Gilets Jaunes: reflections on the revolution in France*
The gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement exploded across France last November.
Thousands of people gathered each Saturday, blocking traffic and protesting against the government of President Emmanuel Macron. Driven by social media and seemingly leaderless, this protest was unlike any in living memory. And it definitely took the government by surprise.
The spark that lit this fire was a proposed increase in the gasoline tax, and it followed a series of government decisions that seemed to favor corporations and the wealthy over French citizens of limited means. A particular hot button was Macron’s elimination of the wealth tax, earning him the nickname:
the president of the rich.
Gilets jaunes: Macron actions & reactions
Increasingly marked by violence, the demonstrations raged for months and forced Macron to make a series of concessions last December, starting with the cancelling of the new gas tax.
He also launched a Grand Débat in January so he could “listen to the French people and understand their concerns.” During the next two months he traveled the country, holding meetings with hundreds of French citizens that went on for hours.
In April, Macron announced new measures to address the concerns he had heard, notably increasing the pensions of those with small incomes (which had been frozen), cutting taxes for the lower and middle classes, and making it easier for citizens to launch national referendums. And surprisingly, he suggested that he would close the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). This graduate school is France’s most prestigious and is a training ground for the country’s elite. It is also a symbol of cronyism among those same elite and closing it would be a powerful gesture.
These actions by Macron, combined with his early concessions and his “listening tour,” took the steam out of the gilets jaunes movement. The number of protesters has dwindled to near nothing and a majority of French people no longer supports them. Macron’s popularity has also rebounded modestly from its December low.
Macron’s approval ratings
My wife and I live part-time in Provence and it has been interesting to talk to people here about what they think of the gilets jaunes. France is a big and complicated country and so, as you might expect, we’ve heard a lot of different views.
Here’s a sample:
Arguments ‘For’ the gilets jaunes
- In Provence, as elsewhere in France, there was widespread (though not total) support for the gilets jaunes at the beginning of their protests. Their demands, which started with the elimination of the new gas tax, grew to include a long list that seemed to have something for everyone—which increased their support.
- I’ve found broad agreement here that Macron has made some blunders and has given the impression that he cares more for corporations and the rich than for the common man. As one person told me:
He cuts their taxes and then he freezes my pension! Where’s the justice in that?
- Nearly everyone one I’ve spoken to also sees a big gap between Paris and la France profond (which usually means anything outside of Paris and a few big cities.) They feel that Parisians, and the politicians based there, care more about Paris than the rest of the country and that they REALLY don’t understand rural areas like the one I live in.
Which brings us to cars
I’ve heard over and over how cars led to the gilets jaunes protests.
In much of France, especially outside of the big cities, people depend a lot on their cars—sometimes traveling long distances. And because many people are of modest means, they aren’t driving the latest models. Then they were hit by three government actions in a row.
- First, the standards for annual vehicle inspections were tightened to address air pollution. This meant that a number of older vehicles had to have expensive work done to meet the new standards.
- Then the speed limit on secondary roads was reduced, which mostly affected people in rural areas.
- Finally—the last straw—the new gas tax was announced.
All of these government actions hit hardest at the people of modest means living outside the big cities.
But not those d*mned Parisians who take the Metro! as one person told me.
- Another thing I’ve heard repeatedly is that French politicians are a self-serving class who care more about themselves than French citizens. “They all went to school together, they all support each other, and they don’t care about us,” said one person here.
Sure, they attack each other politically…but never too hard.
- One person showed me a copy of a book called Pilleurs d’Etat (Looters of the Country), which describes all the goodies that politicians give themselves. “Once someone becomes a politician,” he said, “they get everything paid for—even their funerals. Even their kids’ funerals! And look at this: one guy is collecting 21 different pensions! How can they ask us to make sacrifices if they do things like that?”
It’s not hard to imagine that stories like this contributed to support for the gilets jaunes.
And those ‘Against’
But not everyone I’ve talked to is a fan of the protestors. “These guys aren’t serious,” said one. “They say they want a revolution but then they only protest on Saturdays. Revolution is a full-time job!” Another said:
These guys are the complainers who used to sit around the café and moan about everything. Now they get together on Saturdays to sit around at the traffic circles and moan.
And even the conspiracy theories!
And once I got a whiff of conspiracy theories.
The Freemasons run the world, said one, and Macron’s one of them.
Hmm, maybe he’s been reading too much of The Da Vince Code.
So there you have it: some common threads but far from a uniform set of views. France is a rich mosaic of people, with widely different opinions. This can make the country difficult to govern… but endlessly fascinating.
What is your view on the gilets jaunes? Join the conversation below in comments or on twitter @MaVieFrancaiseImage Credits:
1. Gilets jaunes: Wikipedia, Creative Common License, credit Thomas Bresson
2. Macron approval: via IFOP poll “Les Indices de Popularité – Juillet 2019”
3. Grand Débat: via Wikipedia, Creative Common License, credit Gérard Garitan
4. Truck: via Pixabay