For the past three weeks, French sociologists, historians and journalists have been slowly going crazy. Who are the gilets jaunes? Where did they come from? What do they want? No one knows, and no gilet jaune could tell you for sure.
The main characteristic of the French social movement, which started as a protest on 17 November against a fuel tax and has become a full-blown social crisis and a nightmare for Emmanuel Macron’s government, is anger. Gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) don’t want the diesel tax, which was to be implemented in January and has now been halted due to the protests. Beyond this, their demands are less clear and vary from one group to the next. They want less tax, or at least more equal ones. They want to reintroduce the tax on high incomes that Macron abolished last year. Some want higher wages in general, others a revaluation of the minimum wage. Some want the National Assembly, the lower body of parliament, to be dissolved, want the government to resign or Macron to go. Others want a new political system altogether. All are asking for a dignity they feel they have lost due to recent fiscal policies, leaving them to struggle to make ends meet.
The yellow vest they chose as their symbol was their first rallying point. It was genius to claim the safety jacket, mandatory in cars since 2007, as an item of revolt: every driver already owned one. They organised around the diesel tax, which brought together vastly different social groups who all rely on their car – for work, or simply because they live in places where there is little to no public transport links.
They drive, they’re angry against Macron, and they usually live far from cosmopolitan areas. That’s as far as the French commentariat is able to go in describing the gilets jaunes, who belong to various professions, age, genders, and political and ethnicity groups. On just one blocked roundabout, a student, an artisan, a small business owner, a pensioner, a freelance worker and an employee were wearing the same yellow vest.
A poll conducted especially to understand this puzzling movement found that gilets jaunes represent 20 per cent of the French people. This proportion rose to 27 per cent in rural areas and 24 per cent in small towns. Those whose financial situation is difficult are more likely to approve of the movement (84 per cent), whereas among more well-off people, only 67 per cent support it. The poll found that although the gilet jaune affiliations touched all categories of “population, age, social class or living area”, working class, rural people with financial difficulties were overrepresented in the movement.
Politically, the poll stresses a “strong overrepresentation” of Marine Le Pen’s voters (42 per cent), but Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s voters are present too (20 per cent), as well as abstentionists (18 per cent). It would be a simplification to say Le Pen is the gilets jaunes’ politician: the movement has denied all political affiliation. As one yellow vest summarised on TV in an address to politicians: “We don’t need you anymore.” Perhaps voting Le Pen was a way of revolting – now the same discontented groups have found a more direct way to rock the ruling class.
Just like Macron’s En Marche! movement, which helped him rise to power, the yellow vests aim to open a new political era. Macron promised change, but it only came for his own class: the tax on high incomes was abolished almost as soon as he became president, but for people now wearing a yellow vest, little about his election has helped them stay financially afloat. Policies like the fuel tax, as important as they might be for the climate, are seen by the gilets jaunes as yet another sign that they are the only ones made to pay.
This climate of “ras-le-bol” (“enough”) is spreading to universities, where tuition fees are set to skyrocket for international students from next year; high schools, where pupils are unhappy with the new university application system introduced by Macron last spring; trade unions, which are calling for strikes; even pensioners, who are next in line in Macron’s busy reform agenda and make up 39 per cent of the gilets jaunes, according to the poll.
Macron has achieved the impossible: uniting vastly different French social groups around a common platform – unfortunately for him, it’s not his policies that did the trick, but the indignation they have provoked. Until now, in Macron’s cosmopolitan world, these people didn’t have a voice. Thanks to him, this has now changed.