Gilets jaunes: The French language you need to understand the ‘yellow vests’

With the "yellow vest" movement on everyone's lips, some foreign observers of France are struggling to find the right words to talk about such a complicated subject. Here's a handy 'gilets jaunes' glossary so you understand exactly what's going on.

Gilets jaunes: The French language you need to understand the 'yellow vests'
Photos: AFP

Les Gilets Jaunes, or yellows vests, otherwise known as high-visibility vests. Drivers in France are obliged to have one in their vehicle by law, turning the garment into an easily distinguishable and symbolic uniform for protesters who wore them during the first roadblocks. 

La taxe carbone, or carbon tax, is where the “yellow vest” movement has its roots. The tax placed on fuels that release harmful gasses into the environment was introduced as an green measure but ended up making it prohibitively expensive for drivers to fill up their tank. 
But Macron himself talked of the real cause of the movement being the colère (anger) of the peuple (people) that has grown over 40 years and the ras-le-bol (this is hard to translate literally but means fedupness or discontent) Manifestants (protesters) talk of the the ras-le-bol fiscal or injustice fiscal (tax discontent or tax injustice).

This sparked the first manifestation, or protest, and in the following weeks the number of yellow vest mobilisations (rallies) across France grew, including opérations escargot (go-slows, or snail operations if translated directly), barrages filtrants at ronds-points (filtered road blocks at roundabouts where cars are allowed through at a slower pace) rassemblements (another way of saying rallies), blocages (blockades), défilés (marches) and, unfortunately, affrontements (clashes). 


A lot of the yellow vests’ anger has been focused on President Macron, with popular protest chants including:

Macron démission! – Macron resign!

Macron dans ton cul! – This literally means Macron up your ass or would b better translated as “Macron up yours!”

On n’est pas des moutons! – We are not sheep!

There's also Macron dégage – Macron get lost

The crisis has been presented as a clash between la France d'en bas and la France d'en haut (the France that's struggling and the France that's doing well or those at the bottom versus those at the top).

There is hope that Macron's announcements can lead to a trêve (a truce) or perhaps even the la fin du mouvement (the end of the movement).

Most protests have been organised via Facebook and other social media, where popular hashtags for the movement include:

#OnLâcheraRien – #Wewontgiveup

#TousEnsemble – #AllTogether

#TousUnis – #AllUnited

Les revendications, or the demands, of the yellow vests have grown to encompass a sprawling range of issues including social security, constitutional amendments, tax law, employment rights, schools, the retirement age, migration and social issues. 

As could be expected, not all gilets jaunes agree over what they really want, but the following points make it into most yellow vest protesters' list of demands. 

Le pouvoir d’achat, or spending power, which most protestors feel they don’t have enough of their salaries have remained stagnant while…

Les factures, or the bills, notably gas and electricity, have gone up, as well as…

Les impôts, or taxes, which keep rising. There have been calls for reductions in taxes and national pay rises, especially a rise in…

Le Smic, or the minimum wage, which is currently €9,88 per hour or just under €18,000 per annum.

“A minimum wage rise of €100, really?”, reads the headline of this Nouvel Observateur story on Macron's new measure. Photo: Screenshot


Manifestants pacifistes, or peaceful protestors of all ages including families and, les retraités, or pensioners, have attended demonstrations to have their complaints heard, but in recent weeks their cause has been overshadowed by…

Les casseurs, or hooligans/rioters/thugs, who were at the heart of dramatic scenes of violence and destruction during yellow vest protests on the Champs-Elysées in Paris over the last few weekends. During that violence there has also been saccage et pillage (ransacking and looting).

Les forces de l’ordre, or police force which includes la policeles gendarmes (both national police bodies) and le CRS, or riot police, have become an increasingly strong presence at protests as a result. 

Only on Saturday December 8, there were almost 2,000 interpellations (arrests) across France. Of these detainees, 1,700 were placed in police custody (garde à vue).

Les blessés, or the injured, are in the hundreds after several week of violence and chaos. There have also been three deaths so far at yellow vest protests.

Les dégâts, or damages in Paris include les pavés or cobble stones being ripped up and used as weapons, les vitrines, or shop windows, being smashed and shops pillées, or looted, as well as voitures brûlés, or burned out cars, and graffiti being scrawled on symbolic monuments nationaux, or national monuments, like the Arc de Triomphe. All of which has lead to the state of…

La crise, or crisis, which France currently finds itself in, with no clear way out. 

Les représentants, or the representatives of the yellow vests are hard to pin down. Eight were elected via Facebook while many more have emerged through exposure in the French media. The government has tried to enter into le dialogue, dialogue, and le débat, debate, with some yellow vest representatives with some refusing and others agreeing. 


L’acte V, or part 5, referring to the fifth week of protests is currently expected to take place on Saturday 15th December all over France.













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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.