Gilets Jaunes Protests: The Roots of French Discontent

(article updated 11 December 2018, following Macron’s speech to the nation on 10 December and 7 January 2019 after the increase in violence)

“He deserves to have his head chopped off, symbolically,” said Claudio, a 47 year-old mason and father of four (last name withheld), referring to French President Macron who has been often accused of draping himself in the symbols of pre-revolutionary France. Claudio lives in the northern town of Le Mans famous for car racing. Like many “Gilets Jaunes”, he likened their protests to the 1789 French Revolution. That, of course, is wishful thinking.  

But wearing “Gilets Jaunes” (the yellow roadside safety vests required by law) is a stroke of genius. It made protesters highly visible both on the road and in the media. Ever since they began three weeks ago, Saturday 17 November, that is all one sees on our screens: yellow vests.

It turns out that Macron’s tax hikes on diesel fuel was the straw that broke the camel’s back and fueled the Gilets Jaunes’ anger. For them, what is at issue is fiscal justice. They can’t stomach his decision to raise taxes on pensioners at the same time that he scrapped wealth taxes. No matter he meant them as a tax break for investors to encourage them to invest in French business (notoriously under-invested) and create jobs.

The decision was perceived as unfair by the working classes, bogged down by taxes while the rich evades them, escaping to fiscal paradises. Macron is seen as “the president of the rich”. Out to impoverish the middle class.

“The guy thinks he’s God!” exclaimed Claudio, exasperated, as he dug in at a blockade outside a fuel depot of Le Mans, fortifying barricades. Along with some 50 companions, he is preparing for a long winter of discontent.

On the third Saturday (1 December), while Macron was at the G20 in Argentina, the protests unexpectedly turned Paris into a war zone, with small groups of “casseurs” burning cars, vandalizing monuments and breaking into stores and pillaging. In the midst of his G20 press conference, no doubt compelled by the horrifying images on everyone’s screens, Macron mentioned the Gilets Jaunes, solemnly stating he would always “respect protests” and “never accept violence”.

After his return from Argentina, on Monday, Macron called an emergency government meeting to address the issue and he toured Paris to survey the damage done to monuments. On Tuesday, because protests are not limited to the capital, they are widespread across the country, he went to visit government offices torched by protesters in Puy-en-Velay, a town in the center of France. He was heckled and booed everywhere he went.

That same Tuesday  Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced policies to assuage Gilets Jaunes demands: fuel tax hikes are abandoned, there will be no surcharge on gas and electricity through May. These measures were immediately disparaged by the Gilets Jaunes as “mesurettes” (small measures).

Everyone expected a devastating Act IV on Saturday 8 Dec, the fourth week into the protests. Consequently,  89,000 agents, police and gendarmes, were mobilized and the strategy changed from defensive to offensive. Suspected “casseurs” were stopped early in the day when coming to town to protest and arrested if carrying weapons.  Crowds were tactically contained before the violence could get out of control.

The new strategy worked. Eventually, there were 125,000 protesters across France as against 136,000 the week before, and 10,000 in Paris. There were 118 wounded – much less than the 633 tally of the previous Saturday.

But there were many more arrested, 1220 as against 372 the week before, over half of them in Paris (619). Their profile is likely to be the same in both events. For now, we only know from police reports the profile of those arrested the Saturday before. There were three kinds: small groups of genuine “casseurs” from the extreme left, similar small groups from the extreme right, and a number of Gilets Jaunes “involuntarily” caught up in the violence, most of them men relatively mature (30 to 40 years) and “well-integrated socially” – meaning they had a job and family. Only 33 (about 10%) were minors.

By nightfall on Saturday 8, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe made a short positive statement on television: The French state did not “vacillate”, Macron will “announce measures to “reknit unity”. He didn’t say when he would do so, but everyone expects him to speak this coming week.

