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

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.

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

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 Rural left-behinds with big-behinds have largely been replaced by the usual suspects of the metropolitan Left.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.

Member comments

  1. 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.

    “There has been no systematic attempt to suppress peaceful protest.”

    Protests have been banned at the Champs-Elysées and in other urban centres for about the last 8 months.

    So, uh, yeah – this guy’s an idiot, and I am dumber for even having read half of his uninformed idiocy.

  2. Forgot to add: protests banned at many rural roundabouts for the same length of time.

    Please stay in your anglo-bubble in normandy and do not bother us with your hyper-conservative, inaccurate nonsense.

  3. 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.

  4. Thank you for the kind words Ms. Deudois.

    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.

    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.

    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!

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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.