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Whatever happened to the ‘yellow vests’ in France?

Wednesday marks three years since the first 'yellow vests' protest in France - which began began as a complaint about fuel prices and grew into a social movement that rocked the country, before quietly withering away.

Yellow vest protests in France
A yellow vest demonstration in November 2018. Photo: Xavier Leoty/AFP

Here are some of the key numbers that tell the story of the movement.

17

Saturday, November 17th 2018 marked the first ‘yellow vest’ protest – a day of action sparked by a new fuel tax which protesters said unfairly affected those living in rural areas, who rely on cars because of poor public transport links.

The ‘yellow vests’ by which the movement would become known were worn as a nod to the original members of movement – drivers. The symbolism comes from the fact that French law obliges all motorists to keep a high-vis yellow vest or jacket in their car, in case of a breakdown.

282,000

The huge estimated turnout of the first Saturday protest came as a surprise to politicians, especially since the yellow vest movement was essentially leaderless and had grown largely through social media platforms, particularly Facebook. Although initially focused on fuel taxes it grew into a general protest against the cost of living, especially in rural or small-town France.

Many people outside the cities felt left-behind and forgotten by Paris-based politicians. The early ‘yellow vests’ were often working people who simply could not afford the ever-increasing cost of living, although as the protests grew they began to encompass more and more everyday frustrations of French people.

2

Protests continued weekly on Saturdays, still drawing huge crowds, so in January 2019, after two months of protest, president Emmanuel Macron launched the Grand Débat, a national ‘listening exercise’ that involved thousands of meetings around France, plus an online register where people could list their grievances and demands.

Macron himself took part in several debates, including a meeting with 600 local mayors. The entire exercise lasted for two months.

18th

But still protests continued on Saturdays, with the original ’roundabout’ protests in small towns and rural areas slowly giving way to more organised street demos based in cities.

As the geography changed so too did the profile of the protesters, from being largely rural and apoliticial (many ‘yellow vests’ said they had never before attended a demo) to younger, city-dwellers who had previously been involved with politics and demonstrations and – in the case of the Black Blocs – violence.

It was the 18th week of protests, on March 16th 2019, that really shocked France and the world, as protesters ran amok along the Champs-Elysées, trashing stores in an orgy of arson and vandalism. The violence would ultimately cost the Paris police chief his job, as police were accused of being unprepared and unable to stop the rampage.

After this ‘yellow vest’ protests increasingly became known for violence, especially at the hands of the professional rioters of the ‘Black Bloc’ and this contributed further to the fall in turnout, especially from older people and families who had no wish to get caught up in riots.

8

Once the government realised the scale of the protests, the fuel tax that had sparked the whole thing was quietly scrapped.

But by that time the ‘yellow vest’ demands had grown, encompassing a range of issues from tax cuts to more representative democracy and the immediate resignation of president Emmanuel Macon.

In April 2019, after concluding the Grand Débat, Macron unveiled new proposals. He offered eight main concessions: income tax cuts largely targeted at middle-earners; end of year bonuses for low-paid workers; a boost to pensions for lower earners (although an increased pension age for others); no more school or hospital closures until 2022; more direct democracy such as citizen councils and referendums; a cut in the number of MPs and the abolition of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) which was widely seen as a ‘breeding ground for the elite’. He did not offer to resign.

Seven of the protesters who lost eyes during the ‘yellow vest’ protests. Photo: AFP
 

1,200

Police say that 1,200 officers were injured during the months of ‘yellow vest’ protests, but the violence was far from one-sided, with at least 1,900 protesters also hurt.

French police came in for heavy criticism of their actions during demos, particularly their use of the highly controversial ‘flash grenades’ which left dozens of protesters seriously injured – including five people who lost a hand (some after picking up grenades to throw back at police) and 25 who were blinded or lost an eye after being hit with rubber bullets.

One woman also died during protests, an elderly lady in Marseille who was hit by a stray tear gas grenade as she closed the shutters in her apartment.

READ ALSO How the ‘yellow vests’ forced France to have a national conversation about police violence

28,600

By the time of the first anniversary of the protests on November 17th 2019, turnout had fallen dramatically to 28,600 according to the Interior Ministry (or 40,000 according to the organisers) and protests were largely concentrated in cities. At the anniversary protests 254 people were arrested, 173 of them in Paris.

2

Since 2019 the ‘yellow vests’ have continued, but in increasingly tiny numbers with protests largely confined to Paris and a couple of other cities. 