From a public security standpoint, the result was positive. But politically it was a win for the Gilets Jaunes: The media spotlight stayed on their grievances. It became clear to observers that this was a mass movement. Facebook is awash with their grievances, hundreds of them, many extreme and totally unrealistic, like asking for the suppression of the Senate or calling for a referendum to get Macron to resign. Yet what it boils down to is a cry for fiscal justice.

An Ifop poll Tuesday showed Macron’s approval rating sinking to a new low of 23 percent. People are now saying that he will end like Sarkozy, the right-wing President who by the time he left office in 2012 was the most unpopular president ever – only to be beaten in this race downwards by his Socialist successor, Hollande, who sank as low as 4 percent. Macron’s image as a “Jupiterian” president is now over.

“The Napoleonic method which worked at first for launching Macron’s reforms is no longer working,” Philippe Moreau-Chevrolet, a specialist in political communication, told AFP. Many observers think the turning point was the Benalla bodyguard affair last July (Benalla was accused of violence). From that moment on, Macron stopped listening to anyone. Now he is accused of not having listened to Gilets Jaunes demands and of moving only after they ran amok in Paris on 1 December.

 Update 7 January 2019: News of increased violence in the first Saturday of the new year hit headlines around the world – but the number of people involved was far less: some 50,000, with many more in the provinces than Paris (Bordeaux topped the list with some 5,000 protesters). The violence however surged, with the Ministry for Relations with Parliament targeted, the main entrance door pulled down and the Minister (a close adviser to Macron) escaping through a back door. 

Anyone who hoped for politicization of the movement will be disappointed: It seems to have descended in pointless violence, opening itself to a stern reaction from the State authorities, with likely full support from French public opinion. Soon enough, one can expect the movement to peter out, though the discontent in the provinces, rooted in real inequalities, will doubtless remain.

The Gilets Jaunes episode even if it ends soon, has some interesting lessons to impart, particularly regarding the rising role of social media as a major disrupter.

How Facebook Fuels the Gilets Jaunes Protest

There is little doubt that the tax hike on diesel was instituted in a precipitate and insensitive manner. Yet the government merely viewed it as the next logical step in its ecological policy, part of the “energy transition plan” for the decade to come.

The policy badly backfired on Facebook. And the social network was used to do what digital social networks do best ever since the Arab Spring: Bring protesters together in virtual online groups and help them plan their next moves.

According to the French media, it all began in October as fuel tax hikes were heatedly debated, with one 51 year-old woman’s Facebook video giving “Monsieur Macron” a list of grievances that included the rising price of diesel, traffic radars and congestion taxes to limit urban traffic, and calling for others to make their own video “to say that you have had it”.  That video got over 6 million viewers and 263,000 shares. A petition asking for the tax hike to be canceled got over one million signatures.

Once again, Facebook played a huge role in sparking the revolt, making the coordination of protest action possible across France. Bloomberg quickly titled:Street riots in Paris are less about a tiny fuel tax hike than the power of social networks to radicalize their users.”

Like so many other “bubbles of protest” you find on Facebook, the Gilets Jaunes movement grew with emotional videos and fake news, including videos about other unrelated protests and unfounded “news”, for example that the French police impersonated protesters to make the riots look worse and give the government a pretext for crackdown.

What is striking, as the French media expert says in this video, is that this is a mass movement, grassroots and faceless as a direct result of it being born on Facebook:

Other aspects of the movement – the anger expressed, the emotions – are typical of Facebook, as Olivier Ertzscheid, a university researcher told Agence France-Presse:

This roughly translates as:Facebook is “an elevator of social anger” that “blows over the embers”. The article further explains that “emotions linked to anger” are those that “spread the best on the platform”. They are “mechanisms of virality”. Facebook is a formidable “tool for democracy” without which the Gilets Jaunes’ grievances would never have grown so much. But, Ertzscheid warns, Facebook makes victory impossible: Its algorithms are designed to “add oil on the fire”, to multiply grievances and provide tools – like groups – to organize protest. Not to come to a resolution.

