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28 November 2018

The yellow jackets are a reminder Emmanuel Macron rules only one version of France

The frustration of the France of the roundabouts has spilled over into protest and violence. 

By Pauline Bock

Emmanuel Macron can’t catch a breath. He just wants to #makeourplanetgreatagain, but the French keep ruining his plans.

Last year’s demonstrations against his labour law reform had already tested his presidency (he responded by calling the protesters “slackers”, which didn’t exactly go down well). Fast forward 12 months, a bodyguard scandal, plummeting approval ratings, three ministers’ resignations, to 17 November 2018: the day the French on low and middle incomes said “enough”.

For the past two weeks, French people all over the country have been blocking roads, shopping centres and highway tolls in protest against the rise of the fuel tax decided by Macron’s government. This tax, they say, is the last straw in a series of unjust measures that always hit low-earning workers, who feel they are living from paycheck to paycheck. They call themselves “yellow vests” (gilets jaunes in French), in reference to the fluorescent yellow security jackets, a mandatory item in all cars since 2008 in France. The protestors are using it as a symbol for the “France des ronds-points”, or the France of the roundabouts: the people of the rural and “peripheral” towns, where cars are necessary to go anywhere.

According to the French Interior ministry, 287,000 protestors wore the yellow vest on the first day of the protest, on 17 November. On the second weekend of the movement, 24-25 November, about 100,000 were blocking roads in 160 different actions on the French territory. It’s a lesser number, but the movement hasn’t wound down. Rather, it has spread out into various groups. In many small towns, yellow vests “filtering blocades” have slowed down traffic every day since the start. About 8,000 people walked to the Champs-Elysées in Paris last Saturday and it quickly turned into violent riots where rocks (on the yellow vests’ side) and teargas (on the police’s side) were exchanged.

It might have started as a protest against the rise of the fuel tax, but the yellow vests’ anger stems from years of rising precarity. They demand more than just the scrapping of the tax: they want all taxes lowered and a “citizens’ debate” on spending power and climate change. In the protests, “Macron resignation” is a recurring battle cry. In Corrèze, rural central France, demonstrators have held a “funeral” for the current political system. The yellow vests won’t stop there: they’re planning their “Act III” on 1 December, with more walks and protests everywhere, including on the Champs-Elysées.

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They are not the only ones to be angry: hospital staff, already in a dire situation, are worried about a planned health reform; mayors are resigning en masse to protest against the council budget cuts made by the government; even lawyers are striking against a judicial reform.

A poll has found that 73 per cent of the French support the yellow vest movement, at least in principle. In La Réunion, a French overseas territory situated in the Indian Ocean, the yellow vest movement has led to food shortages, schools closures and the enforcement of a curfew. Now people from the “quartiers”, the poorer areas of French cities where unemployment is high, are calling to protest alongside the yellow vests for their “dignity” against “Macron’s ultra-liberalism”: “Macron’s rule destroys our lives and leaves us to agonise at the end of each month”, they say.

The social movement is a mosaic of French working-class experiences, of people feeling disenfranchised from the urban elite who “can focus on the end of the world, while we’re worrying about the end of the month”, as one yellow vest put it. The movement isn’t affiliated to any party. It has been violent at times – two people have died in moments of panic involving cars – and racist and homophobic slurs have been reported during blockades. But mostly, the movement reveals what an op-ed in Le Monde describes as the new “territorial and fiscal divides”. It declared: “The growing gap between rulers and ruled has fed the democratic disenchantment, then rejection, and now its secession.”

At first, Macron refuse to bulge on the fuel tax. His offers, including a “super prime” bonus of €4,000 when you buy a less-polluting car, were judged out-of-touch – a lot of the protesters can’t afford to buy a new car, even if they want to. On 27 November, he was forced to adopt a more humble persona. He told the yellow vests he had “heard their anger” and announced he would open a dialogue with the movement.

But he will not cave in. On the fuel tax, the first of the yellow vests’ demand, Macron has only agreed to link it to the international price for oil. Had he, in the first week of protests, adapted his fiscal policy to include high earners in the price of the ecological transition (for example, by reinstating the tax on high incomes he abolished last year) and pitched the French fight against climate change as a collective domestic effort, the reaction would have been more measured. The yellow vests know the ecological transition is necessary – they just don’t want to feel like they’re the only ones paying dearly for it.

Macron was supposed to be a new, hopeful face. Instead, the frustration and violence of the protests suggest, many French people feel he has brought more of the status quo. Two versions of France are taking shape, but Macron rules only one. It is not the France of the roundabouts.

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