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'Yellow Vests': from left to right, French political parties struggle to respond

Phillipe Huguen, AFP | A protest of the Yellow Vests in the Somme region, France, on November 9, 2018.

In the face of the "Yellow Vests" movement, French political parties find themselves walking a fine line: they need to be supportive of demonstrators without fully backing them, all the while keeping sight of their environmental goals.

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In response to a tax hike on already rising diesel prices, outraged French people, hailing predominantly from rural areas, are planning a nationwide protest on November 17. Clad in the movement’s signature “Yellow Vests”, they plan to block roads all over the country. The demonstrations are expected to be massive: more than 850,000 people signed a petition supporting the Yellow Vests and there are hundreds of pages on Facebook calling on people to join the blockade

The tax hike is part of France’s long-term ecological plan and is meant to move the country’s citizens away from fossil fuels in general and, in particular, from diesel cars. Opponents say that the tax is unjust and unfairly penalises those living in non-urban areas, where there is little access to public transportation.

The campaign poses a conundrum for opposition parties. How do they demonstrate solidarity with voters without looking like they are exploiting a movement that has deemed itself apolitical? And without contradicting their past positions on the environment?

The difficulty of that balancing act is evident in the stance taken by almost all of the opposition parties, most of which “support the movement but not the blockades”. Here is a breakdown of each party’s position, from the extreme right to the far left.

National Rally (Rassemblement National)

National Rally (or RN, which was formerly known as the National Front) President Marine Le Pen was one of the first politicians to show support for the Yellow Vest movement. In late-October she began calling for her party’s officials and representatives to join the protest, and party activists have been distributing leaflets for the movement. Le Pen, however, will refrain from joining the rallies herself. She justified her stance in a radio interview with France Inter: “The place of a party leader is not at demonstrations.” That position allows her to denounce the attempts of her political rivals to capitalise on the movement.

Although "a good part of the elected RN” are expected to participate in the road blockages, according to Wallerand de Saint-Just, the RN’s regional councilor for the Ile-de-France region, activists and party officials have been asked not to wear party logos, so that the movement isn’t equated with the far right. But Le Pen is already being accused of taking advantage of it.

“The November 17 demonstration is being completely exploited by Marine Le Pen and [Stand Up the Republic leader] Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who are hugely irresponsible on this subject," said government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux.

Stand Up The Republic (Debout la France)

Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, the president of Stand Up The Republic and a former ally of Marine Le Pen, didn’t hesitate to say that he would take part. It was an activist from his movement who helped spread word of the mobilisation by posting a video on his Facebook page that went viral and has now been viewed by more than 4.4 million people.

"Someone, I don’t know who, launched on Facebook the idea of a general mobilisation of the French people, saying that on November 17 we should all block the country’s main roads to protest the rise in the price of gasoline ... I suggest you all contact your friends and go block your city, the ring roads, motorway tolls ... Please share this video widely," activist Frank Buhler wrote on October 23. A former member of Le Pen’s National Rally, Buhler is in the process of being expelled from that party for making racist remarks on Twitter.

The Republicans (Les Républicains)

On November 17, Laurent Wauquiez will likely trade his ever-present red parka for an equally becoming yellow vest. The president of The Republicans (LR) plans to join a demonstration in his department, the Haute-Loire.

"The position of LR is simple: we will be on the side of angry demonstrators but we won’t call for the blocade because it is counterproductive," the party's vice president, Guillaume Peltier, explained in the free newspaper 20 Minutes.

Along with LR MP Damien Abad, Peltier proposed in early November distributing a "fuel cheque" of €100 to 13 million rural French who have "no access to public transport". The proposal is intended to offset the "excessive rise in taxes" on diesel. Never mind that the proposal comes with an exorbitant price tag and isn’t really in line with the limits on public spending traditionally defended by the right. The measure is far from unanimously supported by the party.

The Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste)

There is no easy position for the Socialist Party, which, since its poor performance in the last presidential election, continues its plummet without managing to reconnect with voters. "We support the French who are mobilising to defend their purchasing power," said party boss Olivier Faure.

The government has linked the grassroots movement with the RN “to better disqualify it", Faure said, no doubt anxious not to contradict the environmental positioning of his party. The Socialists have not officially called for protests, even if some party leaders will be on the street. It is, to say the least, paradoxical for a party that created the carbon tax to support a demonstration against rising fuel prices.

The former socialist presidential candidate and now leader of Generation.s, Benoît Hamon, for his part, believes that there is "legitimate political anger”. But that isn’t enough to get him to join the movement. "I'm not going to protest next to the FN," he said.

France Unbowed (La France Insoumise)

France Unbowed (LFI) faces the same conundrum. Between the ecological positions of the party and its fear of seeing the Yellow Vests movement claimed by the hard and extreme right, the party has had a hard time positioning itself.

Former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, without calling on members to participate in the blockade, wished the movement success. "I'm told 'there are [fascists] in there.' Yes, yes, there are everywhere, and there are also a lot of angry people who are not [fascists], and they are right to be angry,” he said at a meeting on November 8. “This anger is just, it is about something that makes sense."

Some LFI officials, such as François Ruffin, will participate as individuals. "I’ll go there to listen, to understand," the popular deputy said on France Inter.

Seine-Saint-Denis deputy Clémentine Autain, on the other hand, will not take part. She refuses to "parade at the call of [far-right publication] Minute and with Marine Le Pen," she explained in Le Monde on November 6.

This article has been adapted from the original, which was in French.

 

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