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CWA # 335, 17 September 2020

GLOBAL PROTEST MOVEMENTS
‘The yellow vests will triumph’: The middle and working class protests in France

  Sourina Bej

So how did day-to-day frustrations about fuel prices and “green taxes” transform into a nation-wide protest movement attracting hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks? It all comes down to Macron’s apparent failure to connect with the people, understand their concerns, and steer France away from the neoliberal policies that have only led to a higher standard of living in an already unequal society where the income differences between rich and poor have only increased.

Background

In 2018, France experienced one of the most significant social mobilisation in its recent history, which laid bare the country’s social ills, anti-elite sentiment, growing inequalities and need for social reforms and justice. It all started on 17 November when thousands gathered on the streets across the country to protest against rising fuel prices. The fuel prices were raised as part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s environmental policy strategy of green tax on fuel. The move set off nearly a month of protests around France. The French Interior Ministry then estimated that 1,36,000 protesters had turned out across the country over the weekend, in addition to 2,80,000 in the consequent weeks. The protests had since continued and has gained recognition for its yellow high-visibility jackets which French motorists must carry in their vehicles. The protesters wearing these yellow jackets and in protesting against the high fuel prices have led the movement be reckoned as the ‘Yellow Vest’ protests.  The protests started in the French rural provinces from where individuals commute to work in public or private transport and then spread to Paris, where demonstrations turned into riots over a few days and scenes of violent civil unrest played out along the city’s famous Avenue des Champs Élysées (the industrial hub). In 2018, the movement resulted in a 10 billion Euro aid package for the poor and led President Macron to back down in the face of protest, something he had said he would not do. The protest that started in 2018 still continues as Macron crystallizes the anger of all protestors and their language is getting more and more violent: “We’re going to hang the banker!” and “Macron, we’re coming to get you at your place!”

So how did day-to-day frustrations about fuel prices and ‘green taxes’ transform into a nation-wide protest movement attracting hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks? It all comes down to Macron’s apparent failure to connect with the people, understand their concerns, and steer France away from the neoliberal policies that have only led to a higher standard of living in an already unequal society where the income differences between rich and poor have only increased. With no social security and adequate welfare measures to facilitate the income distribution, the yellow vest protesters have taken to the streets asking for mundane issues from wages to fuel prices to be solved.

Protests and revolutions have forged the sociopolitical landscape in France but are the yellow vest protestors the modern Jacobins fighting contemporary tyranny or something different? Danielle Tartakowsky, a history professor at Paris University in his recently published book wrote “the current demonstrations are unlike any other, marking an important shift in France’s political landscape.”

Click the PDF file to read the full essay. It was first published in the NIAS Quarterly on Contemporary World Affairs, Vol 2, Issues 2&3. 

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