperson for the 'yellow vests' Benjamin Cauchy told BFM TV. 

“We want the cancellation of the fuel tax hike. Let's not get caught up in politics, let's be clear,” he said. “A moratorium is either a disguised political snub or a mockery of the French people and it means the tax coming back in six months.”
Even the reactions from the more moderate gilets jaunes have been ones of disappointment. 
“It needed strong and visible measures. These are measures to play for time,” Yves Garrec, a yellow vest from Toulouse told the French press. “I doubt that the movement will stop there.”
And members of the protest group aren't only disappointed over the words spoken by the French Prime Minister on Tuesday. 
Spokespeople have said that they regret the fact that French President Emmanuel Macron has “not deigned to speak to his people” since his speech on ecological transition last week in which he unsuccessfully tried to extend an olive branch to the protesters. 
“Emmanuel Macron still has not deigned to speak to his people, one feels an unspeakable contempt for the president,” said Laetitia Dewalle, spokesperson for the movement in the Val d'Oise department in the greater Paris region of Ile-de-France. 

One group blocking a petrol depot in Le Mans, western France, said they would press on.
Marc Beaulaton, a retired 59-year-old nuclear safety worker, dismissed the government's offerings as “mini-measures”.
“The government is trying to put us to sleep,” said Lionel Rambeaux, a 41-year-old welder.
Yellow vests: Who were the rioters who wreaked havoc and destruction in Paris?
Photo: AFP
The movement has swollen by amassing people who are angry at Macron for various reasons — but this also makes it harder for protesters to agree on their aims.
“The dynamic of the movement is such that it's not certain the government's measures can stop it,” said Jerome Sainte-Marie, head of the PollingVox polling agency.
“What's more likely is that these measures divide the movement.”
Jerome Fourquet, an analyst at pollsters IFOP, predicted many protesters would suspect the government of trying to pacify them now only to bring back the taxes later.
“Significant as they are, these announcements come relatively late,” he said.
“They may have had a different effect if they'd been announced a week ago.” 
Emerging without leaders via social media, the “yellow vests” have tried to become more organised, nominating an eight-person delegation to negotiate with the government. 
But some members have refused to recognise the representatives chosen in a Facebook ballot, and the government has found it difficult to negotiate with the grassroots movement.
A group of moderate protesters had been due to meet with officials at Philippe's office on Monday but pulled out, saying they had received threats from “anarchist kids” for agreeing to the meeting.
And it looks likely that there will be another protest in the French capital this weekend, with 'yellow vests' saying that they are still planning to come to Paris this weekend for 'Acte IV' (Act 4) of the protests. 
“The anger has not subsided at all,” said one of the main 'yellow vest' organisers Eric Drouet. “These measures have not convinced us. The only announcements we have had are suspensions or tax freezes.”
Drouet also denounced the government's delayed reaction.
“The government is far behind what is happening on the ground. It is not possible to wait so long before reacting.

However it wasn't all bad news for the government some protesters signalled they were satisfied with the government climbdown, including a group who said they would lift their blockade of a petrol depot in Brest, in Brittany. 
Although that is unlikely to come as much of a comfort if Paris turns into a war zone once again this weekend. 

Member comments

  1. When we replaced our car, 4 1/2 years ago, it was with a heavy heart that we bought our first-ever diesel because the only petrol engine offered wasn’t powerful enough for the car (this has since changed). We don’t like the noise nor, in particular, the filth, and never want to be responsible for more cases of asthma. So we always buy the high-grade diesel (e.g. Total Excellium) and the difference in emissions is enormous. So why doesn’t the government, as an interim measure, insist on supplying only high-grade diesel. Yes, it costs more, and is not as easily available, but if all diesel on sale was upgraded, there would be far less pollution (the black particles we hose off our terrace twice a year are impressive, in a negative sense) and all fuel outlets would stock it, so no expensive conversion of, or addition to, diesel storage tanks, so, presumably, cheaper, comparatively, than now. We, like most people, can’t afford to change to a fossil-free car just like that, and this seems to be an acceptable interim measure, but no one suggests it.

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Is France’s ‘yellow vest’ movement really on its way back?

Nearly two years since 'yellow-vest' protesters flooded the streets, the signature gilets jaunes have become a rare sight in France. With a comeback announced on September 12th, what is left of the movement that shook France?

Is France's 'yellow vest' movement really on its way back?
Yellow vest protests in Paris in 2019. Photo: AFP

When Priscillia Ludosky put on a yellow vest for the first time and headed out to the Champs Elysées to protest, she had no idea that nearly 300,000 people would do the same.

