Civil unrest, Notre-Dame on fire, and stamping out sexism: 2019 in France
The year in France opened and ended with protesters out on the streets as President Emmanuel Macron scraped his way out of the Yellow Vest insurgency, only to land straight into a pension revolt. 2019 saw women battle to stamp out discrimination and abuse in football, procreation rights and everyday life. In between, the world looked on in horror as Notre-Dame Cathedral went up in smoke.
The Yellow Vest insurgency
Even by French standards, 2019 was a particularly turbulent year protest-wise. It began with the country in the throes of one of the most potent and contagious protest movements in recent French history – an unconventional insurgency that caught Parisian elites sleeping, rattling the government, baffling commentators, and eventually inspiring copy-cat protests around the world.
Donning the now-famous fluorescent waistcoats that are mandatory in French cars, the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) staged 52 consecutive weeks of protests against economic hardship, mounting inequality and a discredited political establishment. They manned roundabouts across the country night and day, took to the streets every Saturday, and at their peak appeared to threaten the government’s very survival.
As the movement marked its one-year anniversary in November, the number of Yellow Vests out on the streets had starkly diminished, and Macron could claim to have largely seen off the most formidable challenge of his presidency. But the movement nonetheless left an indelible mark on France, forcing the government into billions of euros of tax breaks, sending a clear warning to the country’s self-styled “Jupiterian” president, and putting neglected swathes of the country back on the map.
The Yellow Vest protests also gave renewed urgency to debates about policing in France, with dozens of protesters, journalists and bystanders suffering serious injuries – including gouged eyes and hands ripped off – as a result of the rubber bullets and stun grenades used by riot police. The government’s steadfast refusal to question the police tactics, with Macron at one point saying “there is no such thing as police violence”, infuriated the Yellow Vests and further radicalised the movement.
In an attempt to appease – or outmanoeuvre – the Yellow Vests, the French president launched a “Great National Debate”, a vast nationwide consultation designed to inform future policy and breathe new life into French democracy. Macron’s three-month
s-long Great Debate touched on four main themes: ecological transition, the economy and public spending, democracy and citizenship, and public services. It combined online surveys and citizen debates staged in cities, towns and villages across the country.
Macron’s supporters hailed an unprecedented exercise in direct democracy. But critics complained that the ubiquitous president soon turned the debate into a town-hall roadshow offering him unrivalled media coverage – while the Yellow Vests were kept at bay. Questions were also raised about the transparency of the process and the fate of the mountain of data it produced.
A people’s vote?
When the government released the findings of the Great National Debate, conveniently claiming they justified its tax-cutting push, two of the Yellow Vests’ key demands were conspicuously absent. One was the reintroduction of a popular wealth tax, which Macron scrapped at the start of his presidency in a move that did much to earn him the moniker “president of the rich”. The other was a so-called “Citizens’ Initiative Referendum”, or RIC, designed to allow citizens to vet government policy proposals.
Instead, the government promised to find ways to amend an existing device, known as the Shared Initiative Referendum (RIP), which comes with stringent conditions that make it very hard to trigger – so hard that it has never been used before. Undaunted, opposition lawmakers from left and right banded together in an attempt to trigger a RIP on Macron’s plans to privatise Paris airports, one of the French state’s “crown jewels”. They cleared a first hurdle in April by gathering enough support in France’s parliament. They now have until March 12, 2020, to do the hard part: persuade a tenth of the electorate – 4.5 million people – to sign a petition backing a referendum.
Hands off our pensions
No sooner had Macron weathered the Yellow Vest onslaught than storm clouds gathered anew – this time fanned by France’s battered but still powerful trade unions. After weeks of fruitless talks on pension reform, unions called a nationwide strike over the government’s plans to overhaul the system. On December 5, workers at rail and public transport companies downed tools in protest at the reform, kicking off weeks of transport paralysis that wreaked havoc on Christmas holiday plans.
The government’s plan to meld France's 42 pension schemes into a single points-based system marks the most sweeping reform yet to a costly but cherished welfare model introduced after World War II. Ministers insist the new system will be more transparent and fairer, in particular for women and low earners, and is critical to plugging a deficit they claim can only widen further. But it has drawn fierce opposition from some public-sector workers who would lose their right to early retirement – and from millions more who are expected to see their benefits cut.
Twelve days into the strike, the government suffered a blow when the “father” of the reform, senior civil servant Jean-Paul Delevoye, was forced to resign under the glare of a transparency scandal. As Christmas neared, polls suggested a small majority of the French supported the strike and blamed the government for the travel woes that dampened the festive season. But with neither side showing any sign of backing down, the standoff looked destined to drag on well into 2020.
