Yellow Vests, six months on: Unprecedented fury, uncertain future

France’s Yellow Vest movement has reached the six-month mark, but its 27th consecutive Saturday of protest made for a muted anniversary. Days before European elections that some Yellow Vests are contesting, FRANCE 24 takes stock of the phenomenon.

Charly Triballeau, AFP | Yellow Vest protesters in Caen, Normandy, on November 18, 2018.

Back in November, observers speculated the movement wouldn’t last a month. Six months on, Yellow Vest protesters are still pounding the pavement, weekend after weekend, all over France. Massive at its inception, the fluorescent wave of demonstrators – initially a backlash against a proposed fuel-tax hike, the movement was named for the high-visibility safety apparel French drivers must keep in their vehicles – drew 300,000 into the streets and onto the country’s roundabouts during those early, heady weekends.

But even as the marching weather improved through the spring, attendance has dwindled markedly. Saturday’s 27th edition – or “Act”, in Yellow Vest parlance – saw 15,500 protesters in the streets, according to the French interior ministry’s count, or 41,000 according to organisers. Both figures are low-water marks. In Paris, where fiery rioting made global headlines over the winter, only 1,600 turned out to march on Saturday, the ministry estimated.

>> Yellow Vests flashback: ‘We lock ourselves inside,’ says Champs-Élysées concierge

Born on social media, and Facebook in particular, the Yellow Vest movement remains unprecedented on many metrics. “Even after six months of protest, this movement remains intangible, unclassifiable, in short, mysterious,” Christian Delporte, a contemporary historian at the University of Versailles, told FRANCE 24.

“Previously, social conflicts were identifiable because they had professional, university or community organisations as their starting points, with delegates relaying one or two demands,” the academic explained. “But this movement, which is neither right-wing nor left-wing, which is made up of executives, labourers and small-business owners, does not follow from any organisation and isn’t relayed by any representatives.”

Pervaded by violence

A number of other measures provide insight into the movement. Over six months, the revolt has taken a heavy human toll. Eleven people have died (only a minority of whom identified as Yellow Vest protesters), mainly in road accidents, and 2,448 were hurt, according to interior ministry figures released last week. Law enforcement officers were not spared injury; 1,797 were hurt according to the official figures, mostly police officers and gendarmes as well as a number of firefighters.

>> Flashback: French police under fire as Yellow Vest casualties mount

The authorities, who were manifestly tested by the length and scope of the continual drumbeat of demonstrations, took 12,107 individuals in for questioning, resulting in 10,718 people remanded to custody, according to government statistics published in April. Courts handed down more than 2,000 convictions (40 percent of those convicted were handed jail time), while just as many individuals saw their cases dismissed, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said. Accused of using excessive force, police and gendarmes deployed 13,905 rounds from their defensive bullet launchers (as the non-lethal, riot-control weapons French authorities use are known), according to interior ministry figures released in March. The Office of the Inspector General of the National Police (IGPN) – the law enforcement branch that investigates allegations against police personnel – opened 256 inquiries into alleged police violence.

Rage with a €4 billion price tag

The lengthy revolt also tallied considerable losses. Between the cars, bus stops and newsstands torched and the iron curtains shuttered by merchants fearing damage or looting, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire estimated the cost at €4 billion euros, or 0.2 percent of GDP in lost growth. The French Insurance Federation (FFA), for its part, evaluated the cost to insurers of the unrest at nearly €200 million.

Above all, beyond the violence, the Yellow Vests obtained a number of gains from the government in a number of areas. Shaken by the breadth of the protests, Emmanuel Macron responded with two separate nationally televised addresses in a bid for calm. On December 10, speaking from the Elysée Palace, the president announced the carbon tax would be withdrawn, a minimum-wage increase, and a tax exemption on overtime hours. Then, on April 25, Macron gave the first wide-ranging press conference of his term to mark the end of the "Grand Débat" – a nearly three-month-long nationwide debate he’d launched to channel Yellow Vest “anger into solutions” – announcing public-sector reform and income tax cuts as a result.

A forgotten France 

The movement was unique in its exceptional length, its sweeping scope and its unusual beginnings. The rage it captured emanated from “a sentiment of social insecurity, of a fear of a [socio-economic] loss of status”, Delporte notes. It didn’t originate in “big urban areas but took more in rural and sub-rural zones, those of a forgotten France”.

Other characteristics are harder to assess. “The movement appears to have elicited a lot of analysis that was hardly pertinent, or even completely false; this movement, because of its unprecedented character, put politicians, journalists, and researchers on the spot, incapable of understanding and characterising it, and led people to say a lot of nonsense,” says Delporte.

One thing is certain: The movement did not manage in earnest to spread beyond France’s borders. While a handful of initiatives did cross the Mediterranean – in Egypt, for one, high-visibility vests were withdrawn from sale to squelch concerns over similar protests – no comparable revolt took shape like it did in France. “First because the demands, like [overturning the lowered] 80km/hour speed limit, or on income tax, are specifically French,” Delporte says.

Another explanation is that “internationalising a movement requires resources”, as political historian Samuel Hayat wrote for the Mediapart news site. Exporting a movement requires having a network. Then again, “for a movement to be imitated, it’s best if it’s victorious”, Hayat noted.

>> From social media to the ballot box, Yellow Vests throw hat in European ring

It remains to be seen whether the Yellow Vest movement will live on. Recent head counts show the demos losing speed. And the three separate Yellow Vest-affiliated electoral lists on offer at the ballot box next Sunday – three of a remarkable 34 lists for French voters to choose from in European Parliament elections – aren’t sure to post high scores. But government reforms poised for the autumn could indeed give new life to the movement and draw its acolytes back to French roundabouts in protest.

For now, it is “difficult to say whether the movement will leave its mark in the history books”, Delporte opines. “It’s too early to say, but it is already clear that this protest has left its mark on Emmanuel Macron’s term in office.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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