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One year on, the gilets jaunes are still fighting for justice

Their broad political programme reflected the protest’s diversity, with activists from both left and right. 

After celebrating its first anniversary on 17 November, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement is alive and well in France. It has undoubtedly declined from its peak at the end of 2018, when between 100,000 and 200,000 protesters were marching every week in cities across the country. But rallies continue to gather as many as 20,000 people each Saturday, while protestors have employed other forms of action, such as occupying roundabouts, joining protests organised around different national causes and forming short-lived popular assemblies.

From 2 November, a new motto has been heard at gilets jaunes rallies: “Peoples around the world are waking up. Let’s carry on!” Indeed, there are at least three common features shared by the gilets jaunes and the ongoing protests in Ecuador, Chile, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Hong Kong, among others.

The first is how a single issue grows into a wider interrogation of the social and political order. The gilets jaunes movement was first sparked by the French government’s attempt in November 2018 to introduce a carbon tax, which would have increased the price of fuel. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, underestimated the strength of feeling that the tax generated (he even tried to discredit the protesters, comparing them to the reactionary Poujadist movement of the 1950s).

What Macron ignored was that for many people in the lower and middle classes, whose average income has decreased since 2008, transport expenses are a burden;  people often live far from their workplace and have suffered from the disappearance of local public services, making fuel a significant part of their weekly budgets.

When the government refused to cancel the tax, protesters argued that the largest greenhouse gas producers, including businesses and state industries, were not taxed. In their view, inequality – and the struggle for working people to make ends meet – was inextricably linked to the struggle against climate change. “End of the world, end of the month: all the same” was one of their slogans.

Over time, the protestors’ demands grew to include issues of social justice and democratic reform. They pressed for the reintroduction of a more progressive tax code, an increase in the minimum wage and a programme to end homelessness, as well as improving the integration of migrants into French society and better treatment for asylum-seekers. They also called for a revision of the constitution, the creation of citizen assemblies, and the re-establishment of institutional checks and balances.

This broad political programme reflected the protest’s diversity, with activists from both left and right. This is the second common feature among the gilets jaunes and other broad-based popular uprisings around the world – including from people with no former experience of activism.

Previous French demonstrations against revisions of the labour code mostly gathered trade unionists, while marches against gay marriage rallied conservative Christians. But the gilets jaunes comprised a wide range of the population, with an unusually high number of women for a protest movement.

Contrary to the far right’s expectations, the yellow vests never let Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National take over the movement; nor did they endorse Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise, even if a majority of gilets jaunes sympathisers voted for these parties at the European elections.

The police’s response to the demonstrations has often been brutal. Not since the civil unrest of May 1968 have police in France caused so many casualties among protestors: during the first 11 months of the protests, one person died and 860 were seriously injured as a result of the use of so-called sub-lethal weapons, such as rubber bullets and tear gas.

The government denied the police violence while national and international media remained silent on the use of force, focusing instead on the destruction of public property and the looting of luxury stores by some of the protesters.

But besides its most dramatic expression, repression of the movement has also taken less visible forms. Marches were prohibited, police forces have been deployed to prevent rallies from taking place, there have been preventative arrests of people carrying yellow vests and participants have been intimidated even in authorised demonstrations.

In preparation for the anniversary of the first march, what was called the “assembly of assemblies” convened in Montpellier on 1 November. Two hundred delegations from the across France came to discuss the organisation and continuation of the movement.  Alongside their grievance about the fuel tax, the gilets jaunes voted to join a major strike planned by railway workers for 5 December in protest at Macron’s pension reforms.

Whatever happens next, the gilets jaunes have succeeded in mobilising citizens across social classes to demand social justice and democratic renewal in France. 

Read the rest of our world in revolt series here

This article appears in the 29 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question