The battle over IVF
While France’s parliament is yet to even start discussing pension reform, lawmakers this year began the process of delivering on another of Macron’s flagship campaign promises: extending the right to medically-assisted procreation (MAP) to all women, a highly sensitive subject in France. Under current rules, single women and lesbian couples are barred from access to fertility treatment. For years this discrimination has forced thousands of women to seek the procedure abroad, and fostered the rise of a thriving underground market for sperm that carries enormous legal and sanitary risks.
In September, France’s lower house of parliament approved a government-sponsored draft law granting all women access to medically-assisted reproduction methods such as in vitro fertilisation, commonly known as IVF. The bill must also get the go-ahead from the upper house, or Senate, before it can become law. Macron has acknowledged the political risk he is taking, and is mindful of the backlash six years ago against gay marriage, when a coalition of grassroots religious groups, Catholic figures and right-wing political opponents organised mass demonstrations against the ruling Socialist government.
‘Daddy killed mummy’
Women protesters were a defining feature of 2019: They featured prominently in the Yellow Vest movement, were instrumental to the many climate marches staged in French cities throughout the year, and led the charge for equal access to fertility treatment. In November, feminist movements also organised the biggest ever protest against domestic violence and other forms of gender-based abuse, heaping pressure on the government to act on a scourge Macron has described as “France’s shame”.
On average, one woman dies every three days in France as a result of domestic violence, making it one of the worst-performing countries in Europe when it comes to protecting women from gender-based violence. Seeking to draw attention to this scourge, activists glued posters with the names of the dead onto to the walls of Paris and other French cities. Signs reading “She leaves him, he kills her” or “Daddy killed mummy with knives” became commonplace in the French capital, as did the word “femicide” to refer to misogynist killings by men.
In September, the Justice Ministry released a report acknowledging the authorities’ systematic failure to prevent domestic killings. Vowing to tackle the problem head-on, the government organised ten weeks of consultations with experts and advocacy groups to find ways to tackle domestic abuse. Following the talks, it announced a raft of measures that included stiffer penalties for offenders, expanded use of electronic bracelets, improved training for police officers, and new legislation to take into account psychological forms of harassment.
Bend it like Rapinoe
Experts said stamping out gender-based violence required tackling the “toxic masculinity” that is deeply rooted in mentalities – the kind that is still rampant in football, France’s most popular sport. In that field too, 2019 proved to be a landmark year for women, with France hosting its first ever women’s football World Cup in the summer.
A year after France’s men won the World Cup in Russia, its women were desperate to do the same on home soil. After a disappointing quarter-final defeat, the title eluded them once again. But by most measures, the World Cup was a success, generating unprecedented enthusiasm, packed stadiums and record viewership. In France alone, ten million people watched the opening game on TV, the biggest audience for a women's game ever.
With their track record of crushing norms both for their gender and for their sport, Megan Rapinoe’s trailblazers USA made for fitting victors. However, tournament organisers FIFA were not exempt from criticism, with Norway’s superstar Ada Hegerberg boycotting the event because of entrenched gender inequality, most notably when it comes to pay.
Notre-Dame on fire
In many ways, the biggest story of the year unfolded in the space of a few dramatic hours on April 15, when viewers around the world stared at their screens in shock and awe as a devastating blaze tore through one of the great Paris landmarks. The accidental fire swept across the top of Notre-Dame Cathedral while the soaring Gothic edifice was under renovations, collapsing its spire and consuming its roof as locals and tourists watched aghast from the streets.
The calamitous blaze elicited an unprecedented outpouring of generosity from donors near and far. In just three days, 850 million euros were pledged to rebuild the 850-year-old monument – the speed of donations fuelled by a game of one-upmanship between France’s top culture-minded billionaires. Macron vowed to rebuild Notre-Dame "even more beautifully" within five years. But experts said reconstruction could take much longer, while environmental groups warned of a high risk of poisoning from the tons of lead dust released with the flames.
With the gutted structure deemed unsafe, Notre-Dame Cathedral was unable to host Christmas services for the first time since the French Revolution this year. Instead, its exiled clergy, choir and congregation celebrated the holiday in another Gothic church next to the Louvre Museum, with the cathedral’s iconic 14th-century sculpture “The Virgin of Paris,” which survived the fire, on display.
There were more emotional scenes later in the year when thousands bid farewell to former president Jacques Chirac in a ceremony at the Invalides monument in Paris. Chirac’s popularity had seen a remarkable turnaround since he left the presidency in 2007, tarnished by scandal and an undistinguished record in office. Just over a decade later, a majority of the French harboured fond memories of the man affectionately known as “Chichi”.
Charming, statuesque and a consummate political animal, Chirac was a towering presence on the French political arena for more than four decades. His career included two presidential terms, two stints as prime minister and nearly two decades as mayor of Paris. But he is best remembered abroad for his vehement opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He was also the first French president to formally recognise the part played by France’s wartime collaborationist regime in the arrest and deportation of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust – this after decades of ambiguity and denial by his predecessors.
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