Opinion and Analysis For Members

ANALYSIS: Will Macron really 'tremble' at yellow vest anniversary? I doubt it

The Local France
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ANALYSIS: Will Macron really 'tremble' at yellow vest anniversary? I doubt it
The movement has dwindled and changed a lot in a year. All photos: AFP

A year ago half the cars in my part of Normandy carried yellow badges of rebellion on their dashboards, writes John Lichfield. Now you can scarcely see a yellow jacket in what was one of the heartlands of the Gilets Jaunes movement.


And yet the movement - protest, rebellion, revolution, what-you-will - goes on and on and on and on. A huge turnout is forecast by Gilets Jaunes social media for the anniversary of their first protest next weekend.

Macron “will tremble”, they say. “Supporters are coming from all over the world… Fury with the government is rising… The Champs Elysées will be captured.”

The protests, 282,000 people for Act 1, have shrunk to a few thousand on recent Saturdays. GJ spokespeople - there are still no leaders -  say that it will leap back to its original strength this weekend.

I doubt it. There will certainly be a bigger turn-out. There will probably be violence, on both sides.

READ ALSO Violence, tax breaks and new politics: A year of 'yellow vest' protests

Many marches end with a fringe of protesters starting trouble

The black bloc anarcho-leftists, scarcely visible for weeks, operate like pick-pockets or hot-dog salesmen - they prefer big crowds.

The riot police, never gentle, are edgy and quick to anger after 12 months of weekend over-time.

But mass support for the Gilets Jaunes, both active and passive, has greatly deflated. Their popularity, 84 percent last November, was down to 47 percent last month. 

It is also open to doubt - a doubt seldom expressed in the French media - whether the Gilets Jaunes of late 2019 are demographically or politically the same as the Gilets Jaunes of last winter and early spring.

Observing the weekly marches, it seems evident to me that the much-reduced crowds in Paris and other big cities are now more urban and more overtly left-wing - and thinner-bodied - than the apolitical, anti-politician, provincial and outer-suburban first-time protesters of a year ago. Rural left-behinds with big-behinds have largely been replaced by the usual suspects of the metropolitan Left.

In rural France, the movement has died down but it has not entirely died. The anger which generated the movement remains. Much of the 47 percent continuing support is in small towns and hard-scrabble outer suburbs. It will be interesting to see on Saturday whether there is return to the kind of widespread, local protest at roundabouts and shopping centres which characterised the first two or three months of the Gilets Jaunes.

One year on, what should we make of the movement? Where did it come from? Has it been a success? Who is responsible for the violence, which began on the second weekend and led to widespread destruction, notably in Paris on Saturday December 1st and 8th and March 16th?

There have around 4,500 injuries, including 2,000 injuries to the police. Five people have had their hands amputated (after picking up police stun grenades.) Twenty-four people have lost an eye after being stuck by police silicon bullets (which are never supposed to be aimed higher than the waist).

READ ALSO ANALYSIS: Why is might be time to thank the Gilets Jaunes for France's strong economy

Some protesters have been seriously injured by police stun grenades and rubber bullets

Over 10,000 people have been arrested, over 3,000 convicted of violence or public order offences. Over 400 have been jailed.

There are two ways of looking at such figures.

One way - popular with hard right and far left social media in Britain and elsewhere - is to say that Emmanuel Macron has brutally suppressed a popular revolt against “globalism” or “liberalism” or “the European Union”.

Another way is to point out that no recent French social movement has gone on so long or been - at its fringes - so violent. The figures quoted above do not only include the Gilets Jaunes arrested at their weekly Saturday “putsches”.

They also include people responsible for low-level terrorism such as attacks on radio stations, newspapers, restaurants, politicians’ home and offices, motorway toll-booths and thousands of radar speed-traps.

In my experience, the violence at demonstrations has almost always started with a fringe, often a large fringe, of protesters. The police have usually been disciplined. They have sometimes been aggressive and out of control. Their so-called non-lethal weapons, supposed to avoid close-combat fighting, have proved dangerous and should be withdrawn.

