Red wine and baguette by the Seine; buttery croissants on the Champs-Élysées; enraged strikers in high-vis jackets throwing paving stones at the police. Just another day in the city of love.
When expressing my disbelief at the extent of the recent riots in Paris to a French colleague, he shrugged it away with ‘En France, on aime la Revolution’ (“In France, we love the Revolution”). He has a point. Looking back at the recent (and not so recent) history of France, one can observe that fighting back against the establishment is an integral part of the French Psyche. From THE Revolution of 1789, a well-loved cornerstone of the A level history syllabus, to the student riots of May 1968 and the hugely destructive riots of 2005 in the suburbs of Paris, the list of instances of civil unrest in France is impressively long.
Whilst it is easy to titter at the infamous French revolutionary spirit, over the last few weeks the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (‘The yellow vests’) movement has brought some of the worst violence seen in France in decades, with 4 deaths and thousands of arrests throughout the country, and nearly 90,000 police and military personnel deployed to quash it.
Just what is going on in France at the moment? The foreign press has inevitably focused upon the most violent aspects of the movement over the last few weekends, plastering across front pages images of armoured tanks, anti-government graffiti on the Arc de Triumph and violent hooligans shrouded in tear gas. However, over an extraordinarily short period of time, the movement of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ morphed into a monster of many heads. On a fundamental level, the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ started as a group of individuals protesting against a planned rise in fuel tax (the fluorescent vest is an appropriate symbol in light of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ required by law to be carried in all cars in France). Their frustration stemmed from the fact that they cannot do without their cars to get to work and therefore will be the ones most hit by the rise in fuel prices. In their eyes, the Parisians and other urban dwellers have the advantage of public transport whilst those out in the sticks do not.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Any protest movement, and especially one that has gained so much ground so quickly, is a complex structure. The fuel tax is merely the icing on a multi-layered cake of dissatisfaction with Macron and rising living costs. The reasons for the violence are many and varied, and attempting to untangle one group of protestors from another is an arduous task.
There are of course, the original ‘Gilets Jaunes’, widespread groups of individuals from provincial France who started by expressing their anger at the fuel tax through social media groups and organized themselves rapidly in protest movements on the side of France’s roads and in smaller cities before finally moving to demonstrate in Paris.
In addition to this wide-ranging group, there are ‘Les casseurs’ (the thugs/hooligans). This is not an official name, but one heard quite a lot in a French office (often muttered with a shake of the head over an espresso in the canteen). These are the groups primarily thought to be responsible for smashed shop windows and explosions in the streets of Lyon, Paris, and Grenoble amongst others. Most alarmingly, these include a number of extreme left and right groups in France, jumping on the bandwagon of aggression and popular discontent. The French Interior Minister Christophe Castanar has accused far-left and far-right groups of simply exploiting an opportunity for violent protest, a viewpoint which seems more viable now given the continuation of the protests even after the controversial fuel tax had been suppressed. However, the continuation of the protest highlights the great discontent of the French towards Macron’s presidency on issues that lie beyond fuel tax.
Finally there are the students, some as young as 15, protesting against the recent changes to the University admissions system, which many feel goes against the French principle of equality of opportunity in French education. Again, there is a feeling of bandwagons being jumped upon in some of these cases, the changes to the French university system, whilst controversial, are arguably a different set of problems.
With so many different strands of French society running through the protest movement and no obvious leader, it is perhaps more telling to look at those who are NOT protesting. Looking around my prosperous Parisian office I think I’ve found the answer. Funnily enough, none of my colleagues are about to don their fluorescent jackets and risk tear gas for reasons worthy or otherwise. Whilst Macron’s current unpopularity seems fairly unilateral, the feeling of abandonment from the government without a doubt comes from areas outside of the biggest French cities.
The discontent was undoubtedly triggered by the rise in fuel tax but underlying problems have accumulated over time to provoke the biggest crisis of Macron’s presidency. Macron was elected on a platform of economic reform and yet, since his election, lower and middle income families have seen a drop in household income, whilst the scrapping of the wealth tax has been seen to benefit only the richest in society.
Geography seems to be playing an increasingly large part in social and economic difficulties, not just in France but throughout Europe and the world. It is tempting to draw comparisons between the violence of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ and the growth of populist movements throughout Europe, not to mention the geographical split between London and the rest of England revealed by - dare I say it - Brexit. However, this is not a new problem. The gap between the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless is the source of many cases of revolutionary fervour. However, in France, the country where ‘Liberté, Egalité Fraternité’ is still written proudly across the entrance of nursery schools, such a feeling won’t be let to lie.
Needless to say, large-scale violent protest has not worked wonders for the French economy, and shops and restaurants staying closed and boarded up in central areas meant losing out on business during one of the biggest shopping weekends before Christmas. Many of the shops surrounding the building where our central offices are located still have smashed windows, graffiti plasters the walls of restaurants and street corners and my local Starbucks looked almost apocalyptic the Monday after the biggest protest. Tourists have been put off, monuments closed, and repairing the damage with (ironically) French tax-payers’ money will be no mean feat. However, it is the longer term effects of the movement that will be the most revealing. In short, have the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ got what they came for?
In response to the latest and most violent wave of protests in the capital, Macron’s government has agreed to scrap the planned increases in fuel tax and most ground-breaking of all, in his long-awaited address to the nation on December 10th, Macron agreed to raise the SMIC (The French minimum wage) by €100 per month, a measure which will affect 2.6 million of the lowest-paid people in French society. All this, from a president who, a mere few weeks previously, had promised zero cooperation with violent protestors.
The impact of the 'Gilets Jaunes' movement will be an interesting one to follow. Many things about it are unprecedented, not least of which is the scale and extent of the violence: The role of social media in streamlining localised protests, the mutual exclusivity of a comprehensive environmental policy and an acceptable social policy, and the extent of the government concessions in the face of violence. Whilst the protestors seem pacified by Macron’s new promises, the price of their disillusionment has been a high one to pay.
Gone are the days when France’s leaders disappeared to Versailles and hoped people got bored of giving up their weekends to protest. Clearly, the demands have become impossible to ignore.