One year ago, the most-frequently asked question in France was: “Are you a Yellow Vest?” Around 300,000 people had responded to a call on social media to participate in an unprecedented grassroots movement urging the government to ease their economic burden. Across the country, the working poor and members of the lower middle-class were suddenly visible, thanks to the flouro jackets they wore as they occupied roundabouts across the country.
It wasn’t difficult to be part of the movement as French drivers are required to carry the high-vis vests in their cars in case of a breakdown. One year on, the fractured movement is blighted by a reputation for violence and is trying to revive its revolutionary spirit as President Emmanuel Macron – dubbed the “president of the rich” – prepares to take aim at the country’s pension system.
The Yellow Vest protests first erupted over a scheduled increase in fuel taxes designed to fight climate change. For the worst-off living in rural areas, the government’s move to tackle the end of the world rather than improve their lot at the end of each month was insulting. The movement quickly snowballed into an anti-establishment revolt against France’s heavy tax burden, low purchasing power, high unemployment, economic inequality and lack of democracy.
Official figures show that 14.7 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, which is fixed at €1,041 (£888) per month. The social ladder appears to be broken: a low-income family would require six generations to reach the national mean income of €2,356 (£2,011), compared to an OECD average of four and a half.
Consequently, a significant proportion of the French population feels abandoned by an unreliable political elite. Dissatisfied with their lives and pessimistic about the future, the malaise expressed by the Yellow Vests has only deepened in the past year.
French humourist Haroun summed up the movement’s appeal: “Who thinks that life in France is perfect? If you don’t, you are a Yellow Vest. Yellow Vests are fed up. So, it’s every single French person, basically.”
In November 2018, polls showed two-thirds of French people backed the movement. After the cancellation of the controversial fuel tax hikes, waves of protest continued to wash over the country. Protesters braved the winter cold, erecting Christmas trees on roundabouts as they blamed Macron for their inability to afford gifts for their children. For months, television news depicted a deeply divided society, with up to 20 per cent of news bulletins dedicated to coverage of the protests.
Demonstrators demanded Macron resign, accusing him of being deaf to the needs of ordinary citizens while protecting the metropolitan elite. For their part, the well-off sneered at the Yellow Vests as ill-educated victims of “fake news”. But just as Macron’s future appeared to be jeopardized by the sentiment on the French street, the movement lost momentum amid outbursts of violence that outraged the general population.
Sentiment soon turned against the Yellow Vests as vehicles and banks were set ablaze, luxury shops and national monuments such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris were vandalised. Radical elements assaulted journalists and clashed with riot police. Authorities retaliated with tear gas, water cannon and controversial flash-balls that caused serious eye injuries. According to the Interior Ministry, 2,400 protesters and 1,800 policemen have been injured so far, with 11 dead, mainly in traffic accidents.
The violence, and the backlash it sparked, enabled Macron to fight back without completely caving in to street politics. He cut taxes for low earners, increased pensions and the minimum wage. He called for citizens’ contributions to his policies and toured France for his “Great National Debate”. In what should have been a victory for the protesters, the government granted a total of €17 billion (£14.5 billion) worth of tax cuts and fiscal incentives.
The Yellow Vest movement, however, was fractured, incapable of rising above internal differences to become a true political force, and unable to send a leader to negotiate with the government on issues that had appeared central to the cause. Some figures affiliated with the Yellow Vests who stood for seats in the EU parliamentary elections could barely manage more than one per cent of votes in their constituencies. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party adeptly captured the votes that Yellow Vest candidates had hoped for.
Week after week, turnout on the roundabouts waned, until in June there were fewer than 6,000 protesters still turning out across the country. On November 17, thousands of Yellow Vests marked their first anniversary, hoping to revive demonstrations, but were once again stymied as black-clad youths skirmished with police, burnt barricades and vandalised banks. The movement now seems irremediably cursed with violence and condemned to disappear – at least in its current state.
Macron is far from being out of the woods as he approaches the second half of his presidency. Just last month, polls showed that half the population believed the Yellow Vests might soon be revived, having helped highlight the limitations of the country’s welfare system, which plays a crucial role in cushioning inequalities.
Now, as public anger swells over Macron’s plan to overhaul the pension system, which he deems unwieldy and expensive, trades unions – which know a thing or two about effective protest – are calling for mass strikes starting from December 5. Railway and hospital workers, truck drivers, civil servants, and students are ready to draw on the unions’ experience of negotiating with the government. The threat that this potential convergence of all struggles presents to Macron, is certainly more dangerous than the shiny neon of the Yellow Vest roundabouts.