This analysis has many in agreement, including Buzzfeed that has called the Gilets Jaunes protest “a beast born almost entirely from Facebook”. A change in Facebook’s new algorithm is under accusation. It appears that since January 2018 Facebook gave less importance to outside links. This was a way to reduce partisan squabbles and contain fake news on the platform. Instead, Facebook users are encouraged to share their own news with family and friends and through semi-private groups.

Others disagree, for them little has changed in how Facebook functions.  “Some in Paris have suggested all gilets jaunes are driven by fake-news and conspiracy theories on Facebook, & are somehow uneducated,” Guardian Paris bureau chief Angelique Christafis tweeted on Friday morning. “That was not what I found and it would be a mistake to think that…”

What happened was this:

  1. The protesters’ grievances are real, they are not Facebook-fueled fake news;
  2. Yet Facebook played a fundamental role: it gave a voice to “l’autre France”, the “France Profonde”, the France outside Paris that is forgotten by the political parties, Macron’s LREM included; a couple of journalists investigated and wrote books about it in 2017 – but outside of such specific books and polls, no newspaper gives voice to them; their grievances are mostly heard on the social networks, Facebook and Twitter.

This week, Facebook continues to play a key role in expanding the protest movement to other segments of the population.

Carried Forward by Facebook, Gilets Jaunes Protests Expand

Gilets Jaunes protests are rapidly expanding to farmers, students and paramedics.  All carried forward on Facebook. Thursday (6 Dec), a video showing students kneeling in the mud, harassed by overbearing police went viral. The students are copying the Gilets Jaunes but they have in fact their own reasons to protest: Macron’s educational reforms.

Screen capture from video showing teenage student protesters forced by police to kneel in mud, their hands behind their heads – in Mantes La Jolie, Yvelines 6 Dec 2018. Source: France 24

The next day lycée students in Paris kneeled  on the sidewalk in Place de la République :

The gesture was repeated this Saturday in Paris.

Predictably, Macron’s opposition from Marine Le Pen on the right to Benoit Hamon on the left (he is the founder of a new leftist party Génération.s) tried to exploit the situation and connect with protesters. Hamon tweeted “French youth humiliated”:

The whole spectrum of political opposition joined in with similar tweets, including the Greens and Mélanchon’s far left France Insoumise .

But can the protesters be politicized?

It doesn’t look likely. Strikingly, the Gilets Jaunes, from the start, have rejected all parties and, in their fourth week, they remain resolutely anti-establishment. For now, the young are likewise impervious to political calls.

Also, student protests are endemic and recurrent in French political life every time efforts are made to reform the educational system. The link with the Gilets Jaunes is practically non-existent. It is merely a case of jumping on the bandwagon of popular protest to make oneself heard. But the message of protest is not the same. How could it? Fiscal justice is a concern of workers, of those who pay taxes – not students.

Are Gilets Jaunes Part of a Global Protest Against Climate Change Taxes? Or Against the Establishment like Trump’s fans?

In the four weeks since it started, the small Gilets Jaunes protest morphed into a vast, nationwide anti-Macron uprising. It is a movement of resistance that has two distinct roots:

  1. The institution of fuel taxes to sustain the fight against climate change; this was quickly picked up by American observers who saw a link with Trump’s fan base in the rust belt; Trump himself fueled this view with a couple of tweets on Tuesday. This is the first:  

His second tweet totally overlooked the damage his pro-coal policies are doing to the environment – not only affecting America but eventually the whole planet, he claimed he was “making great strides”:

Nobody asked America to “pay to clean up others countries’ pollution” (sic). That is not what the Paris Agreement is about, presumably Trump hasn’t read it. He makes America look like it doesn’t care what happens to the planet and humanity’s future.

Yet, many Americans do care. As Harvard Professor N. Gregory Mankiw told the Washington Post: “Higher taxes on energy have always been a hard sell, politically. The members of the American Economic Association are convinced of their virtue. But the median citizen is not.” Carbon pricing may be the logical way to go but, as Macron learned this week, it leads to “political explosions”.