Some of the high profile early ‘leaders’ of the leaderless movement have stepped back from protests, while others stood unsuccessfully in local and European elections.

There have also been attempts to link ‘yellow vest’ protests to other causes, including Extinction Rebellion, the pension reform protests in late 2019 and early 2020 and more recently the anti health pass demonstrations. But ‘yellow vest’ demonstrations have never managed to turn out in large numbers as they did in the movement’s heyday.

Member comments

  1. Uh… lousy, know-nothing, faux media like yourselves – and your one clown columnist Litchfield – misreported on them for months? And failed to care about how they were brutally repressed? And ignore them when they restarted last month after a coronavirus-forced pause?

    What’s sure is that the Yellow Vests don’t look to The Local for objectivity, much less intelligent and fair reporting. Whatever happened to that?

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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

EU sees trouble but no breakdown with Italy far-right in power

The potential emergence of a far-right government in Italy has put the European Union on alert for disruptions, with fears that unity over the war in Ukraine could be jeopardised.

EU sees trouble but no breakdown with Italy far-right in power

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni and the League’s Matteo Salvini are slated to be the big winners in Sunday’s general election on a firmly “Italians First” agenda, in which officials in Brussels largely play the role
of the bogeyman.

The biggest worries concern the economy.

Italy’s massive debt is seen as a threat to European stability if Rome turns its back on the sound financing championed by outgoing prime minister, Mario Draghi, a darling of the EU political establishment.

A victory by Meloni and Salvini would follow fast on an election in Sweden where the virulently anti-migration and eurosceptic Sweden Democrats entered a ruling coalition, just months before the Scandinavian country is due to take over the EU’s rotating presidency.

READ ALSO: Giorgia Meloni’s party will likely win the elections – but will it last?

But officials in Brussels said they would not jump to conclusions about Italy, cautiously hanging on to reassurances made by key right-wing players ahead of the vote.

Giorgia Meloni delivers speech at party rally

Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni (Rear C on stage) delivers a speech on September 23, 2022 in Naples. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

“This is not the first time that we risk confronting governments formed with far-right or far-left parties,” said European Commissioner Didier Reynders, a veteran of EU politics.

“Let voters choose their elected representatives. We will react to the actions of the new government and we have instruments at our disposal,” he added.

That was echoed by Commission head Ursula von der Leyen, who warned that Brussels had “tools” to deal with errant member states.

“My approach is that whatever democratic government is willing to work with us, we’re working together,” she said.

Anti-immigration League leader Matteo Salvini condemned the EU chief’s comments on Friday, calling them “squalid threats”.

READ ALSO: How would victory for Italy’s far right impact foreigners’ lives?

‘Benefit of the doubt’

Italy has huge amounts of EU money on the line. It is awaiting nearly 200 billion euros in EU cash and loans as part of the country’s massive share of the bloc’s coronavirus recovery stimulus package.

In order to secure each instalment, the government must deliver on a long list of commitments to reform and cut back spending made by previous administrations.

“To do without the billions from the recovery plan would be suicidal,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors institute.

“We will give them the benefit of the doubt,” said an EU official, who works closely with Italy on economic issues.

and right-wing parties Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FdI), the League (Lega) and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, ahead of the September 25 general election.

(From L) Leader of Italian far-right Lega (League) party Matteo Salvini, Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Italian far-right party Brothers of Italy Giorgia Meloni, and Italian centre-right lawmaker Maurizio Lupi on stage on September 22, 2022 during a joint rally of Italy’s coalition of far-right and right-wing parties. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

“We will judge them on their programme, who will be the finance minister. The names being mentioned are people that we in Brussels are familiar with,” the official added.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

However, when it comes to Russia, many fear that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will find in Italy a quick ally in his quest to water down measures against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A longtime friend of the Kremlin, Salvini has promised that he will not try to undo the EU sanctions. But many believe that his government will make the process more arduous in the coming months.

Whether the war or soaring inflation, “what we are facing in the coming months is going to be very difficult and very much test European unity”, said Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive at the European Policy Centre.

The likely election result in Italy is “not going to help in making some of these hard decisions”, he added.

READ ALSO: TIMELINE: What happens on election day and when do we get the results?

France’s European affairs minister, Laurence Boone, pointed to the headache of the far-right’s unpredictability.

“One day they are for the euro, one day they are not for the euro. One day they support Russia, one day they change their minds,” she told French radio.

“We have European institutions that work. We will work together. But it is true that it is worrying,” she added

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