The yellow vest movement began far from urban centres but is an indication of the fractures that run through all of French society
- Tuesday, 12 March 2019
The yellow vest movement that has made the headlines in recent months in France has taken everyone by surprise and sent an electric shock through a country that has suddenly found itself mired in a unprecedented crisis. The protest originated on the web with a call to arms that echoed across dozens of Facebook pages, which on this occasion became virtual meeting places before transferring very forcefully into territorial reality.
The straw that broke the camel's back was the increase in the fuel tax, a measure supposedly introduced to promote and announce the energy transition. This move opened the floodgates and a show of festering discontent among the lower classes erupted in every corner of the country with demonstrations which often led to violent clashes between some of the demonstrators and the law enforcement agents.
With public opinion's support for the movement reaching a peak of 84% at the end of November, thousands of French men and women poured into the streets wearing what soon became the official outfit for the mobilisations: a fluorescent jacket usually used in emergencies, as if the protests were issuing a call for rescue. The first mobilisation on 17 November, which saw the participation of 287,170 people throughout the country, was followed by others, every Saturday, in Paris and the rest of France. The gilets jaunes have taken roundabouts by storm. These have become their territorial strongholds: they've blocked roads, bridges and oil refineries, preventing the circulation of cars and freight vehicles. The list of grievances advanced by the protesters soon grew longer and included a whole new set of requests, such as minimum wage increases and the institution of a referendum system based on citizens' initiatives which would allow a law to be suppressed or a politician's mandate revoked.
The eleven billion euro of concessions granted by Emmanuel Macron in mid-December, which include the cancellation of the fuel price increases, don't seem to have served their purpose. The movement has continued to fill the streets although participation in the demonstrations is beginning to wane.
The protests are a very mixed bag of events and actions that are very difficult to classify due to their breadth and the many diverse elements of society that are involved. Establishing a profile for the average demonstrator is a tricky operation which involves weighing up a series of geographical, social and cultural factors.
"One has to take a large number of precautions before defining a movement born just a few months ago from a sociological point of view, especially given its speedy development and the many differences encountered in one region compared to the next", according to sociologist Alexis Spire (whose book "Resistance à l'impot, attachement à l’État", came out last September in French bookshops). "However", Spire adds, "based on the first very limited studies, one can safely say that the yellow vests belong to the higher income brackets of the lower classes, which includes blue and white collar workers, and the lower echelons of the middle classes, which are largely made up of old age pensioners, freelancers and nurses".
"The France that gets up early", as the then President Nicolas Sarkozy referred to them in 2007. Those who have a hard time making it to the end of the month and have nothing to do with the Parisian bobo (bourgeois and bohemian) living in the capital's gentrified neighbourhoods. The yellow vests are seriously concerned about their gradual loss of spending power, the very marked deterioration of public services and the de-industrialisation process that afflicts certain French regions and has resulted in a major rise in unemployment.
President Emmanuel Macron, who came into power in 2017 with the promise of transforming the country into a 'start up nation', has acted as a primer for this phenomenon, ultimately triggered by a series of measures implemented by the government that led to a situation that was already on the point of blowing up.
The abolition of the wealth tax, the tax on all wealth (property, saving, investments, jewellery, cars, etc.) replaced in January 2018 by a real estate tax; the 5 euro cut of the APl (Aide personalisé au logement) that help 2.6 million beneficiaries (mainly students and families with modest means) to pay the rent every first of the months; the loss of spending power experienced by old age pensioners: this list of measures introduced during the first phase of the Presidential mandate further infuriated vast swathes of the lower classes, who within just a few months saw the state subsidies that helped them survive suddenly fall away.
To this one has to add the rather blustery attitude flaunted by Macron, who on a number of occasions let slip various unfortunate blunders which showed that he still has plenty to learn in terms of communication. Claiming that the French are "roosters impervious to change" or telling a young unemployed women that "all you have to do is cross the road to find a job" were rather reckless remarks, that contributed to establishing his image as that of an arrogant and superficial 'President of the rich'.
The increase in fuel costs was the ultimate blow levelled at those social categories that live in small cities or rural areas and use their car every day to get to work, seeing as they can't rely on an efficient public transport network like those found in the cities. The French who live outside the main urban centres felt overlooked once again, in the name of an economic and energy programme imposed from above, which didn't take into consideration those who have not managed to integrate into a system that travels too fast for them and is very exclusive. The yellow vests fear that the divide that separates the France of the rich and comfortable shall widen to such an extent that the areas in the doldrums will be left isolated and abandoned.
But to understand the phenomenon in its entirety, one has to go beyond the fracture between metropolitan and rural France. "The yellow vest crisis is emblematic of a whole range of rifts found within French society, and it is therefore somewhat simplistic to analyse a movement in terms of a clash between rural and urban areas", Spire explains, recalling some of the many "oppositions" that can be found in the country, such as the generational divide between old and young, the working one between freelancers and employees and those between the various social classes.
In such a context, assessing the actual territories become a way of trying to make sense of this phenomenon. "There's no geographic determinism involved" claims geographer Christophe Guilluy, who with his notion of "Peripheral France" developed in recent years he had to some extent foreseen the arrival of the yellow vests (his latest book is "No Society". The end of the Western Middle Class"). "It's primarily a social and cultural concept. The working class lives in small and average sized cities or rural areas, territorial enclaves that produce little employment and where the economy is hardly dynamic. These areas oppose the large globalised metropolises like Paris, Toulouse or Lyon. The geography therefore becomes a consequence of a profoundly unequal economic modal that polarizes the problem in territorial terms, despite the real causes being economic", Guilluy says, while reminding us that the "democratic rift" is based on the fact that the large urban centres concentrate most of the economy, and as a result most of the employment in themselves.
In the eyes of the yellow vests Paris therefore becomes the economic and political centre they must storm, the root of all evil. "The large metropolises have become the medieval citadels of the 21st century, one just has to look at the houses. Paris would claim to be an open city, but no city can claim to be 'open' when a square metre costs 10,000 euro!" Guilluy explains.
The gilet jaune who ever week hits the street to protest feels left to his own devices by a management class that seems to be completely indifferent to the real problems of everyday living. "There's a problem of political representation", is how Spire views this matter. "The stable working classes", the sociologist continues, "are social groups that are no longer represented within any public, media or parliamentary space, and the yellow vest movement is a symptom of this lack of representation".
To try and quell the protests and resume discussions with the France represented by the yellow vests, on 15 January Macron launched the Great National Debate, an initiative that revolves around two months of meetings and negotiations throughout the entire country between government representatives and representatives of civil society, who are called upon to discuss four main issues: environmental transition, democratic behaviour, taxes and institutional reform.
In this way Macron has played the dialogue card, a gamble that at least in the first instance seems to be paying off. After collapsing in the opinion polls at the end of last year, at the start of 2019 the President has started to be viewed more leniently by public opinion, and his popularity rate had already risen to 34% at the start of February.
According to an analysis carried out by Le Figaro on the first stage of the initiative published on 6 February, the Great national debate seems to have started off on the right foot, seeing as the rural areas have recorded the highest level of participation in relation to the number of inhabitants. The Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department, in the south east of the country, came out on top, with 18.45 meetings every 100,000 inhabitants, followed by Haute-Saône in Bourgogne (16.44) and Lot in the south-west (16.9).
Now the incumbent President must continue along these lines to show that the revival of his consensus is not just a circumstantial event but is actually grounded in a true shift in political approach.
This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.