Gilets Jaunes: More Than Esprit Français

Source: Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

The endurance and energy of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (yellow jackets) movement has been a surprise even in a country familiar with street protests. The demonstrations have continued for the fifth week in a row, or ‘Act Five’ as it has been called. With a turnout of around 66,000 on Saturday 16th December, the numbers were around half that of the previous weekend, which saw a reported 135 people injured, according to the Interior Ministry, and 1,220 taken into custody. Shot through with violence, they have spiralled into a protest at the state of affairs in France for those left behind. They also signal a reluctance for reform in a country which badly needs it.


The Protests

The Gilets Jaunes protests began with opposition to a rise in eco-tax on fuel, a fiscal commitment actually inherited from the previous government. Motorists began displaying their high-vis jackets on social media, and the movement mushroomed from this. Macron initially stood his ground on the issue of the tax hike, however in the face of continued protests and objections to his silence, the Elysée Palace then announced a six-month freeze on the tax, before declaring the next day that it was dropping the fuel tax rise from the 2019 budget.

The protests were from the beginning about more than just the fuel tax hike; dependence upon cars is a particularly sensitive issue in France. Though petrol prices are roughly the same as in Germany or the UK, and diesel prices are somewhere in between the two countries, not needing a car is a status symbol – those in the city centres can use public transport, but most are not rich enough to live in the centre of Paris, Bordeaux, or Marseille. The poorest tend to be reliant on their cars for getting to work. A rise in the global oil price had already made fuel more expensive this year, further exacerbating the issue.

The protests have seen road blockades across the country, in towns and villages as well as cities. In Paris, the Arc de Triomphe has been defaced by graffiti, attractions like the Eiffel Tower closed, and shops along the Champs Elysées shuttered, as rioters broke into shops. Though the protests have enjoyed sympathy amongst the French public, they have been marred by violence, with seven people killed so far, many more injured, and many arrests made. The protests have also hit the French economy hard and seen the Euro fall.

The movement is by no means cohesive. Lacking central organisation, it has attracted support from a wide swathe of the social and political spectrum. There have also been fears about its vulnerability to manipulation, with reports of far-left and far-right infiltration, and even allegations of Russian involvement in inflaming the riots using social media accounts.

Along with the unemployed and the just-about-managing, students have also featured among the protestors. Expressing their fears that universities are becoming more unequal, they have also reiterated general fears of heightened inequality under Macron’s administration.  As one student noted when speaking to Le Journal du Dimanche, ‘it’s a convergence of fights with the Gilets Jaunes’, adding ‘we’re principally there to denounce the politics of Macron which exacerbate inequality and poverty’. Another student emphasised the divergence within the movement, stating that ‘I’m here to protest in general against the politics of Macron and even if I support the gilets jaunes, I’m not one [of them]. We don’t really have the same objectives, some of them are putting forward fascist arguments which I dislike’.

The depleted numbers of ‘Act Five’ may partly be attributed to the impact of Macron’s speech and the concessions he made, but external factors also came into play – namely the bad weather and objections to the propriety of the protests in the wake of the attack in Strasbourg. The interior minister Christophe Castaner stated that ‘I find it unacceptable that today we are applauding our police and then tomorrow some people think it’s OK to go and throw stones at them’. The movement and its implications are by no means over – dissatisfaction remains high.


France’s History of Protest

Commentators have drawn links between the Gilets Jaunes movement and France’s history of protests (‘les manifestations’), from the 1968 student protests in Paris, the strong trade unions and workers’ penchant for strikes – and before that, to the revolution of 1789. Speaking to France 24, French Sociologist Laurent Muchielli said ‘There is indeed a stronger culture of taking to the streets to protest in France than in many other countries. It’s due to our political history’.

