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YELLOW VESTS

Now it’s personal: What the yellow vests want is Macron on his knees

French President Emmanuel Macron has backed down and cancelled fuel tax hikes in a bid to quell the growing violence, but it may not be enough, because the one thing that unites the protesters and the rioters is their hatred of their president.

Now it's personal: What the yellow vests want is Macron on his knees
"Macron get lost!" - reads the graffiti in Paris. Photo: AFP

The French President Emanuel Macron made a move on Tuesday that must have been a painful one for him – he backed down in the face of pressure from the street.

He might have resisted similar pressure from unions, students and train workers over unpopular reforms but the transformation of one of the poshest parts of Paris from luxury shopping quarter to war zone on Saturday appears to have forced the president to crack.

Wisely so, many seem to think, not least the city's police force.

Macron's PM Edouard Philippe -pushed to the front line – announced on Tuesday that the planned January hike in fuel taxes – the measure that had sparked the yellow vest movement three weeks ago – would be suspended. 

With social media pages suggesting thousands more angry protesters are ready to descend on Paris for more of the same, the French government, Parisians living in the west of the city and police will be desperately hoping the climbdown calms some of the anger.

But it may not.

The protest movement may have began as a gripe against fuel prices but it has spread well beyond that to the point where it is hard to work out exactly what it wants to achieve.

The problem the government and the police have is that the one thing that really unites the disparate group of rioters who caused carnage in Paris at the weekend is their personal hatred of the president.

A head of state they disparagingly call the “president of the rich” who yellow vest protesters, and the extremists that have joined their ranks, believe represents only those who live in the kind of areas left devastated by Saturday's wanton violence.

READ ALSO:

Long-hated by the extreme-leftist groups because of his past as a banker and his adherence to the free-market model, detested by the far-right because of his pro-European, globalist beliefs and now hated by many ordinary French people, who see him as arrogant, aloof and unsympathetic to their problems.

The one slogan that has been chanted in Paris by large numbers of protesters wasn't about fuel taxes or any kind of tax, it was simply “Macron demission” (Macron resign).

Much of the graffiti daubed on the Arc de Triomphe and indeed on town halls and prefectures around France carried the same message as did the banners carried by protesters.

“Macron stop taking us for idiots,” read the banner carried by peaceful protesters on the Champs-Elysées on Saturday afternoon.

READ ALSO: Is this the real reason why Emmanuel Macron is so unpopular in France?

That message was echoed by many interviews given by angry protesters to French TV stations. They believe the French president holds them in contempt and blame him personally for the outpouring of anger.

It would be wrong to blame the president for the seeds of the revolt – 50 percent of French voters rejected mainstream or centrist political parties in the first round of last year's election. Their grievances date a lot longer than his presidency but Macron has become the embodiment of much of their anger and hatred. 

In a country that has a long and much talked-about distrust and even contempt of the most wealthy Macron's previous life as a Rothschild banker was always likely to weigh heavy on his shoulders. For some, Macron is still “the banker” and his past still clouds everything the president does.

But the president hasn't helped himself once in power.

In an article on the clash between Macron and the yellow vests, Professor Arnaud Mercier from the French Institute of the Press (IFP) pointed to Macron's loose tongue when talking to the French public or about them.

“Since his election he has broken the thread of confidence on this point by multiplying the little murderous sentences towards the French people who were taken by so many as marks of humiliation towards those who are struggling.”

The president has frequently drawn anger whether it was for calling the French “Gauls resistant to change”, or referring to people as those “who are successful” and “those who are nothing”.

He criticized striking workers at a doomed car plant “for stirring up shit” and suggested they'd be better off looking for a job. He has dismissed opponents to his labour reforms by calling them “the lazy”.

He famously rebuked a schoolboy for calling him “Manu” and told a unemployed gardener he would get a job if he just “crossed the street” with him.

Protesters have used these ill-thought out and clumsy phrases during the recent violent protests to make the president “swallow his words”.

“OK Manu, we'll cross the street,” read graffiti on Avenue Kleber, which was the scene of violent clashes on Saturday.

“The graffiti on the walls, the slogans written on the yellow vests and the banners testify to a strong desire (among the protesters) for social revenge, a return to sender of these phrases considered insulting,” writes Professor Mercier.

“The situation seems totally blocked, because those offended consider that such phrases are the expression of a class arrogance and they only dream of making him swallow his words.”

“No apology can erase the insult,” said Mercier.

Macron has tried to apologise, accepting “his failure to reconcile the French people with their leaders” and accepted his frank-talking manner might not appeal to all.

And part of Macron's problem, according to French historian Jean Garrigues, lies with the way modern politicians are consumed  “as a product whose obsolescence is programmed.”

“Voters no longer believe in ideologies, they consume and then reject their elected representatives, including the President of the Republic,” he said.

Macron has taken measures to improve the spending power of lower-middle classes by scrapping the taxe d'habitation (council tax) and certain social charges.

But it is his reforming of France's ISF wealth tax – “a gift to the rich” – that those on streets in Paris remember most as well as his insistence, up until now at east, not to scrap fuel tax hikes aimed at persuading the hard-up French to switch to electric cars.

While it would be wrong to blame Macron – who let's not forget has only been in power 18 months – for the inequalities and struggles that have fed the violence, the former Rothschild banker has become the focal point of their hatred.

Some politicians and academics also lay the blame squarely at his feet.

Leftist deputy François Ruffin, who famously clashed with Macron in the car park of a whirlpool factory during the election campaign called for Macron to quit before he leaves the country “mad with rage.”

“The pride of the President of the Republic, his deafness, his obstinacy, his lack of concession are a machine of hatred,” said Ruffin, before coming under fire for suggesting the head of state “would end up like Kennedy”.

Such is the hatred that the “yellow vests” may not be easily calmed. While they might not get Macron's head, they at least want him on his knees.

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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.”

 

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