It was November 17th, 2018, the first 'yellow vest' protest in the capital and the birth of a mass-movement so large that its vows to overthrow French President Emmanuel Macron’s government seemed, for a moment, credible. 

Nearly two years later, Macron is still president – and aiming for reelection – while the ‘yellow vest’ movement has all but disappeared from the public eye.

“It’s been a long time since I wore the yellow vest,” Priscillia Ludosky, founder and leading figure of the movement, told The Local.

She had not left the movement, but said she was less active than she had been.

“I'm less on-the-ground than I used to. The pandemic put the brakes on most things,” she said.

Despite France's rising coronavirus rates, the 'yellow vests' have declared a comeback protest on September 12th, promising to “never give up”.


But with the protests before lockdown gathering only a fraction of the numbers they once rallied, how much is there really left of the 'yellow vests'?

“The movement is much smaller, much less active, and much more divided than it was at the outset,” historian Sylvain Boulouque told The Local.

Boulouque has followed the movement from the beginning and has written the book Mensonges en gilet jaune (Lies in yellow vests), about the role social media and fake news played in fuelling the 'yellow vests' anger.

When the ‘yellow vests’ first spiralled into a national mass-movement, their rallying cry “Macron demission !” (Macron resign) was the one ringing the loudest, and it was also one of the few demands that all of the ‘yellow vests’ could unite behind.

“The movement spans all the way from the extreme-left to the extreme-right. There is no unity on the fundamental political questions,” Boulouque said.

The more time passed, the more the movement's internal divisions became clear. Today, Boulouque said, there was “a little bit of everything” left, and just keeping track of the movement had become a challenge.

“It’s so local that the demographic changes from town to town and week to week,” he said.

Among the extreme right-wing were a number of conspiracy theory believers, he said, including anti-mask activists who opposed the French government's new rules on masks.

Pro- and anti-masks was just the newest fault line dividing the 'yellow vests', Boulouque said.

“The pandemic will split them rather than reunite them,” he said.

‘Covid proved our points’

Seizing on the pandemic to re-mobilise the masses is what the still-active 'yellow vests' hope to do on September 12th.

Leading 'yellow vest' figure Jérôme Rodrigues. Photo: AFP

Jérôme Rodrigues, another ‘yellow vest’ leading figure, told Slate that the pandemic was their “best ally”.

“Covid proved our points about the degrading of the health system and the limits of the capitalist system,” Rodrigues said.

When the French government imposed a nationwide, strict lockdown in March, it was to save the hospitals in hard-hit areas such as Paris from the mounting pressure of a rapidly increasing patient flow. 

The lockdown, which lasted over two months, had a crippling impact on the economy and saw the government spend billions on emergency help schemes to prevent chain bankruptcies and mass layoffs. 

Despite the government's efforts to kickstart the economy, France’s unemployment rate is set to increase by 10 percent by the end of the year. Young people will be the worst affected, according to France’s national institute for statistics, Insee. Rodrigues predicted that the looming downturn would reaffirm people's faith in the 'yellow vest' movement.

“With the coming crisis, people who were doing well financially and who have never had a hard time are going to fall flat on their faces,” Rodrigues said.

'Yellow vest' leading figure Priscillia Ludosky has been participating in protests against police violence and in support of France's hospital sector the past months. Photo: AFP

'Sensationalist media'

Rodrigues became a symbol of the ‘yellow vests’ after he was hit in the eye by what he claimed to be an LBD rubber bullet fired by police (the police refute his accusation, but the authority overseeing the police has launched an investigation into the matter). 

Blinded in one eye, Rodrigues incorporated one of the most jarring features of the protests: their increasingly violent character. The recurring scenes of violence that dominated the protests contributed to the ‘yellow vests’ hogging headlines for months – not just in France, but across the world. 

Images of burning cars, police armed with rubber-bullet guns, violent fist-fights and black-clad protesters smashing ATMs with baseball bats shocked the world. 

But the violence also dominated the media coverage of the protests, which meant what the protesters were saying got less attention.

READ ALSO How the 'yellow vests' made France have a national conversation about police violence

To Ludosky, this was a big problem.

“The media won’t cover anything unless it’s sensationalist,” she said. 

Ludosky authored the online petition that became the catalyst for the ‘yellow vest’ protests. In it, she wrote that the government’s proposed carbon tax was both falsely branded a green policy and was harmful to the many people who depended on their cars to get around every day.

The document went viral and gathered more than one million signatures, and the fluorescent yellow vest that all vehicles in France must be equipped with became the symbol of the masses revolting against the elites.