True but this overlooks the fact that a majority of the French, the “France profonde” included, do believe in the reality of climate change. As one Gilet Jaune protester, a woman in Alsace, told France 2, “we are not against ecology”. Remarkably, on Saturday afternoon in Paris (8 Dec), many Gilets Jaunes left the Champs Elysées when they saw that protests were turning violent, and crossed town to the Place de la République to join a highly successful March for Climate. It attracted 25,000 green activists as against the 10,000 Gilets Jaunes. Many yellow vests were seen marching along them:

People hold a banner reading “the forest resists” as they take part in a march against climate change, in Paris, on Dec 8, 2018. Two Gilets Jaunes are visible on the right, a few more on the far left of the picture. Source Photo: AFP/Jacques Demarthon; article at Channels News Asia.

The French are not particularly against a “green energy” transition plan as such.The problem is this: They feel that they are unjustly asked to pay for it and they can’t; taxes on fuel are already high in France. The “small guy is squeezed”. He can’t get to work in his car, he can’t deliver goods with his truck. What is required is an “equitable effort”: Macron’s policies are seen as weighing “90 percent on the poor” and 10 percent on the wealthy.

  1. Macron’s pro-business, neo-liberal policies. At first sight, the Gilets Jaunes protests look like they jumped straight out of Trump’s fan base: They share a feeling of resentment against the establishment, they see themselves as the victim of globalization, they fear losing their middle-class status. Pressured by austerity policies put in place by Germany and the European Union since 2010, they struggle with small, often temp jobs and have a hard time to make ends meet.

The problem is the high cost of life and lack of purchasing power. The top 20 percent earns five times as much as the bottom 20 percent. Macron’s political mistake? He had planned to use the revenue raised from the fuel tax to reduce the budget deficit. It would have been wiser to recycle it back to help lower and middle income households.

A political smart move would be to make sure that the fight against climate change is paid for by those who can afford it, the rich and big corporations. They are, in any case, the ones most responsible for the climate disaster.

Because of this anti-establishment feature, Gilets Jaunes protests resonated quickly in the rest of Europe. First extending to Belgium: A few hundred Gilets Jaunes were seen in Brussels in the last two weeks. Some even predict it will be coming to the UK.

But the protests are in fact deeply rooted in France. In a way, the Gilets Jaunes look like a uniquely French version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, this time carried out not by young progressive-leftist students but by middle-age blue-collar workers. The kind of people that were once active in trade unions but no longer are. In fact,  trade unions have now nearly disappeared in France, with only 8 percent of employees in unions.

Just as the Gilets Jaunes reject any advances from political parties, they reject trade unionists. They have no leaders, just an endless list of (often contradictory) grievances. A shapeless mass movement, almost anarchic, that shows no sign into turning into a political party, enabling political dialogue. But it is very large, able to mobilize 250,000 in the streets, which suggests that up to ten million French could be involved. So how can Macron respond?

Can Macron Save His Presidency from the Gilets Jaunes?

Grievances are many but what holds the Gilets Jaunes together are essentially grievance over the cost of living. The political problem is huge on two counts.

One, the protest is widespread across France, and just as active in the province as in Paris. For example, in Lyon, about 100 Gilets Jaunes forced the entrance of the headquarters of one of the most important regions of France, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes seeking to speak to the authorities:

Should the government respond regionally? Locally? And if so, how can Macron coordinate the response?

Second, there is NO dialogue with the government at the top. The government tried to approach “moderate Gilets Jaunes” twice, but both time to little avail. Tellingly, the first time, when eight spokespersons were invited to the Elysée, only two turned up. And one immediately left complaining, in a stunning display of naiveté, that his request that the negotiations be streamed on Internet was rejected. The last thing anyone involved in high-level negotiations would want is to have them streamed to the public in real time – making it impossible to backtrack or hide a mistake. But it does show how far people have absorbed the Facebook way of life, the need for constant public display and non-stop sharing of one’s emotions.

