Last week, the south east of France was rattled by an earthquake that registered 5 on the Richter scale and whose tremors were felt between the communities of Lyon and Montelimar. Earthquakes in France are rare occurrences and seismologists are looking closely at one particular crack that split a roadway and left a visible chasm.
Chasms, however, within French political society, are something far more common. Last week, the gilet jaunes movement (yellow vests movement) turned one, and the yellow-vested protesters don’t look to be going away anytime soon.
While their protests might not be as widespread or as violent as those that shook the government of President Emmanuel Macron over the winter and spring, the gilet jaunes are still there, still demonstrating against what they say are systemic inequalities in French society.
In France and Spain, and indeed in most continental European nations, motorists are required by law to carry a yellow reflective vest in their vehicles, to be worn by a driver in the event of a breakdown. It’s these yellow vests — gilet jaunes — that have been adopted by protesters who railed against what they felt was an unfair increase in petrol, fuel and toll prices a year ago. And they have a point.
Drive from the bottom of Spain to the French border on motorways — a distance of roughly 900km, and you’ll pay an average of €1.30 (Dh5.28) a litre for petrol and €15 in tolls. In France, for a similar drive from the Spanish frontier to the Channel ports, you’ll pay €1.50 per litre and more than €40 in road tolls.
The movement galvanised around opposition to a fuel tax increase — one that would have increased petrol by 2.5 cents and diesel by 6.5 cents a litre. The increases were supposed to signal a transition to a green economy — instead they just infuriated a whole section of the French population starved of public transport and reliant on their vehicles to get to and from work. The protest movement tapped into a general feeling across France that ordinary people were being left behind, or were paying too much in taxes for too little in return.
It’s the same sort of lower-class angst that has fuelled populist movements in Spain and across much of western Europe too. And not for the first time in French history has a common clothing item come to symbolise commoners fighting back against authority. The sans-culottes — those who shunned the gentlemanly knee-length breeches worn by the aristocracy — were the main activists on the streets of revolutionary France.
While the gilet jaunes are obviously not as radical as the republicans, they remain a potent and unconventional movement that has forced the Macron government to scale back economic measures that adversely impacted the lower echelons of French society, leaving a lasting legacy on politics.
On 52 consecutive weekends, gilet jaunes have taken to streets, roundabouts and civic squares of villages, towns and cities up and down France, raising voices and the occasional rock and stick against mounting inequality and economic hardship.
For Macron, a leader whose presidency appears aloof, out of touch and borders on a magisterial style of pronouncements, the gilet jaunes movement has brought him down to earth
At their peak, gilet jaunes even stormed the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris, bringing a level of street protest and violence unseen in the capital since the heady days of the spring of 1968.
What’s all the more remarkable is that the loose socio-political movement has no collective leadership, has no overall agreed agenda, has hundreds of separate pages on Facebook and any number of disparate Twitter and WhatsApp accounts but has somehow managed to challenge Macron and alter his agenda.
While the French media is largely focused on the French capital and protests there receive most — and mostly negative — coverage, the reality is that the movement has stood up for the many forgotten villages and towns of rural France. They have also succeeded into forcing Macron to implement €5 billion in tax cuts for lower and average earners as well as pension rises for the poorest.
He also was forced to promise that no more schools or hospitals would close during his presidency — a significant climb down for a leader and economist determined to overhaul the country’s monolithic welfare and social programmes. For Macron, a leader whose presidency appears aloof, out of touch and borders on a magisterial style of pronouncements, the gilet jaunes movement has brought him down to earth.
Studies by political, economic researchers, academic and analysts point to a loose coalition of the like-minded rather than the aligned, with local issues often dominating local gatherings — such as concerns over the level at services at one town medical centre or the lack of third-level educational access in another, or poor train and bus services across a region.
Disparate reasons, but all viewed as symptoms of an ailing French society with Paris and the government there as the cause. And they’re not going away anytime soon.