Blue, White, and Yellow? The Yellow Vests Explained

You have more than likely seen the photographs online. Streets, flooded in a torrent of yellow. Hundreds of thousands of people marching through clouds of tear gas. Vandalised monuments and injured citizens. A government that was at one stage on the brisk of collapse and a population whose anger does not seem to decline. How did we get to this point?

It all began with a petition. According to the local French newspaper France-Antilles, it was a Parisian from Martinique, Priscillia Ludosky, who launched at the end of May 2018 a petition against the announced hike in fuel prices in France. By November, it had over 900,000 signatures. At this stage, knowledge of the hike and growing resentment in the French population meant that anger could no longer remain online. Action was required, and two men create a Facebook event inviting people to block roads throughout the country. Act I had begun.

This first day of action on the 17thof November saw the mobilisation of over 300,000 people, blocking roads, fuel depots, and factories. This day also witnessed the first deaths of the ongoing protests, with two people dying. 585 civilians and 115 law-enforcement officers were injured, some severely.

Three ‘acts’ later, deviating from his original no-concession approach to the yellow vest movement, President Macron spoke to the nation on television on December 10th.

Beginning with a condemnation of violence and ‘anti-social behaviours’, Macron offered an increase in the minimum wage of €100 (in reality, not an explicit increase for all, but an increase in the activity bonus for eligible workers) and removal of taxes on overtime for the following year. Although this speech was the most viewed speech in French history with 23 million people tuning in, the message did not resonate, and a significant number of yellow vest said of the intervention that it was too little too late.

Over the dozen of acts (weeks of protest as described by the media and yellow vests themselves) of the protest, the movement, leaderless and unorganised, grew (albeit not in numbers, but in structure) and drew a list of demands, and no longer focused on the singular issue of fuel prices. Education, direct democracy (through popular referendums and proportional representation), tax, and for half of the yellow vests, even the resignation of Macron as President of the Republic, make up this list. Another change of focus was the growing anti-media rhetoric, particularly visible during Act VII (29thof December) when the yellow vests demonstrated at the offices of 24/7 news network BFM-TV, daily left-leaning national newspaper Libération, and public broadcaster France Télévision. This resentment towards media allowed certain fringe groups within the yellow vests to radicalise certain members, giving the administration and certain media the ‘proof’ of the extremist nature of the yellow vests as a whole. The sheer number of protesters and the approval ratings of the movement (74% in mid-January) however refutes this claim, as the overwhelming majority of yellow vests are concerned citizens, most often unable to cope with the decrease in the standard of living in the country.

As the violence and protests continue, the government is finding it increasingly difficult to come up with solutions. Their final attempt at appeasing the roaring crowd is the ‘Grand Débat National’ (the great national debate), a public debate launched on January 15th. This debate is aimed at collecting the demands and concerns of the population, through townhall meetings and logbooks in most city halls. Whether this will be successful or not, it will not erase the memory of one of the most flagrant and grandiose exercise of popular democracy in recent history , and the largest crisis faced by Macron’s presidency.

And whilst all of France is a stage, one question remains: when will the final act take place?

Image: Patrice CALATAYU