France's yellow vests: diminished but not vanquished

Paris (AFP) –


On a November Saturday one year ago, hundreds of thousands of angry French donning fluorescent jackets took to the streets across the country, beginning one of the biggest and most unusual protest movements in the country's modern history.

Twelve months after that first November 17 demonstration against social inequalities by the "gilet jaunes" (yellow vests) protesters, the numbers taking to the streets have starkly diminished, the movement is rudderless and President Emmanuel Macron can claim to have largely seen off the challenge.

But the yellow vests have nonetheless left an indelible mark on France, forcing the government into billions of euros of tax breaks, sending a clear message to Macron he needed to change style, and raising new questions about heavy-handed police tactics.

And as Macron -- who swept to power in 2017 on the wave of pledges to transform France -- looks to the second phase of his term up to 2022 elections, the challenge from the street may not be over.

The yellow vests, who wear the high-visibility waistcoats that French drivers must carry by law in case of breakdown, have staged 52 consecutive weeks of protests, and at their peak in December even stormed the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris.

But now just a few hundred protesters gather every Saturday in Paris, Toulouse and other French cities to press the central demands of more help for France's less well-off.

- 'Loss of momentum' -

Laurent Jeanpierre, a political science professor in Paris, argued it would be a mistake to declare the end of the movement simply over numerical criteria.

"There has indisputably been a loss of momentum compared to the protests of last year. But the effects of the movement always extend beyond the time of mobilisation," he told AFP.

Macron, who was accused by protesters of being an aloof elitist with no sense of ordinary peoples' needs, criss-crossed the country from Normandy to Corsica to hear citizens' concerns.

His "Great National Debate" culminated with a total 17 billion euros ($18.7 billion) in assistance including wage boosts and tax cuts.

But the biggest change for Macron has been in the style of a president who once said the head of state should be like Jupiter, and notoriously told a jobseeker to simply cross the street to find work.

"I realised that in many situations I was not managing to make myself understood, or that by wanting to move things on with impatience and energy, I sometimes hurt people or gave the impression I wanted to change the country against the French themselves," Macron said in a radio interview.

Before the yellow vests, Macron "thought that he could drive through reforms by being in this Jupiterian state," said the political scientist Jean Garrigues.

"He then understood that the hostility expressed by a majority of the French forced another method on him," he added.

- 'Doesn't matter how many' -

The yellow vests, a movement that grew out of social media, never had any formal leadership structure, and a faction that ran in European Parliament elections this year failed to muster even a percentage point of the vote.

"It does not matter how many, the most important thing is still to be there," Jerome Rodrigues, who emerged as one of the most prominent leaders after losing an eye during one Paris protest, said at a rally this month in Bordeaux.

But another prominent yellow vest, Fabrice Schlegel, regrets mistakes by the movement, which he says only increased divisions in society without helping purchasing power.

"Clearly we failed," Schlegel said at his home in Dole in the Jura region of eastern France.

Analysts say the yellow vests were hurt by their refusal to have a clear leader who could put forward a coherent set of demands, even though many activists argue that would be against the whole ethos of the movement.

The yellow vests have also kept their distance from France's powerful trade unions, which have traditionally presented the main social challenge to French governments, especially on the right.

Unions are planning a massive strike starting December 5 that could cripple public transport, and yellow vests leaders have called to join forces with the labour protest.

- 'Filled with nightmares' -

But for dozens of yellow vests, the main legacy of their movement is not changing France but the injuries sustained in clashes with police.

According to the French interior ministry, 2,500 demonstrators have been wounded during the protests, along with 1,800 police officers. Activists say 24 protesters lost an eye and five lost a hand.

The most serious injuries to protesters have been blamed by activists on the use by police of a hand-held weapons called LBDs in French which fire heavy rubber bullets.

The claims of excessive police force -- backed up by some viral videos showing officers lashing out at protesters -- have thrown the spotlight over the methods of police used to contain demonstrations.

Two police officers are to stand trial over alleged violence against protesters, but critics say the authorities have failed to hold the police force as a whole accountable for the injuries.

"The nights are turbulent, filled with nightmares, sometimes sleepless even with sleeping pills. The images wake me up. I see myself, my eye covered in blood, calling for the street medics," said David Braunstein, 40, who was wounded in March in Paris.