The Cambridge Globalist spoke with Jean-Yves Camus, Director of the Observatoire des radicalités politiques (ORAP), Fondation Jean Jaurès, Paris. Camus concurred that the Gilets Jaunes protests are in line with a French tradition, but drew them more into line with the pre-1789 riots than those post-WW2. Camus said, ‘The landmark study conducted by historian Jean Nicolas (La Rébellion française, mouvements populaires et conscience sociale (1661-1789), Éditions du Seuil, 2002), shows that 17th and 18th century France saw hundreds of local uprisings emerge, eventually paving the way for the French Revolution of 1789. Those revolts were not so much against the Monarchy as a political system as they were against the tyranny and excesses of the tax collectors and the undue privileges of the clergy and the non-resident nobility […] So it is true that we have a tradition of demonstrations and even riots. The Yellow Jackets are in this tradition both because they are an anti-tax movement and because they are a spontaneous movement, launched on social media, without the involvement of any trade union or political party. This is a new kind of a protest movement when compared to those of the post-WWII era, when the trade unions had some kind of a monopoly over the protests of the working class. But it is strongly reminiscent of the pre-1789 riots, which were quite spontaneous and had no other local leader than an individual who was recognized by his fellow citizens as being the most able speaker or the most valiant fighter’.

Like the pre-1789 riots, the Gilets Jaunes protests show a widespread unhappiness with an order which once seemed stable – they are a reminder that the globalist, liberal, capitalist democracies which dominate much of the Western world are by no means permanent and mutely accepted; many do not feel themselves well-served by this order.


‘President of the Rich’

Anger at Macron has been at the heart of the Gilets Jaunes’ activity. Though Macron rushed to the presidency with unprecedented success – his new centrist party, La Republique En Marche, securing a comfortable majority hardly 12 months after it was founded, annihilating the traditional Socialist Party – Macron’s approval rating has plummeted. Macron was castigated for his silence in the first weeks of protests. The mayor of the city of Saint-Etienne, a town in southeast France hit by violence, remonstrated with Macron for failing to speak out, saying it ‘feeds the resentment’. ‘This silence becomes contempt for the nation’, said the mayor Gael Perdriau, ‘He has a direct responsibility in what is happening. He can’t remain closed up in the Elysée’.

In the face of these continued objections, Macron made a televised speech on 10 December, condemning the violence but acknowledging the anger as ‘deep, and in many ways legitimate’. He announced a minimum wage increase of €100 per month from 2019, as well as the cancellation of a planned tax increase for low-income pensioners, stating too that overtime pay would no longer be taxed, and employers would be encouraged to pay a tax-free end of year bonus to employees. He still, however, ruled out bringing back the impôt de solidarité sur la fortune (wealth tax), saying that it would be counterproductive to the country’s growth. These measures are estimated to cost up to €15bn (£13.5bn).

In office, Macron has been attempting to bring about structural reform in France, a country which enshrines particularly strong workers’ rights, with a view to shrinking the bloated public sector and rendering the labour market more flexible. Thus far, he has scrapped the wealth tax, weakened the regulation on layoffs and is trying to amend the special status of rail workers. Such measures have done little for his popularity, with rail workers’ strikes earlier in the year. As Jerome Fouquet, a director at polling firm Ifop told NBC news, ‘those are subjects many governments would have avoided…Some of these measures are unpopular. Sixty percent of French people were against the abolition of the wealth tax or against the labour law reform’.

Macron has consistently been criticised failing to understand those left behind, as embodied in his interaction with an unemployed gardener, when he told him ‘I can find you a job just by crossing the road’. Macron added, ‘in hotels, cafés and construction, everywhere I go people say to me that they are looking for staff’. For many, Macron – a former banker – is too distant from those he governs, from those disadvantaged by France’s economic model. As such, his approval rating has fallen even further this past week, in spite of the concessions he made in his televised address (behind an opulent desk in the Elysée Palace). It now lies at 23%, according to a poll by Ifop for the Journal du Dimanche weekly – a fall of two points from the previous month. His popularity has fallen by 27 points during the course of 2018, as reported in the newspaper, notably lower than that of both Hollande and Sarkozy at this stage of their presidencies.


La France Périphérique

These are the deep structural problems which underlie much of the insecurity seen in France today, and which predate Macron’s administration by a long shot. The term ‘La France Périphérique’ (Peripheral France) was coined by Christophe Guilluy in a 2014 essay. Guilluy posits that 60% of the population is encompassed within ‘Peripheral France’, which he defines as ‘small towns, suburbs and rural zones. It’s everything that is far from a globalized metropolis. It’s the vast, hidden, forgotten part of the country that lacks jobs, prospects, any sense of connection with the political class in Paris’. Guilluy, in an interview with the Figaro, argued that , ‘we’re not faced with a marginal movement’, but that the protests are ‘a confirmation of the confrontation between peripheral France and metropolitan France’. The Gilets Jaunes protests have not just seen the turnout of the poorest – what has been notable has been the inclusion of the middle classes – discontentment with the economic model has grown to an unforeseen extent.