Ludosky said her main point was lost in the coverage. She was not an angry car-enthusiast defending her right to drive, she was saying that the tax was unfair and would impact the most on the poorest.

“The longer we protested, the more they tried to tell everyone that we don't know what we want. That we were only out there to break things,” she said.

The early days of the movement saw hundreds of 'roundabout protests' in the French provinces. Photo: AFP

'They are there'

The violence also discouraged many of the 'yellow vests' who had little experience with protesting and were shocked by the use of force on both sides.

Danielle Tartakowsky, a professor at the Paris 8 University who specialises in social movements in contemporary France, said it was important to distinguish between the ‘yellow vest’ who still turned up to protests in Paris – often young, keen and ready to go head to head with police – and the ‘yellow vests’ mobilising in less urban areas.

“In the countryside the ‘yellow vest’ movement is the same as it was at the outset,” she said.

In her new book, On est là ! (We’re here), a main ‘yellow vest’ rallying cry, she concludes just that; the movement had changed, but the ‘yellow vests’ were still present.

“That does not mean that they are ready to rally in the same ways, but it would be dangerous and delusional to say that they have disappeared,” she said.

Tartakowsky said that, while the 'yellow vests' successes could seem limited from the outside, they had pushed through important change indirectly by showing that it was possible to force through change.

“Even if they did not win on all points they showed that it was possible to win something, to make the government backpedal,” she said, referring to the carbon tax.

The camp

When the protests started, the roundabout became the main stage for the protesters who did not travel to Paris to make their discontent heard and seen in the capital. 

From June 2019 until March 2020, just before the pandemic hit with full force, Séverine spent most of her free time on a local roundabout where she and some 30 other ‘yellow vests’ had set up a camp.

A teacher in Amiens, a city a couple of hours north of Paris, Séverine was an early believer that the ‘yellow vests’ would be the movement that finally could radically change a system she saw as unjust, undemocratic and unsustainable.

“I passed all my evenings, all my weekends at the camp,” she said.

The camp was a microcosm of the world they hoped to create.

“We cooked together, discussed, we really had some great moments there together,” she said.

They were all kinds of people at the camp; a waiter, a metro driver, a nursery teacher, a few retirees. An Indian student who just needed somewhere to crash for free. 

“It was a very open environment,” Séverine said.

But the problems soon surfaced. The camp, like the movement, swore to a leaderless management style where no one had a final say.

“It was a mess. Obviously, we didn’t manage to make any decisions,” Séverine said.

Violence at protests became a major problem. Photo: AFP

'People are exhausted'

They split themselves into two groups. Oddly enough, the division had little to do with politics.

“It was not about left or right. We actually agreed on the fundamental issues. It was more about strong personalities and people simply not getting along,” she said.

The atmosphere soured. They argued more, discussed less. They went from 30, to 20, to about 10. Then, after the local election in March, just before the pandemic made social distancing the norm, the mayor told them to clear the camp. 

Critics have long said the ‘yellow vests’ lack of leadership was their major, perhaps the decisive, default. How could they push for change when they had no idea what they wanted?

Despite having become so disillusioned with the movement that she no longer knew if she wanted to call herself a ‘yellow vest’ at all, Séverine was not sure this was their main problem. 

“Demonstrating every weekend is tiring. It requires a significant commitment. I think people are exhausted,” she said.

'I was fed up'

In the months that followed the movement’s heyday in early 2019, the protests followed the same pattern as Séverine's camp.

They were increasingly sparse in numbers and the atmosphere increasingly tense and bitter.

“You're walking in a state of complete stress, afraid that someone is aiming at you. You don't hear the messages anymore,” Séverine said.

Five people have lost a hand in the protests. Twenty-five were blinded in an eye. According to government numbers, 2,500 protesters were hurt in the protests by the end of 2019, along with 1,800 police officers.

“No one could imagine that a movement could last this long without losing momentum,” Ludosky said.

“Keeping on going cost a lot to the people who got involved. It's money, time, people lost limbs, couples separated.”

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: French police are not all thugs – they are being placed in an impossible situation

Like many others, she was put off by the violence. In the end, she left her yellow vest in her car.

“I was fed up,” she said. “Every time I wore it I worried about the police controlling me.”

She was not sure if she still believed in the movement.

“It’s complicated. The presidential elections are coming up soon, crying out for Macron’s resignation doesn’t make sense anymore.”

“But the 12th will be the moment to go out on the streets. Not necessarily in Paris, but we need to show something.”