What’s really behind France’s Yellow Vest protest?


Yellow Vest protesters occupy a roundabout in Cissac-Medoc, France, on December 5, 2018 PHOTO/Reuters/Regis Duvignau

It’s not just about the fuel tax; it’s about anger at ever-increasing burdens on the working class.

French President Emmanuel Macron isn’t a fan of protests. He has mocked union demonstrators in the past for being “lazy” and “cynical” and criticized his predecessors in the Elysée Palace for too easily succumbing to the demands of their critics. This presidency, Macron assured, would stick to its business-friendly reform agenda—even when unpopular. As the former investment banker and economy minister put it bluntly last fall, “democracy is not in the street.”

This is what makes the French government’s decision to cancel an increase in the fuel tax next year all the more extraordinary. After three weeks of protests that have grown increasingly violent—resulting thus far in three deaths, more than 800 injuries, and more than 1,600 arrests, as well as riots in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Paris—it has finally conceded to the central demand of the so-called gilets jaunes, or Yellow Vest, movement.

Those hoping for the protests to fade away, however, could be in for disappointment. The government’s move doesn’t address the deeper problems at the heart of the grassroots uprising. In the end, this was never just about the fuel tax.

Outside of major cities, most French people drive cars. It’s an activity that consumes a major chunk of their income—in general, much more so than drivers in the United States, where gross pay is higher and state governments maintain astonishingly low tax rates on gasoline. French people earn a monthly median income of €1,700, according to the state statistical agency, or about $1,900. Meanwhile, diesel fuel, which most drivers use, costs more than €1.50 a liter—equivalent to $6.47 a gallon. It’s grown even more expensive over the last year, with costs spiking by about 25 percent.

Frustrations with fuel prices began building this summer. But they reached a new level in September, when the government announced it would be hiking taxes at the pump by as much as 25 cents a gallon in January 2019. By the end of October, a Change.org petition demanding a “decrease in fuel prices” had garnered 500,000 signatures. After stumbling upon the petition that same month, truck-driver Eric Drouet created a vaguely worded Facebook page calling for a “national movement against tax increases” on November 17.

It was unclear what would happen. But more than 282,000 people ultimately responded to Drouet’s call—many of them manning traffic blockades in parts of the country not known for protests, from sparsely populated villages in Brittany to working-class suburbs on the Mediterranean coast. Since then, the number of demonstrators has actually declined. Just 106,000 nationwide turned out for an “Act II” on November 24, and 75,000 for an “Act III” the following Saturday. By French standards, these figures are modest. When unions turned out at least 160,000 for a “day of action” to defend the “French social model” on a weekday in October, both the press and the government hardly blinked.

Nevertheless, the Yellow Vests have managed to seize the national spotlight, instilling a sense of fear among the political establishment not seen since the days of Nicolas Sarkozy and the unsuccessful 2010 protests against an increase in the retirement age. For one, that’s due to the violence, embodied by the internationally circulated images of burning cars in central Paris and anti-government graffiti staining the Arc de Triomphe. Still, an even greater factor is the movement’s seemingly spontaneous origin story—a haphazard discussion on social media that took off without the support of political parties or unions. While Marine Le Pen of the far right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left have both endorsed the gilets jaunes movement and clearly hope to capitalize from its success, their respective parties have played a minimal role in the planning of the hundreds of nationwide protests.

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