ANALYSIS: The revolution didn’t happen but Macron and the ‘yellow vests’ must now get serious

The yellow revolution might not have happened but President Emmanuel Macron would be foolish to think the crisis in France has passed, writes John Lichfield, who was witness to Saturday's protest and violence. It's time for the president and the yellow vests to get serious.

ANALYSIS: The revolution didn't happen but Macron and the 'yellow vests' must now get serious

Fears that a fourth weekend of protest by the yellow vests might explode into widespread, insurrectional violence on Saturday proved inflated. But President Emmanuel Macron would be foolish to believe that he has ridden out the hurricane of popular fury which has blown up, seemingly from nowhere, in the last two months.

He must offer a convincing series of responses to the sufferings of low-income people, and a more humble manner, when he belatedly addresses the nation tomorrow or the day after. It may already be too late to save his presidency.

Detestation of Emmanuel Macron is the only point on which all gilets jaunes agree. The movement ceased to be a “normal” social protest long ago. Many peaceful gilets jaunes, their apocalyptic ambitions stoked by social media and their fury overheated by fake news, believe that they can overthrow representative democratic structures. They want to expel not only Macron but the whole of the French political class.

The violence in Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux and elsewhere on Saturday was arguably worse than the previous week. Scores of cars were burned. Over 1,300 people were arrested.

The Paris town hall says that the destruction in the capital was not so concentrated but scattered across the city and, overall, caused “much more damage”.

No buildings were set alight. National monuments were not attacked or desecrated. The violence came mostly from small – and some not so small – gangs of hard-right or hard-left urban guerrillas. As night fell, multi-racial groups of kids from the banlieues joined in.

Last week, the attacks on police and property were initiated from early morning by a radical wing of the gilets jaunes from suffering towns in northern France, Brittany and Normandy. I was on the streets during both protests. It seemed to me that a different army of gilets jaunes turned up this Saturday, more like the angry but broadly peaceful people who have been picketing or barricading roundabouts all over France since 17 November.

The police tactics were also different. Instead of defending fixed positions en masse, they deployed mobile companies of police and gendarmes to disrupt and scatter the so-called “casseurs”.

This is an inadequate word to describe the commandos of young men in black – Ultra-left? Ultra-right?– whom I witnessed gathering cobblestones just before the Avenue Marceau exploded into an orgy of car burning in early afternoon.

The government had warned beforehand that firearms and molotov cocktails were being prepared. I saw one impromptu petrol bomb thrown at an armoured car, without much effect. No shots were fired.

The state’s internal intelligence services also appear to have done a better job this time. Many of the 1,385 arrests occurred preventively in early morning. Those intercepted included a group of 150 ultra-right activists from eastern France. They were were rounded up as soon as they arrived in Paris.

It would be foolish to minimise Saturday’s events. Armoured vehicles were used in earnest on the streets of Paris for the first time since the German army was expelled in 1944. Much of the centre of the French capital was closed down and boarded up two weekends before Christmas. The impact on the French economy threatens to be crippling. Another mass protest is planned next weekend.

The security forces, at full stretch for the fourth Saturday in a row, are exhausted. One million hours of overtime were owed to the two forces of French riot police before every man and woman of them turned out again on Saturday.

The numbers involved in protests across France have fallen each weekend, from 287,000 on 17 November to 125,000 on Saturday. There are tentative signs that the mass of the French public – 70 per cent supportive until now – are losing patience.

At the same time, there are also disturbing reports that shadowy external forces – the US alt-right? Russia? – are systematically deploying lies and propaganda through social media to further enflame the anger of gilets jaunes. False images of protesters allegedly injured by police; absurd claims about a global plan to “replace” white populations with African migrants;

All the same Saturday’s violence mostly did not come from the yellow vests. Many of the “real” gilets jaunes in Paris this weekend tried to discourage violence or stood aside from it. I cannot speak for what happened in Toulouse, Saint Etienne and elsewhere.

Is this a turning point? It should be.

In the interests of the rural and outer-suburban France that it represents, the gilets jaunes movement needs to get not just angry but serious. A start was made when a group of moderate yellow vest spokespeople met the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe last Friday.

At the same time a depressing 25 point manifesto for “exit from the crisis” received hundreds of thousands of hits on gilets jaunes social media late last week. The manifesto is not official because nothing about this disparate movement is official but it accurately represents the naivety and delusions of many gilets jaunes.

The manifesto called for the halving of all taxes, so that no individual would have to pay more than 25 per cent of their income. It called for a massive programme of state spending. It demanded a 40 per cent increase in the minimum wage and welfare payments. It sought an end to immigration. It demanded French departure from the EU and Nato and the “repudiation of the national debt”. It proposed the replacement of representative democracy with direct popular votes on all laws.

This is Alf Garnett meets Dave Spart, a formula for reducing what was a mildly recovering French economy to a European Venezuela.

Macron must make serious attempt to boost the purchasing power of poorer French people when he appears on television this week. He must admit that his reform programme, though well intentioned, has been too rapid, very poorly sold and front-loaded towards the wealthy.

But the gilets jaunes movement must also start to formulate clear, achievable goals which will bring genuine relief to the people they represent. Perpetual, violence-attracting protests and apocalyptic drivel will serve no one, least of all the poorest. 

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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.”