The latest rumors are that the government will organize “conferences” across the “territories” across France. The idea is to arrive at jointly at agreed policies over the next three months. Some mayors are reportedly suggesting that registries for complaints, “cahiers de doléances”, be established locally. In my view, though it has never been tried, opening a forum for complaints online, for example a “forum de doléances” on Facebook, might be a good way for the government to reach out.

Time is running out. The impact on the economy is beginning to show, as French TV France 24 titles: “protests knock wind out of French economy”.  Fuel supplies are hit (through blocking fuel depots). So are schools,  tourism, businesses, everything from retail to car manufacturers like Citroen and Peugeot. According to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, for small retailers, revenues have fallen between 20 and 40 percent; reservations in hotels are down 15 to 25 percent; in restaurants, depending on their location, they are down between 20 and 50 percent.

The Economist, in its latest issue (8 Dec) thinks “all is not lost for Mr Macron”. What is needed are “the right policies, the right politics and, above all, a dose of humility could yet save his presidency”. Macron’s election in May 2017 seemed “to herald new optimism about France, Europe and the world.” He immediately started to work to reform labor markets, training and education with support from a parliament filled with his party’s newcomers. All the while containing the budget deficit which was finally “knocked into shape, meeting the Maastricht deficit limit of 3% of GDP for the first time since 2007”. But, “along the way, Mr Macron forgot that democracy requires the constant forging of consent.”

Even if Macron won the presidency, the opposition – populist Marine Le Pen on the far right, Mélanchon on the far left – had still obtained 48 percent of the votes in the first round of presidential elections. And both were quick to express support for the Gilets Jaunes.

Unsurprisingly, 75% of the French supported the Gilets Jaunes when the movement started. Now, at the time of writing, following the violence displayed by the protesters, support has dropped to 68% – a level where it looks stable (for now), something Macron should worry about.

Can he still craft a social compact that will satisfy the French? A “new social compact” needs to address two widely divergent goals: achieve a green economy and a fair economy that ensures everyone has a job and a fair start in life. The French President addressed the nation on Monday 10 December. Meanwhile a new group of Gilets Jaunes has announced a fifth Saturday of demonstrations on 15 December.

Will that speech be enough to quell the protests? The New York Times titled “Contrite Macron, Confronting Protesters, Promises Relief to France”.  He refused to scrap his tax incentives for investors that he sees as indispensable to create jobs. But he announced a series of concessions to Gilets Jaunes demands: workers year-end bonus that won’t be taxed, ending levies on overtime, government funding for a 100-euro-a-month increase in the minimum wage and abolishing a controversial tax on pensions below 2,000 euros a month.

But it is much more than “relief”.

What he is proposing is a new social compact to be arrived at through an in-depth, long-term dialogue with all parts of civil society – from the Gilets Jaunes in the France Profonde to wealthy investors in Paris. The objective is to arrive at a set of final solutions that would amount to a break with the past.

The big question is whether he will obtain the “dialogue” he wants, whether his party can actually reach out to everybody. He plans on relying on town mayors since they are closer to the ground. But that may not be enough. Consideration should also be given to using social networks since that is where the Gilets Jaunes protest was born and organized.

One thing is certain: France is going in a new direction, using untrodden paths to devise totally new policies to achieve social justice. The struggling middle class and working poor, the France Profonde, the Other France, has been overlooked and left behind for far too long. We are far from neo-liberalism here.

So far, this is a challenge no country in the world has yet resolved, and certainly not Trump’s America. Can France (and Macron) do it?


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About the Author /

Claude Forthomme is a writer and an economist. A graduate of Columbia University, Claude held a variety of jobs before starting a 25-year career at the United Nations (Food and Agriculture), ending as Regional Representative for Europe and Central Asia. She authored many fiction books under various pen names in both English and Italian; she is considered a prime exponent of Boomer literature and has founded the Boomer Lit Group on Goodreads. Her poetry has been included in "Freeze Frame", an international poetry anthology curated by British poet Oscar Sparrow (Gallo Romano Media, 2012).


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