Yellow vests movement or the forced return of French leaders towards a politics with a human face
At the end of June 2017, in a disused station, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, inaugurated what was somewhat pompously termed a ‘start-up incubator’. Station F was aimed to promote French hi-tech initiatives. Macron’s choice of words on the occasion were a little clumsy:
“A railway station is a place where we meet successful people, as well as people who are nothing; it is a place through which we pass, since it is a place we share”.
Perhaps the President aimed to return to the theme of sharing that had marked his 2017 electoral campaign. He failed to take into account something important: his words were now scrutinized, and a significant part of the population expressed its scepticism as to the renewal Macron had promised as presidential candidate.
France – from above and from below
In October 2018, a credible opinion poll found that more than 70 percent of French people had a negative view of the president. Some observers drew a comparison with the atmosphere that prevailed in the country at the end of 2017. They pointed out that the business confidence had then been good; growth was approaching 2 percent; 2018 looked full of promise, while there were thousands of jobs being created. These were partisan analyzes that did not take into account the state of what is often referred to as ‘France from below’ (France d’en bas).
The declaration of Emmanuel Macron, last June, could in any case have been expected to provoke outcry. His opponents questioned the use of the expression “people who are nothing” instead of two other similar but more commonly used phrase, employed according to whether one’s sympathies are on the political Left or Right: the first, “people who do nothing”, blames the laziness of the unemployed, while “the people who have nothing” draws attention to the day-to-day struggle to make ends meet.
The phenomenon of globalization has also struck a France, previously much more egalitarian. According to a recent survey carried out by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, France, with a population of 67 million, has 8.8 million poor people. However, “Over the very long term – a century – there is no doubt that there has been a decline in economic inequality. The very rich have become less rich, the very poor less poor, and this in all countries of old industrialization”
This is a conclusion with which French people of modest means would struggle to agree, probably because the increasingly widespread individualism makes poverty much more visible. 65 percent of French people living in poverty reside in big cities; among them are many single-parent families and unemployed people, especially young people. In addition to these categories are craftsmen and shopkeepers who also live in rural areas, as well as farmers.
Macron, shortly after taking office in May 2017, did not hide that he was more inclined to seduce France from above (France d’en haut). Like many politicians in his country, he seemed almost unaware that France from below had not lost its ability to react. The president appeared to have forgotten that during his campaign of 2017, he had committed to promote a ‘France in motion’ (the name of the movement he had launched shortly before the presidential elections) that would bring together a divided society. However, he also said he wanted to liberalize the labor market, something that was perceived as putting in peril the social gains that were the legacy of France’s long history of social movements. Once victory was in the bag, he apparently expected the country to settle back to a social landscape marked by increasingly blatant inequality, in which the majority of the political class said nothing against a national and global economic system that did little to seek real remedies to society’s ills.
The Socialist Party, at least until the start of the first presidential term of François Mitterrand (1981-1988), had been a fervent defender of these. What could be called the Macron phenomenon, on the other hand, was only a reflection of changes in a political class that had come to neglect the importance of the principle of popular sovereignty. The President, like his predecessor François Hollande, is however learning a lesson that politicians should keep in mind: to be perceived to play politics with popular expectations without delivering is to play with fire. And if Candidate Macron had given the impression of listening to popular concerns, President Macron, he of Jupiterian discourse, seemed to have cut himself away from the daily grind.
The gilets jaunes (literally ‘yellow vests’, perhaps better translated as ‘hi-vis jackets’) movement
Finally, as some activists had long hoped, a spark lit a fire: It took the name of yellow vests movement, and kicked off after the Macron government decided to slightly increase the carbon tax from January 1st, 2019 (6 cents per litre for diesel, and 3 cents for petrol). Introduced in 2014, it taxes activities contributing to emissions of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases, with the aim of reducing global warming. At the end of October 2017, Ghislain Coutard, a 36-year old native of the town of Narbonne, posted the following comment on Facebook:
He has tried in vain to bring calm to the streets by promising to increase the purchasing power of employees on the minimum wage. Sections of the media were quick to applaud this, although the impact will probably be quite insignificant given the high cost of living
“We all have a yellow jacket in the car, stick it on the dashboard where it can be seen all week!
Within a few weeks, this garment (which has been a mandatory safety device for motorists since 2008) became the symbol of a challenge to the government policy. Easy to transport, affordable, visible, it brought together people from different social and political backgrounds. As it is often the case in huge demonstrations, some ‘breakers’ employed violence, which allowed the police to retort. Gradually, the number of demonstrators decreased: There were an estimated 66,000 demonstrators across France on Saturday, December 15th only half the turn-out of the previous week.
What has also been called the ‘revolt of the roundabouts’ (a reference to where many demonstrators gathered, some pitching tent there) went from questioning the carbon tax to a demand for a citizens’ initiative referendum; from annoyance having to pay high taxes to a democratic challenge; from protest to insurrection. Emmanuel Macron – for the first time since the start of his presidency – was forced to back down, giving up the plan to increase the carbon tax. He has tried in vain to bring calm to the streets by promising to increase the purchasing power of employees on the minimum wage. Sections of the media were quick to applaud this, although the impact will probably be quite insignificant given the high cost of living. The Fondation Jean Jaurès (named after the socialist leader assassinated on the eve of the First World War), in an analysis of empirical data, emphasised that those who struggled to meet ends, from rural areas and small towns were disproportionately represented in the demonstrations. These men and women paid little attention to the concern raised by much of the political class and media that the yellow vests movement was hurting France’s economic growth and therefore the future of the country. Faced with the popular demand for a redefinition of the French democracy, the political class and the elite, for their part, imply that such a demand is unrealistic, if not to say Utopian.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.