Lentis/The Yellow Vests Movement
Introduction[edit | edit source]
In September 2018, the French government announced a tax increase on gasoline and diesel. This increase was defended by French president Emmanuel Macron as being necessary to decrease the nation's dependence on fossil fuels, however, many citizens, including climate activists, were outraged at yet another cost of living increase. Much of the middle class felt that they were not getting anything in return for the constant tax hikes with this newest fuel tax increase being just the latest example. Macron's reasoning for the tax increase felt hollow to many given his reputation for being the "President of the Rich" stemming from his lowering of taxes that mostly affect the upper class elite. The tax announcement exacerbated the existing unrest and provoked a series of protests taking place every Saturday mainly from November 2018 to February 2019.
Background[edit | edit source]
Initial protestor profile[edit | edit source]
The initial public outcry in response to the fuel tax increase came from mainly people unable to afford living within cities yielding them lengthy commutes by car. These people felt they would feel the brunt of the tax increase despite having way to forgo their vehicles due to lack of public transportation in suburban and rural communities. These people viewed this as an affront to the already-vulnerable working class. Protestors organized through social media and had no leadership.
Expanded protestor profile[edit | edit source]
Other subsets of French citizens quickly joined the initial group of protestors. A representative of the IFOP polling organization described the new protestors as "people who are too rich to receive welfare benefits but not rich enough to live well. Not the poorest but just above that." These are people who run small businesses or work difficult, low-paying jobs and are frustrated seeing their tax money going to other people while they make barely enough to get by.
Public discontentment[edit | edit source]
Fuel prices[edit | edit source]
France introduced a plan in 2014 to continually tax fossil fuels to disincentive their use and promote alternative energy sources. Carbon taxes have been imposed in a number of European countries and are viewed by activists as being an essential method to fight climate change. Before the announced increase, France's tax rate of 64% on unleaded and 59% on diesel led to the 6th highest diesel price and 7th highest petrol price out of European countries. Although the fuel tax increase was far from the first in Europe or France, the continual increases in cost of living the working class saw imposed upon them heightened already mounting frustrations. The general sentiment is that the fuel tax was "the drop of water that makes the vase overflow."
Emmanuel Macron[edit | edit source]
Even before the newly-proposed fuel tax, Macron proved to be a divisive president. Despite beating his opponent handily in the presidential election in May 2017, by August Macron's approval rating was just 36 percent. Macron, a former investment banker, was mired by multiple controversies including not keeping promises regarding defense spending, suggesting he would give his wife a paid position in the government, and causing much of the public to view him as overly elitist. Leading up to the yellow vest movement protests, Macron's approval rating as president fell even lower to 25 percent according to a poll by IFOP.
Movement and Protests[edit | edit source]
Organization[edit | edit source]
The yellow vest movement was leaderless and grew largely though Facebook and other social media platforms.
Yellow vest symbolism[edit | edit source]
Protestors taking part in the movement have become recognizable by the bright yellow vests they adorn, also called gilets jaunes. In France, motorists are required by law to keep these Day-Glo vests in their vehicles. Protestors decided to wear the vests for their parallel to the new fuel tax; both the vests and the fuel tax were imposed upon the citizens by the government. The vests are also ideal as they by nature draw attention to their wearers. The yellow vests brought cohesion to an otherwise disorganized movement.
Protestor demands[edit | edit source]
The protest started over repealing diesel taxes, which turned into "an uprising against President Emanuel Macron's policies and become the biggest challenge against his presidency." Many wanted a higher minimum wage, a dissolution of the National assembly, and new elections to be held.
The protests[edit | edit source]
An online petition to lower fuel taxes that reached over 300,000 signatures by October 2018 is believed to be the beginning of the movement. Protestors began organizing online, with the idea for a national blockade event being posted on Facebook. The blockages as well as the high visibility vests served as low-tech methods to make their cause known and easily identifiable to the public. Freight trucks were one target of the blockades. In response, L'organisation des PME du Transport Routier (OTRE) sent an open letter to Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe highlighting their frustration with the scenario.
