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

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.

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

Member comments

  1. I note from that photo that there is obviously an element of traditional French right wing anti-semitism in the GJ ‘movement’.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

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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.