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7 January 2019

The “yellow vests” won’t let Emmanuel Macron take back control

The French president’s refusal to offer further concessions is creating the conditions for more violent episodes. 

By Pauline Bock

On 4 January, putting into practice President Emmanuel Macron’s new year’s resolution to be firm with the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) movement, the French government’s spokesperson, Benjamin Griveaux, declared that the administration would “go on with the reforms and be more radical”. He condemned the actions of the anti-tax protesters, who he described as “agitators stirring up insurrection”. The yellow vests might have ruined the fun in late 2018, but 2019 was absolutely going to be the year the Elysée took back control.

On 5 January, Griveaux had to flee his office building as protesters smashed the entrance open with heavy plant machinery and entered the courtyard. The yellow vests’ “Act VIII”, held in Paris and across France last Saturday, saw a resurgence both in numbers of marchers  there were 50,000, compared to 30,000 in the weeks before Christmas and in violent clashes between the police and the yellow vests.

Projectiles were thrown, tear gas was used, cars and barricades were set ablaze. A protester beat up police officers on a Paris bridge. A police commandant beat up protesters on a Toulon street. In bad news for Macron (who, helpfully, wished the French a happy new year and referred to the yellow vests as a “hateful mob” in the same breath), the crisis is not over yet.

In December, when the president made budget concessions to address the social and economic suffering felt by the working and lower middle classes and promised a dialogue with the movement, it may have appeared that he had the situation under control. But after more than a month of mobilisation, none of the yellow vests’ demands were met – there was no true re-evaluation of the minimum wage; the wealth tax was not reinstated; and Macron powered through with a smile. Meanwhile, when police forces organised their own strike to protest against their working conditions, an effort called the “blue vests”, their salaries were increased within a day.

Participation in the big weekly marches has gone down, yet in rural towns and small cities across France, many yellow vests spent Christmas on roundabouts, where it all started. During the holiday, in the minus temperatures of France’s Great East, I saw bonfires lit by the roads, often surrounded by a dozen yellow vests. Any movement that can assemble willing participants all day outside, when it’s freezing and they could be drinking chocolat chaud at home, is not a movement about to dissolve.

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Having pretended to make reasonable concessions, Macron’s government is now free to brand those protesters who keep marching “agitators” wanting “extreme violence”, and to demand that they stop. But you don’t engage in a “great national debate” with the most important social movement in decades by calling them thugs, unless you’re planning on the talks going sour.

That’s not to minimise the violence of some rallies. There have undeniably been scenes of brutality not just at Griveaux’s ministry and on Paris’s streets, but against the media too. Marches on the offices of news agency AFP, left-wing newspaper Libération and BFM TV were organised to protest the coverage of the movement and journalists – although often in jobs as precarious as those the yellow vests condemn – are regularly attacked in protests. Just days before Christmas, the tax centre in my hometown mysteriously burned down. Looking for culprits in the media and engaging in random acts of violence might mean the yellow vests have been radicalised – some certainly have. But it’s also a sign that their justifiable anger at meaningless promises hasn’t been contained or properly addressed.

The longer the movement goes on, the angrier protesters become and the more they understand that Macron doesn’t want to budge and thinks he can get away with it, the greater the likelihood of violent episodes. The president’s gamble isn’t guaranteed to work: while the yellow vests are still backed by 55 per cent of the population, Macron and his government’s policies are opposed by 75 per cent.

Social discontent is spreading. Teachers are mobilising (and planning to award the highest mark to all their students, which is unlikely to be unpopular), hospital staff and many public services are on alert mode, with local emergency services striking through Christmas. And the introduction of the pay-as-you-earn income tax system, rolled out in January, has come at a bad time: the automatic deduction of taxes risks leaving some with the feeling that they have less to make ends meet – there will be less disposable income available at the end of each month. Macron is also about to introduce comprehensive reforms of the French unemployment and pensions systems. Both are certain to kick things off again.

The “great national debate” between the yellow vests and Macron’s government hasn’t even begun and already tensions are showing. Opposition parties, sometimes on the extremes, are preying upon the movement. The yellow vests might struggle to pursue peaceful revendications (claims), but they aren’t going anywhere.

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