The ‘yellow vests’ movement has put important social issues at the centre of the political debate
At the end of November 2018, a 42-year-old nursing assistant from Val d’Oise (in the region of Paris) judged French President Emmanuel Macron “completely out of touch with the reality”. “The people on the street are getting up every morning to go to work; they are not slackers living off hand-outs; they pay their taxes”. The question of taxation implicitly refers to the principle of popular sovereignty which the 1958 Constitution, in its Article 3, defines as follows: “National sovereignty shall rest in the people, who shall exercise it through their representatives and by means of referendum. No section of the people or any individual may arrogate to itself, or to himself, the exercise thereof.”
“Macron won’t change the course of his policy” stated a group of about fifty ‘yellow vests’, settled in their new ‘headquarters’, on a roundabout of Trégueux (Côtes-d’Armor). They added: “What he’s saying is a load of rubbish! Here we see grinding poverty every day”. The group indicated their willingness to “continue the fight until the president yields”.
A policeman who masked his face using a scarf posted a video on YouTube calling on the police forces to, if not to join the ‘yellow vests’ movement which was fighting for all workers, then at least to refuse the path of repression. It was also reported that videos showing scenes of solidarity between law enforcement forces and protesters were systematically removed, shortly after being uploaded on social media sites such as Facebook. The largely peaceful movement had, it is true, for the power in place a disturbing side, since some voices went so far as to demand the resignation of Macron, judging that he was not doing “his job” properly. In addition, a current (whose strength was difficult to assess) within the ‘yellow vests’ movement challenged the role of the media, which had tended, over the years, to increasingly adhere to the governmental ‘reading’ of major national and international events. TV journalists covering the demonstrations were attacked, assaulted and even beaten up. Were these ‘breakers’ in reality ‘agent’s provocateurs’ seeking to stir up trouble by donning a yellow vest without adhering to the mainstream of the protest movement, as some of its leaders suggested?
A policeman who masked his face using a scarf posted a video on YouTube calling on the police forces to, if not to join the ‘yellow vests’ movement which was fighting for all workers, then at least to refuse the path of repression. It was also reported that videos showing scenes of solidarity between law enforcement forces and protesters were systematically removed, shortly after being uploaded on social media sites such as Facebook
President Macron’s Letter to his fellow citizens: On January 13th, 2019, nearly two months after the beginning of the social protest that had taken the name of ‘yellow vest’, President Macron published a “Letter to the French people”. He indicated that he aimed to frame the “great national debate” that was to open. The President, seeking to flatter national pride, declared first of all:
“In a period of questioning and uncertainty like the one we are going through, we have to remember who we are.
“France is not a country like any other. “The sense of injustice is more vivid than elsewhere. The need for mutual aid and solidarity stronger”
Macron emphasised the founding values of French democracy, writing:
“In our country, education, health, security, justices are accessible to all regardless of their social position or wealth. The vagaries of life, such as unemployment, can be overcome, thanks to the effort shared by all.
“That is why France is, of all nations, one of the most fraternal and egalitarian.
“It is also one of the freest, since everyone’s rights, freedom of opinion, conscience, belief or philosophies are protected.”
Macron recognized that wages were “too low for some” (the President did not not specify how many were included in this category) “to live a decent life from the fruits of their labor”. Similarly, he admitted that France did not offer “the same chances of success independent of one’s place of origin or family”. And he concluded that all wanted “a more prosperous country and a more just society”, highlighting what he called “the impatience” of his compatriots, impatience he shared. He then regretted the “great anxiety” but especially the “great trouble” that had “won over people’s minds”. He wished that “hope” would overcome “fear”. It was therefore “necessary and legitimate” for the country to ask itself “the big questions as to its future”.
Macron has launched “a great national debate” ending on March 15th, 2019, to “transform” with the help of his fellow citizens “anger into solutions”. The debate, including 35 questions, is organized around four major themes: democracy, ecological transition, taxation, and finally immigration. Macron says he was elected on a program he intends to implement for the greater good of the country. Condemning the use of violence, he calls for the participation of the greatest number. Insisting on the necessary respect which the elected representatives of the Republic must each enjoy, he underlines that already many town halls collect the requests of citizens. The beginning of a “wider phase” will allow French people to “take part in debates” near their homes or to express themselves on the Internet, sharing their “proposals and…Ideas”. The President adds that there are no “questions that may not be asked”. But he underlines that the government will not reconsider the measures it has already taken, suggesting notably that it will not restore the tax on high wealth that many ‘yellow jackets’ ask for. The opposition argues that the “big debate” is in fact “a big diversion”, especially since the themes of reflection (democracy, ecological transition, taxation, and finally immigration) might come across as an effort to change the terms of debate or even to stifle it.
The Macron government still does not seem to take into account the voice of a people it continues to claim to represent, which bodes ill for the liveliness of a French democracy already fragmented, with observers concerned about the rise of the far-right National Front. However, the spontaneous protest movement does not call into question – as En marche (the political party of which Macron is the leader) declares – the national institutions but the representativeness of elected representatives much more concerned about their well-being and that of the coterie that surrounds them than that of the country. These politicians thus find it very difficult to give credit to the leaders of the protest movement who have asserted themselves here and there across the country. The latter come mostly from modest backgrounds, not exercising any of the professions that grant respect in a society that remains markedly elitist.
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