Jean-Yves Camus also elaborated upon this vast division in the French public, saying of the protesters that, ‘Their concern is not that Macron was elected by those who are rich. It is that his core constituency of voters is made of those who are happy with globalisation, new technologies, the urban style of life, in short, the ‘winners’ who can swiftly adapt to technological and cultural change. The message the protesters are trying to convey is: ‘do not forget those who are left behind’. They are asking for a more inclusive and more protective society, for a State that cares about the public sector and the basic welfare needs of those who cannot make ends meet. Those people are usually living in the ‘France Périphérique’ where the basic public services have either been closed or been given over to the private sector’. Camus argues furthermore that ‘The problem is that France is really divided, much like the United States are under President Trump, between the urban elites of the “winners” and the majority of the middle-class (not to speak of the blue-collar workers) who feel alienated from the decision-making process and elites, to the point where they are ready to stand against representative democracy and vote for a populist demagogue [Marine Le Pen] who promises that under her presidency, the ‘ voice of the common man’ will prevail through direct democracy and opposition to ‘those in Brussels’ ’.


Fall-Out of the Protests

The Gilet Jaunes protests are a concerning manifestation – the product of a deep discontent which has been growing and which will continue to fester in the current climate. The protests cannot simply be drawn into a neat line with the oft-discussed growth of populism which has seen the election of Trump, the Brexit vote, and the rise of European parties like the Northern League in Italy and the AfD in Germany. Though they share similarities in having awakened the political classes to the failures of globalisation, it is dangerous to conflate these global trends, disregarding the national character of these issues.

Macron’s administration is seen to favour the ‘winners’, and many fear that the flexibility which he aims to create in the French market will create more economic insecurity. An op-ed in the New York Times claimed that “Mr. Macron’s economic policies favour employers over workers and chip away at what remains of the French welfare state’, while the hard left, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has called the reform a ‘social coup d’état’.

Yet the rigid French labour code already creates deep insecurity. Its strict laws make hiring and firing tricky, meaning that there is a great disparity between those in secure jobs, and the many who are faced with much more uncertain prospects. As Jonathan Fenby noted in The History of Modern France, ‘The principal reason for the continuing level of unemployment lay in the inflexible regulations in a 3,000-page labour code which made employers reluctant to offer long-term engagements since it was difficult to lay off workers if their companies ran into trouble. Those in work and the trade unions – which were numerically quite weak but could exert considerable muscle in the state sector – clung on to the protection provided by the legislation. The result was a two-speed system of rigidity at the centre and what was called ‘hyperflexibility’ on the margins’.

The Gilets Jaunes demonstrations are a manifestation of endemic problems faced by those on the peripheries of French society which require serious, typically unpopular reform. Reform will be no quick affair. In 2003 Gerhard Schröder launched a number of German labour-market reforms, in the face of an unemployment rate standing just under 10%. Only in 2008 did the unemployment rate fall to 7%, and it took four more years before it reached 5%. The results of Macron’s reforms are not yet apparent. In France the structural unemployment rate of around 9% remained steady in the third quarter of 2018. Yet thousands of new jobs are being created, and the employment rate has risen to 65.9%. Moreover, in the third quarter of 2018 the number of firms reporting an intention to hire on permanent (rather than temporary) contracts was 10% higher than the previous year, according to Acoss, the social-security agency.

Though the problems predate Macron, responsibility lies for now in his hands. The success of his reforms is still very much in the balance, but he must hold strong under pressure for results. As the unpopularity of the eco-tax on fuel illustrated, Macron faces the age-old problem of long-term gain versus the short-term demands of voters. This is the problem Macron must confront if he is to be successful in implementing real reform. His concessions will not suffice unless he does more to convince the population that he is not deaf to their frustrations. He must be seen to serve the whole of France – not merely the ‘winners’.