A far cry from Émile Zola’s appeal for clemency on Albert Dreyfus’s part but certainly not a departure from French tradition, the ‘Yellow Vest’ demonstrations have inherited intrinsically recalcitrant French attitudes. Neither radically different in narrative to the Avant-gardism of the 1960s nor the unionization in the mid-1990s, Parisian Saturday nights for the past month have been reminiscent of French protests of yore.
The spirit of the postmodern age having given way to polarization in European societies and a fundamental distrust of authority renders these protests as the most dynamic of the lot. Student led protests in 1968, aggravated in seriousness by union workers across the manufacturing sector, had rather ambiguous support from its Communist beneficiaries. Despite its well recorded penchant for violence in post war France, the Left, more notably inclusive of PCF (French Communist Party) and CGT (General Confederation of Labour) was initially willing to leave Union workers to their own devices. A shift in narrative came about only after the protests gained enough momentum to trouble Charles De Gaulle. The ineffective organization of the protests is not to underplay the grievances of the protestors; grievances that half a century later continue to torment the working class. Hence, the provenance of the Yellow Vest protests can be traced back, not merely to Macron’s presidency but to a centuries old tradition among the French to demand social justice on the street.
Though, the PCF and CGT were reluctant to join in the protests in 1968, the Left and Right at the extremes of the spectrum have been party to the most recent showdown with the government. Different in narratives and debatably in their means, their respective agendas ultimately coalesce around the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron. Designed as a strike against the raise in fuel tax ensuing from the abolishment of the wealth tax, the protests have morphed into an anti-government movement for justice. Herein lies the ambiguity. CGT, a leftist organization has declared its open support for the protests, backing the thousands that march the streets every weekend for the past month. Their narrative, which has more do with a fundamental lack of justice amidst rising inflation rates, can somewhat be met halfway, evident from the redressal of the fuel tax by the government as the most immediate policy response to the protests. Action Française, tracing its provenance to the movement against Albert Dreyfus’s exoneration, is a far right group that shares, quite vehemently so, the anti Macron sentiments that have fueled the protests, much to the chagrin of the Left which does not espouse anti immigrant views as fervently as the right, it does find itself in league with groups like Action Française who do not shy away from violence. That is exactly what the government has feared most as protests turned violent with those setting the flames, hard to identify.
grievances of the protestors; grievances that half a century later continue to torment the working class. Hence, the provenance of the Yellow Vest protests can be traced back, not merely to Macron’s presidency but to a centuries old tradition among the French to demand social justice on the street.
Demonstrations against Macron’s presidency, involving left wing advocates for fair pricing in tandem with right wing proponents for closed borders is a stark reminder of the degree of polarization in the French society; polarization that eventually got Macron through the second round of presidential voting in 2017. He won the presidency at a time when the population was and still continues to flock to the extremes of the left-right wing spectrum.
Collectively, political entities that remained on the fringes of political establishment in post-war Europe, represented on the Right more notably by Marine le Pen and the Left by Jean-Luc Melenchon, garnered more than 40% of the national vote. Almost in similar configuration to the Brexit vote that has divided British politics, the dynamics of contemporary French politics that is to mention the narrow margin of victory that Macron has to work around, does not allow for complacency on part of the government. Macron rode on a centrist wave to power, retrospectively so because he represented a break from traditional European styled governance and assured reforms. The Yellow Vest protest is a warning that he might just as easily fall prey to the narrative that got him to the Elysees Palace in the first place.
President Macron has withdrawn the fuel tax but is in need to reconsider his program for social reforms inclusive of healthcare and unemployment. His Labour reforms remain intact, the fruit of which shall be borne in the long run. However, the method to escaping the proverbial madness for Macron is policy appeasement that can quell the fires in the shorter run. For now, the protests are decreasing in intensity every passing week. However the Yellow Vest narrative, independent of the multiple biases that factor into the demonstrations, issued 42 points which can catalyse negotiations and the development of a reconciliatory narrative.
The Yellow Vests call for the ‘Citizens Initiative Referendum’ (RIC) to be made part of the policy ratification procedure. The Initiative calls for popular referendums to be held as a final approval or the lack thereof of policies that directly affect the masses at large. The Yellow Vests advocate for an equitable resource distribution mechanism fueled by the carbon tax which is to be used to beef up the service sector, keeping inflation in check. Among the 42 points, they also propose the taxing of fuel and kerosene for planes and ship. Though, fundamentally against Macron’s decision of scraping the wealth tax, that is one reform that is central to Macron’s business policy framework aimed at attracting foreign investment. The President does need to make sure that his business policy does not come at a price of alienating and, if recent events are any indication of public sentiment, infuriating his own citizens.
For now, the protests are decreasing in intensity every passing week. However the Yellow Vest narrative, independent of the multiple biases that factor into the demonstrations, issued 42 points which can catalyse negotiations and the development of a reconciliatory narrative.
The Yellow Vests have come out in significant numbers to make their voices heard. Over the course of the previous weeks, their impressive numbers have borne the footprints of social elements that do not necessarily represent the narrative that the protestors originally set out to propagate. However, such is the nature of democracy and such are tremendously polarized attitudes that President Macron needs to tend to. More importantly, he is also seen by the European establishment as the successor to Germany’s Angela Merkel as the normative leader of the Union, with elections for the European Parliament not far away. A weak Emmanuel Macron hence, spells trouble not only for France but for European solidarity as well.
is an M-Phil graduate of International Relations with minors in political economy from National Defense University. His areas of research include Foreign and Domestic European Affairs. He worked as a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.