The Yellow Vest movement and its barricading style devoid of any coherent plan is starting to wear thin. It now resembles Italy’s Five Star Movement, but without Grillo and Casaleggio
Everything started three months ago, following protests against a hike in fuel prices imposed by the government as part of the country’s energy transition plan. The measure, perceived by many as a tax on the poor, mainly affected French commuters living in more remote areas and triggered protests, initially on Facebook and then, shortly afterwards, throughout the land, with barricades set up at toll stations, roundabouts and fuel depots, all organised via social media.
The Yellow Vest movement soon gave the impression of being decentralised and uncoordinated, led by a diverse bunch of people, small businessmen, unemployed, freelancers and craft workers. Sections of French society that usually go under the radar, are constantly grumbling and take little interest in politics. The peripheral France that now reckons its being left behind.
Unconnected to party or trade union organisations, the protesters chant very combative slogans but have no real political programme. Their list of grievances is long but jumbled, and they often resort to violence.
Councils, district authorities and other public buildings have been vandalised (and not just during the demonstrations) and attacks have been made on newsrooms and radio stations. A few journalists accused of denigrating the movement attend the demonstration under protection. Since the start of the uprisings, over 80 members of Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche, have been targeted and attacked at home or at work.
Some identify the Yellow Vests with the new right wing movements that have risen up in many European countries, but immigration, Islam and traditional family ties are not among the movement’s priorities.
There is no coherent ideology and the main issue around which they unite is their opposition to Emmanuel Macron and everything he stands for: urban centres and the elite, Europe and globalisation.
The Yellow Vests are the perfect incarnation of that social rift that is rending the entire globalised West, where wealth has been spread unfairly and cities have become wealth production and employment centres, while rural and peripheral areas, where the middle classes traditionally live, have been forgotten. The failure to recognise this situation has caused this divide between the political establishment and whole sections of the population.
After all, even the 2017 Presidential vote and the election of Emmanuel Macron were proof of a very ingrained rejection of traditional political classes and the French President is currently paying the price for having risen to power behind a promise to “overthrow” the previous establishment and replace it with a leader in touch with his electorate. En March was considered by many as a movement that would do away with time-worn political affiliations and who would be more concerned about the people, in a country with a high degree of voter apathy, contempt for its politicians and the sense that it was being ruled by a disdainful economic elite, singled out as an enemy of civil society, that led 10 million people to vote for Marine Le Pen’s far right party.
In recent months the French President has repeatedly stated that he won’t be swayed by the protests and will continue to pursue his goal of transforming France, putting decades of statism and scant economic growth behind him, but at this point, under the threat of further violence, he has had to back down: the ‘gilets jaunes’ have demanded and been granted a minimum wage increase, tax-free overtime and a block on increased tax levies on pensions below 2,000 euro. This last compromise was the hardest to swallow for Macron, seeing as he had based part of his electoral campaign on shifting fiscal pressure from active workers onto those no longer actively employed. The total cost of the announced measures is around 10 million euro, a sum that will clearly weigh on the state deficit, in a better state than the Italian one, but certainly not doing too well (97% of GDP compared to 132% in Italy).
In actual fact the President, albeit weakened, seems to be on the way back: he has opened up new channels of communication with civil society, distressed by the violence of recent months and his popularity ratings, which at the end of December had hit rock bottom (23%) have greatly improved (34% in February).
After at first collecting people’s grievances (lists of citizens’ complaints have been drawn up by mayors and other local representatives), since the end of January France has entered the second stage of the great national debate, an initiative set in motion by the President which envisages a series of meetings between the government and civil society representatives to discuss the thorniest issues: ecological transition, democracy, taxation and institutional reform. Macron is trying to reassert his hols on the country and isolate the violent factions and has shown courage and determination in doing so. Speaking to local mayors and students, he’s rolled up his sleeves, admitted a few mistakes, but also defended his policies that aim to liberalise the economy and review the welfare state in return for flexible forms of security that might guarantee a more dynamic labour market. Macron’s sweeping national debate process, which will continue to the end of March, is something that has never been attempted in France before. A few of his political opponents and even the Yellow Vests fear that it still won’t manage to restore the citizen’s trust.
In the meantime however, the movement is starting to splinter. A few leaders are trying to join the traditional political system, and there’s talk of three competing electoral lists for the European elections, one on the left, one on the right and one more central, which the stalwarts are fingering as traitors.
During a demonstration in Lyon, the far right and far left ‘gilets jaunes’ clashed among themselves: a group of anti-globalisation nationalists faced off against leftist anti-capitalist militants.
All things considered, the movement is starting to reveal its fault lines. The protests have not produced any valid alternative proposals and are instead voicing thousands of contradictory requests: everything and its opposite.
The truth is that Macron has put his finger on the country’s real problem, which is the famous French “managerial” model which since the second world war has certainly enjoyed successes (high speed rail, air transport – the Concord – nuclear power), but which over the last 20 years has been holding the country back and therefore must be radically reformed. Many and significant failures have marked these years: the state’s nuclear firm Aveva took a dive after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and had to be salvaged in 2016 with 5 billion worth of public funds; the value of the national electricity company (EDF) has crumbled from 150 to 20 billion euro over the last 10 years, to mention but two examples. The state has been increasingly hungry for dividends to support a model that is no longer viable and it no longer invests, and is therefore at a loss when facing each new challenge which requires research, innovation and investments.
Hence the “En Marche” recipe, which calls for reforms capable of restoring the economic system’s competitive edge and more amenable production and labour costs. A painful recipe, but the only way forward if one means to avoid ending up like Venezuela.
If between now and the European elections in May our leaders can brace themselves and move forward, Europe (under its new government) could become the central Authority, if provided with sufficient resources, that can help manage reformist transitions like the one Macron is trying to introduce in France, which must necessarily be propped up by welfare and inclusion policies for the weaker sections of society.
This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.