After two months of protest, President Macron launched "the Grand Débat, a national listening exercise that involved thousands of meetings around France, plus an online register where people could list their grievances and demands." By creating a public forum for discussion, Macron hoped to reduce the violence and calm the public by showing that he was listening. This exercise lasted about two months, then protests still continued, but in organized streets rather than rural areas. The protestor profiles also changed, "from being largely rural and apolitical, to younger city-dwellers who [have] previously been involved in politics".
Violence[edit | edit source]
Occasionally the protests became violent. Protestors smashed windows, vandalized monuments, and set cars and trashcans on fire. In late 2018, French police began changing the manner in which they engaged with protestors. Moving away from a hands-off, passive approach, police began to actively suppress the protests. In late 2018 thousands of arrests in connection to the protests were made, hundreds of protestors were injured, and multiple deaths occurred. The estimated total damage was $3.4 million.
Violence also took the form of antisemitism. With instances such as a black swastika being painted on portraits of an Auschwitz survivor, a Jewish cemetery being defaced and antisemitic remarks being hurled at a Jewish person. With unorganized protest comes the risk of people using the platform to spread their own unrelated hateful beliefs.
Public Perception of the Movement[edit | edit source]
Because of the popularity from social media, the protestors gained a lot of attention and support with Harris Interactive estimating 72% of France supporting the movement as of December 4, 2018. There was a decline in popular support as time passed to about 50% mostly due to violence caused by a subset of the protestors, "not just against property and police but against journalist and each other."
Conclusion[edit | edit source]
Political results[edit | edit source]
On December 4, 2018, the fuel tax was suspended. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe stated that "No tax warrants putting the unity of the nation in danger." In addition to the tax suspension, the government promised to delay increasing electricity costs and new vehicle inspection protocols while also increasing the minimum wage by 3%. Despite the concessions, a spokesmen for the movement expressed the protestors continued dissatisfaction saying, "We're not satisfied, because the French have been struggling for years now." Another spokesman stated, "There's no guarantee [the fuel tax] won't be back in six months ... There will be more demonstrations." Another reaction was blunt saying, "We're being taken for idiots." On December 5, 2018, the Prime Minister stated that both he and Macron supported dropping the tax from the budget completely. In April 2019, after the Grand Débat, Macron made more changes such as income tax cuts largely targeted at middle-earners, end of the year bonuses for low paid workers, higher pensions for low earners etc.
Climate change implications[edit | edit source]
Vanessa Williamson stated that, "The protests are wrongly being interpreted as evidence that "big government" policies to address climate change are politically infeasible." If solutions for climate change increase economic inequality, then those solutions are "ethically dubious" and "politically impractical." The tax hikes in France benefited the wealthy people. President Macron "had substantially reduced union power in the workplace and drastically cut taxes on the rich." Since tax cuts went to the rich people, it makes sense for people with low or middle income to protest against fuel tax increases. The issue in the yellow vest movement was mainly economic inequality, it does not mean the protestors were against climate change. Based on a discourse analysis of yellow vest resistance against carbon taxes, a climate transition should happen "through more consultation, by making the rich and not the poor to pay for transition." Robert Stavins, a professor at Harvard, suggests that implicit policies such as a "cap-and-trade mechanism" would face less public opposition than an explicit tax.
Evaluation[edit | edit source]
The yellow vests movement demonstrated the effectiveness that low-tech approaches can have. The yellow vests served to give their movement a symbol, allowing the disorganized to appear as one cohesive movement. With this disorganized movement, however, came the ability for people to hijack the platform the yellow vests movement had created, to spread both violence and hate, unrelated to the initial purpose of the movement. Perhaps this case serves as a cautionary tale. In the absence of leadership, the movement can begin to divert and take on additional, often unrelated meaning.
Future work[edit | edit source]
For future additions to this page, the following topics can be included: the first anniversary of the yellow vest movement where about 28,600 people protested across France, attempts to link yellow vests protests to other causes, including Extinction Rebellion, the pension reform protests in late 2019 and early 2020", and "the anti health pass demonstrations" in late 2021. Future work could also look into which interest or political groups claimed that the yellow vests movement represented their ideology and perhaps attempted to take some control over the movement.
References[edit | edit source]
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