ANALYSIS: Is the gilets jaunes backlash under way in France?

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ANALYSIS: Is the gilets jaunes backlash under way in France?
Photo: AFP

After ten weeks of protests, a large number of French people remain tolerant of the 'yellow vests', but could the development of a formal, popular opposition mean the backlash is under way? Columnist and veteran France correspondent John Lichfield explores.


All predictions on the Gilets Jaunes are hazardous. No one saw them coming. No one can be sure where they are going. 
After ten weeks of protests, there are signs that the movement is receding. Roundabout blockades have all but vanished. But there are also signs that the movement is regaining strength. The number of people who demonstrated across France last Saturday rose to 84,000.
There is evidence that French people are losing patience. The mood of reader comments in Le Figaro (centre-right) and Le Monde (centre-left) is now virulently anti-Gilets Jaunes.
And yet opinion polls suggest that that a large part of the French public remains mystifyingly tolerant of the Gilets Jaunes, despite their revolutionary rhetoric, street violence and attacks on journalists. Up to 36 per cent still say that they actively support the yellow vests. Over 60 per cent are “sympathetic”.

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

There are signs that the movement is splitting and squabbling. The founders of one of the most militant groups of Gilet Jaunes, Priscillia Ludosky and Eric Drouet, fell out publicly this week. Madame Ludosky accuses Monsieur Drouet of threatening her and “damaging the movement”.
And yet there is also evidence that the Gilets Jaunes, supposedly a spontaneous and leaderless roar of pain from the French heartland, are becoming better organised.
“This is no longer an amateur movement. Its apparent disorganisation is deliberate, intended to defy the rules, destabilise the Republic and create the conditions for an insurrection,” a police intelligence source told Le Figaro.
Far Right? Far Left? The influence of Moscow? Or the influence of the American Alt Right? Such forces have certainly competed or combined to inflame the Gilets Jaunes through hysterical and mendacious posts on social media. Ultra-left and ultra-right activists riot each Saturday alongside a violent fringe of yellow vests at demonstrations in Paris, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Rouen and other cities. 
And yet the core of the Gilets Jaunes movement remains ordinary, previously non-political people from rural and outer suburban France. They have genuine grievances – low wages or pensions, vanishing public services. Nothing easily explains their white-hot anger or their determination to tear down the representative institutions of the Fifth Republic.
'They tell nothing but lies': France's 'yellow vests' reveal their hatred of the media
Photo: AFP
I have chatted in recent days with Gilets Jaunes on a roundabout beside a supermarket in rural Normandy. They are friendly, likeable men and women, young and old, poor and not so poor. None of them are typical political activists. None have any obvious ideology. They are united by three things.
First, a conviction that they represent “the people”, even though their numbers are much reduced since early December. Second, a cynical-credulous conviction, beyond all reason or fact, that most of the taxes they pay are being used, not for education or health or defence, but to fund a gilded lifestyle for elected politicians in Paris.
Third, a belief that career politicians and political institutions should be swept aside and replaced by direct democracy through referenda.
I have also spoken to local people who are not Gilets Jaunes. They say, in sum: “They had a point about some things but it’s gone too far and lasted too long. We don’t like Macron but he’s trying to answer them. There is no justification for the violence that we see at the Saturday protests.”
It is apparent that the proportion of local cars which display high-viz yellow vests on their dashboards has fallen dramatically. It used to be one in three in my part of Normandy. It is now one in ten.
The yellow vests claim to represent “the people”. It is doubtful whether this was ever true. It is now presumptuous grandiloquence.
Photo: The Local
The most important new development in recent days could be the development of formal, popular opposition to the Gilets Jaunes - or at least opposition to their excesses. Three movements have come together to organise a “March for Republican Liberties” in Paris on Sunday 27 January.
Laurent Segnis, one of the organisers , a 36 years old jurist,  from the outer Paris suburbs, told me: “The Gilets Jaunes have dominated the national conversation for too long. They have legitimate grievances…But nothing justifies their claim to represent the whole people or their desire to tear down the democratic institutions which may be imperfect but protect the weakest most of all.”
The street is an important theatre in French politics, threatre as in “theatre of war” as well as forum for  popular expression. The May 1968 student and worker protests ended soon after a vast counter-demonstration by supporters of President Charles de Gaulle on the Champs Elysées on 30 May 1968.
Organisers of the Marche Républicaine des Libertés do not welcome that comparison. They say that their march from République to Bastille is not pro-Macron but anti-violence and pro-democratic institutions.  Over 9,000 people have said that they will attend.
It will take many, many more than that for the organisers to prove their most important point; the Gilets Jaunes may have legitimate complaints but they are not “the people”.
They have no legitimate basis for turning a social protest into a revolution against representative democracy.
You can follow John Lichfield on Twitter @john_lichfield.


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[email protected] 2019/01/23 19:30
Personally I do agree with some of the Gilets Jaunes issues, however the fringe movements have really soured things along with the violence and the Front Nationale wing appears to be very strong unfortunately. However I do also think that the police are obviously using weapons that are too strong and people losing eyes is unacceptable. My partner who is French is so annoyed by GJ, that I always have to tell him to keep calm when we're approaching one of the roundabouts or the toll booths. One day he was travelling from Sainte Maxime to Antibes (usually around an hour trip or just under) when they first started and it took 5 hours due to the GJ which you can imagine from Day One pretty much got him upset. Then when the first wave of violence hit in Paris, that was it for him. Anyway I keep hoping that everything will die down but it doesn't look like it will, although will be interesting to see what happens in the anti GJ marches.
[email protected] 2019/01/18 13:07
Here in the south of France we have had major problems with blockages at the major roundabouts at the autoroute entrances. The Gilets Jaunes pound on people's cars and demand to be shown or given a gilets jaunes. My terror was that a few days before the first minifestation, I had to go to a hospital more than one hour away with a life-threatening urgence. If it had been on that Saturday I would have never been able to make it there. They have badly burned the Bandol toll booths to complete destruction and 2 weeks ago a massive fire started at a roundabout in Mougins where they were keeping themselves warm and barbecuing their food in those big metal barrels. I'm all for the right to demonstrate but blocking up roads and preventing people from getting to work, blocking whole towns, destroying the radar machines, Marianne's face on the Arc de Triumph is nothing more than anarchy pure and simple. My question, Who is going to pay to repair all this destruction?
[email protected] 2019/01/17 18:08
The report that the number of cars/vans showing yellow vests on their dashboard has declined dramatically in Normandy, is not matched around here (Charente Maritime). BUT, many people have admitted to me that they keep them there so they don't have trouble at the continuing, and unpredictable, roadblocks at a few key roundabouts around here. You wave your GJ and they just wave you through. Interesting. but what has definitely happened here is that the Front National (or Rally) have become bolder, and new posters are being fly-posted in unusual places. French chat in bars is definitely anti-Macron, but even so, they are taking much more of an interest in his TV appearances over the past several days, and listen unusually intently rather than jeer, as they used to do. I think people are still afraid to say anything against the GJ's yet, except to very close friends.
[email protected] 2019/01/16 23:26
I note from that photo that there is obviously an element of traditional French right wing anti-semitism in the GJ 'movement'.

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