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Why have the 'Yellow Vest' protests spilled over into Belgium?

Yves Herman, Reuters | Demonstrators face riot police during the "yellow vests" protest in Brussels, Belgium, Dec. 8, 2018.

As ‘Yellow Vest’ protesters clashed with police on Saturday in cities across France, most notably in its capital, around 1,000 protesters clad in the high visibility vests that have become symbolic of the movement also gathered in Brussels, Belgium.

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The "gilets jaunes" or "Yellow Vests" movement began in France as a response to a proposed hike on fuel prices. Now it’s turned into a large, amorphous protest movement railing more generally against high taxes and the cost of living. And that, at least, is a notion that can’t be confined to just France.

On Saturday, December 8, Belgian police fired tear gas and water cannons at “gilets jaunes” protesters in the capital, Brussels, as they tried to breach a riot barricade. Meanwhile in Paris, as protesters took to the streets for a fourth successive Saturday of discontent and violence, one slogan rang out above them all: “Macron, resign!” So with a protest that seems so fundamentally tied up with the perceived failings of French President Emmanuel Macron’s government, how did the Yellow Vests movement transcend borders, sparking demonstrations in neighbouring Belgium?

Making ends meet

The demonstrations in both countries come from the same sense of struggling to make ends meet every month.

It began, in both countries, with the government increasing the cost of fuel. Belgians, for instance, pay the highest state taxes on diesel in Europe. The French government backed down on the proposed fuel tax increase, and Belgian ministers did the same, announcing the fuel prices would not be index-linked from 2019. But in both countries, the protests have continued.

High tax burden

According to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical body, tax-to-GDP ratio rose across Europe in 2017. France tops the list, with tax revenue accounting for 48.4% of GDP, and Belgium follows close behind with a tax-to-GDP ratio of 47.3%.

This high tax burden hits the little people hardest: in France, the minimum wage for a 35-hour week comes to just under €1,500 a month before tax and social charges. France pays the highest social contributions in Europe.

To add even more fuel to the flaming barricades of the "gilets jaunes" movement in France, the French economic observatory OFCE published a study that noted that disposable income had dropped by €440 on average per household between 2008 and 2016.

While Macron inherited these problems, he hasn’t done much to convince the French populace that he’s working to assuage them. The French government has just delayed, for the second time, a long-awaited increase to the minimum wage.

Financial grievances in Belgium

Economist Philippe Defeyt told Belgian media RTBF that while the cost of living has increased in Belgium, so too has the average income – apart from the lowest-earners, who have been squeezed even tighter.

A retired man told RTBF that he receives a pension of €1,350 a month. “I get it on the 23rd of the month. It’s now the 8th and after I’ve paid insurance, rent, energy bills – which cost €150 – I only have €200 left for living expenses,” he said.

A Facebook group for Yellow Vests in Belgium lays out some of their demands to the government: lowering the retirement age, decreasing fuel excise duties, decreasing the cost of electricity and water, the choice of referendums at all levels of legislative decision-making, increasing pensions, improving public services and increasing purchasing power. The average price of electricity has risen €10 in the past year. Protesters describe a general “ras-le-bol fiscal”, or financial despair.

Let them eat waffles

France’s centralised state leaves residents in rural areas feeling ignored by the top levels of government, run by what is seen as the Paris ‘elite’ who hold all the power – and more importantly, the purse strings.

It’s a similar story in Belgium: in Brussels, salaries are €300 higher than the average salary in the rest of the country. With a capital that also doubles as the capital of Europe, Belgian citizens are frustrated by what they see as their lawmakers’ inability to solve problems closer to home.

One protester gestured to the European institutional buildings behind him while talking to a NBC Euronews reporter. “There, in ‘Europe’, they’re having fun, they’re laughing," he said. "The people who make the laws are the ones driving us further into the ground. We have empty pockets. We shouldn’t be called the ‘yellow vests’, but the ‘empty pockets’.”

The "Yellow Vest" demonstrations on December 8 in Brussels were mostly peaceful. Police had blockaded the zone housing the European Commission and European Council, essentially blocking in protesters. There were some clashes when a small group of protesters tried to break through a barricade blocking access to the EU's main institutions. Around 400 were arrested, according to local police, and three police officers were injured.

Many of the "Yellow Vest" protesters denounced the “casseurs”, literally "breakers", and sought to dissociate themselves from the violent fringes of the demonstration. But despair over the high cost of living and the loss of purchasing power remains, and Belgian "Yellow Vest" protesters are likely to take to the streets again.

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