In English the word “gilet” may bring to mind made-in-Chelsea-esque characters sitting in the Ivy with a Bloody Mary, but this French activist group wear a very different kind of gilet, one which has become the recognised symbol of an anti-government movement who claim to protest for social and economic justice in France. Translated directly, Les Gilets Jaunes means “The Yellow Vests”, referring to the hi-vis vests that French law requires all drivers to keep in their vehicles.
Last month marked one year since around 280,000 people across France turned up to protest taxes introduced by President Emmanuel Macron in the first Gilets Jaunes demonstrations on 13th November 2018. Sparked by a rise in fuel prices which largely affected those living in more rural areas of France, over the subsequent months the movement became more concerned with other issues facing French society. The demands of the group spanned from raising the minimum wage to calling for Macron’s resignation, and its supporters were wide-ranging, both in views and approach. While some protesters insisted on peaceful action, others have turned to violence. Interestingly, their lack of official political orientation has meant their support ranges from the far-left to the far-right, making it difficult for the government to negotiate with them as an entity. Rather than addressing a singular leader, the French government have had to negotiate with a mix of political groups united under a common feeling of discontent, reminiscent of similar populist movements taking place across Europe. With no centralised leadership, their rise to prominence has been attributed to a timely exploitation of pertinent social and economic concerns and a tactical use of social media platforms such as Facebook, through which most of their demonstrations are organised.
After weeks of protest in Paris in 2018, Macron confronted this “economic and social emergency” in a special public address in December of that year and proceeded to freeze the price of electricity and gas until May 2019, to implement a €100-a-month increase in the minimum wage from 2019, and other significant changes. This turnaround in policy was delivered with a contrite tone, Macron accepting his “share of responsibility” for the uprisings. Macron then toured the country with a “grand national debate” as a way of enabling French people to express their economic and social views. The impact of the movement also stretched further afield, with other countries staging similar demonstrations in which protesters donned the same yellow vests.
As the government have responded to the anger demonstrated in Autumn 2018 over the last 12 months, popular support for the Gilets Jaunes has arguably dwindled, with a recent poll by Elabe for BFMTV suggesting that over half of the French population want the protests of the Gilets Jaunes to stop. The impact of the Gilets Jaunes movement on French society both emotionally and practically over the past year is undeniable, but the future of this protest group is difficult to gauge. Is it just another demonstration of an infamous determination to protest in a country founded on rebellion? Or perhaps it shows a progressive relationship between people and state? Having successfully reminded Macron (accused of being the ‘president for France’s elite’) that there is a whole population of French people who will not stand for these “inégalités”, perhaps the work of the Gilets Jaunes is complete. In the face of increasingly violent action at the hands of the Gilets Jaunes, many of the group’s more moderate supporters have distanced themselves from the disruption, leaving a determined core who insist that their fight is far from over. The yellow vest has undoubtedly become a symbol for productive activism in France; they protested for change and they got it. However, this image of change does not come without its complications.
The Gilets Jaunes have shown that protest can be productive, and we perhaps have something to learn from the French in this. The impact they created was brought about by a unifying sense of discontent, and now, in the face of Macron’s concessions, the intensity of widespread feeling has faded, if temporarily. Although maybe less well-attended, the protests continue to take place and the yellow gilets have not quite gone out of fashion. The flame, if small, remains, ready to be stoked when the occasion arises.