There has been no systematic attempt to suppress peaceful protest. For fifty-two weeks, a declining number of Gilets Jaunes, or at least people dressed in yellow vests, have been able for the most part to march, so long as they do not smash shop windows, destroy bus-shelters  or hurl cobble-stones at the police.

The problem is that Gilets Jaunes have never been clear or honest with themselves. Is their movement a democratic protest or is it a revolution? Bloodless revolutions are rare. The GJ’’s have never had the strength to mount a revolution, bloodless or otherwise.

The movement began in October last year as provincial scream of anger at high petrol and diesel taxes and low purchasing-power. It metamorphosed in a few days of Facebook-shared anger and conspiracy theories into a demand for Macron’s “destitution”, the abolition of existing institutions and the creation of grass-roots government by permanent referenda on the internet.

Are the protesters the same people as a year ago?

The concessions made by Macron - over €10 billion - including the abolition on planned new petrol pump taxes and bonuses for the lowest paid - were dismissed by the yellow hard-core as “crumbs”.

They continued to demand Macron’s resignation and “web government”, even though they never had the strength or coherent strategy to impose such radical ideas. Much of the early support for the GJ’s came from the far right. Gradually, the movement drifted to the anti-capitalist Left – alienating many of its original, provincial middle class and artisan supporters.

That being said, I believe it is wrong to dismiss the Gilets Jaunes - the original Gilets Jaunes at any rate - as just a bunch of ignorant and conspiracy-loving provincial hicks.

The explosion of anger last winter was made possible by the internet but it was fuelled by years of inchoate rage at the hollowing out of local economies and local sources of pride and identity in provincial France. To that extent, the 'yellow vests' overlap with northern and midlands Brexiteers in the UK and rust-belt Trump fans in the US.

The movement was successful in forcing Macron to bend on fuel prices and taxation of the lower and middle classes. It remains to be seen whether - as he claims - the President is willing or able to address the deeper problems of French small towns and outer suburbs.

In summary, the Gilets Jaunes destroyed themselves. They lost their focus on the real problems of Peripheral France, swallowed dotty conspiracy theories, launched a fake revolution and became indistinguishable from the hard Left.

The anger and sense of humiliation and defeat in many parts of rural and small town France remains.


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Anonymous 2019/11/16 21:59
Thank you for the kind words Ms. Deudois.<br /><br />I would be thrilled to write something for The Local about the GJ. They are welcome to post here an email where I can send them something. <br /><br />Do they even read the comments, I wonder? More than that, they seem to clearly have a policy of anti-GJ, so I am skeptical I will be given a chance. Why haven't they given equal space - or any space at all - to a journalist who is pro-GJ? Does The Local even believe in balance? All they have done that I have ever seen is run this out of touch old Anglo Litchfield insulting a movement he clearly doesn't understand and can't even be bothered to get the facts right about. <br /><br />The largely Anglo audience for The Local may not support the GJ, but the majority of France does. One would think The Local has a professional obligation to reflect that. I am here - let it not be said that Intellectually Boggy would refuse the call of duty!
Anonymous 2019/11/16 13:38
You do not do yourself justice, dear IB, as you are clearly far from intellectually boggy! So instead of simply criticising, why not submit an article to The Local defending your point of view as far as the GJ are concerned? I, for one, would be most interested to read it, so that I could better grasp the objective of the GJ project and the means of achieving their aims from someone who clearly understands their perspective. With your contribution, I could then make up my own mind.
Anonymous 2019/11/12 11:22
Forgot to add: protests banned at many rural roundabouts for the same length of time. <br /><br />Please stay in your anglo-bubble in normandy and do not bother us with your hyper-conservative, inaccurate nonsense.
Anonymous 2019/11/12 11:21
I tried to read it, even after calling the Yellow Vests 'terrorists', but this just proves how this blowhard is so busy blowing that he doesn't even take the time to learn the facts. <br /><br />"There has been no systematic attempt to suppress peaceful protest."<br /><br />Protests have been banned at the Champs-Elysées and in other urban centres for about the last 8 months.<br /><br />So, uh, yeah - this guy's an idiot, and I am dumber for even having read half of his uninformed idiocy.

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