Q&A on France's yellow vests: Why are they still protesting and who is to blame for the violence?

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Q&A on France's yellow vests: Why are they still protesting and who is to blame for the violence?
Photo: AFP

With France facing the possibility of more violent protests on Saturday and President Emmanuel Macron about to launch his national consultation, columnist and veteran France correspondent John Lichfield answers some questions from readers about the ongoing yellow vest movement including a look at where it will all end.


Who are the yellow vests who are still protesting?

The Gilets Jaunes are as disparate as ever but the influence of the hard-right and hard-left becomes more visible as overall numbers shrink.

The core of the original movement was rural and outer-suburban, spontaneous and non-ideological. The Gilets Jaunes included workers, pensioners and many small businesspeople, many of whom had not voted for decades. From the beginning, demonstrations in Paris and other cities attracted a violent fringe of provincial yellow jackets but also piggy-back activists from the anti-semitic ultra-Right and the anti-capitalist ultra-Left.

The turn-out for the weekend protests has fallen from 280,000 on 17 November to 50,000 last Saturday. Many of the remaining Gilets Jaunes are peaceful and moderate but the “minority” of violent protesters is growing proportionately larger.

(Yellow vest "Gilets Jaunes" march along Rue Quatre September in Paris on January 5, 2019. AFP)

Why are they still there and what is the ultimate goal of those still taking to the streets?

There is no simple answer to this question. Many peaceful Gilets Jaunes, such as the hundreds of women who marched in Paris last Sunday, say that President Emmanuel Macron ignores the depths of the anger in “Peripheral France”. They want more economic concessions, such as lower fuel taxes and VAT, a higher minimum wage and higher pensions. But they also demand a new political system, in which the ultimate power would be taken away from President and parliament and given to “the people” through mass popular votes or “referenda d’initiative citoyenne (RIC)”.

The motives of the violent, ideological fringes of the movement range from the restoration of the monarchy to the destruction of capitalism and the state.

Who is to blame for the violence: the police or a hardcore number of protesters?

There have been incidents of brutal policing but overall the police and gendarmerie have behaved with discipline and restraint. Much of the violence – but by no means all – has come from the so-called “casseurs” of ultra-left and ultra-right. There has also been extreme violence from a militant wing of the yellow vests themselves. This has manifested itself in the Saturday protests in big cities but also death threats to pro-Macron parliamentarians, vandalism of their offices and attacks on motorway toll-booths and government offices in the provinces.

That being said, there have also been serious injuries to demonstrators, including lost eyes and hands, caused by police weapons such as “flash balls” and “stun grenades”. The use of such weapons in large crowds is debatable to say the least.

Are the yellow vests just another manifestation of the extreme right?

In part, yes. But there are also many gilets jaunes who are attracted to the ideas of the hard left. The core of the original movement was anti-ideological and even anti-political. Many ordinary Gilets Jaunes passionately reject racism and anti-semitism. One of the movement’s founders is Priscillia Ludosky (see pic below), a young black woman from the French West Indies.

(Prisillia Ludosky. AFP)

On the other hand, there has been from the beginning a willingness of some Gilets Jaunes to buy into anti-semitic tropes and conspiracy theories as part of their rejection of “big finance” and “globalism”. As the movement shrinks, these kinds of ideas, encouraged online by the American Alt Right and Russian media, seem to be growing more prominent.

Gilets Jaunes Facebook pages were flooded this week with “likes” for an item claiming that the Russian economy was booming since Vladimir Putin had expelled the Rothschilds banks. The Russian economy is NOT booming; Putin has not taken any action against the Rothschilds.

The yellow vests want greater income equality in France but is it really achievable?

France already has greater income equality than many other developed countries, notably Britain. The state already spends more of the country’s annual earnings or GDP than any other industrial nation (over 56 per cent). But unemployment and average wage growth have been frozen for two decades or more.

Macron wanted to kick-start the economy by reducing the tax burden on businesses and the rich and loosening employment law. The benefits for the unemployed and for lower income workers were supposed to come in 2020-22. He failed to grasp the depth of anger in poor and middle France after the failures of previous governments of left and right.

Some Gilets Jaunes want a bonfire of taxes. Some want a radical increase in wages, pensions and social benefits. Some want both. Macron’s response - including a 100-euro a month increase in state benefits for the low-paid – has satisfied some yellow vests but not all.

The only solutions are long-term solutions. Macron, like his predecessors, has run into the rebellious conservatism of the French character – desperate for “reform” but hostile to painful reforms.

(Yellow vest protestors demonstrate behind a banner which translates as "France is not for sale" in Marseille on January 5, 2019. AFP)

Could we see an anti-yellow vests backlash given there is a planned protest against them?

A backlash can already by detected. Macron’s approval rating, which has been falling for months, shot up five points to a dizzy 28 per cent this week. Only 31 per cent of French people now say that they “support” the yellow vests but 51 per cent still have some sympathy for them.

The pro-Macron, anti-violence protest planned in Paris on 27 January may be a turning point but it may also be the occasion for more violence.

The Gilets Jaunes movement seems to be receding but it is likely to be a violent retreat. This may increase the hostility to yellow vests in a so far remarkably supportive, or tolerant, population.

Is Macron's plan for a national consultation just a waste of time?

It is difficult to tell at this stage. The process has got off to a shaky start but 40 per cent of French people say they intend to have their say. At the very least, it will provide an alternative forum to the Facebook “anger groups” of the Gilets Jaunes, deeply infected with fake news, conspiracy theories and self-contradictory proposals.

Can you imagine the Yellow Vests going down the path of forming a political party that could one day form a government or be in coalition with another party?

A part of the movement is already heading in this direction. Jacline Mouraud (pictured below), the Breton woman who was one of the early instigators of the Gilets Jaunes, is creating a party called Les Emergents. She has already attracted tens of thousands of supporters on Facebook.

(Jacline Mouraud. AFP)

Other, more militant yellow vests dismiss attempts to work within existing political structures as “treachery”. If Les Emergents run candidates in the European elections in May, they would probably take votes from Marine Le Pen’s far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left. The great beneficiary might, paradoxically, be Emmanuel Macron.

You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @john_lichfield.



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