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

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.

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

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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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.