Yellow vests movement
Gilets jaunes protests
Part of protests against Emmanuel Macron
2019-02-23 17-24-41 manif-GJ-Belfort.jpg
A Gilets jaunes protest in Belfort, France on 23 February 2019
Date17 November 2018 – present
(6 months and 7 days)
Location
 France
Caused by
Goals
Methods
Status
  • Ongoing
Concessions
given
  • Cancellation of fuel tax and six-month moratorium on diesel and petrol price changes[46]
  • Promise that most would see an effective increase in the minimum wage of €100 per month by 2019[47]
  • Announcement that price of Électricité de France blue tariffs would not increase before March 2019[48]
  • Elimination of tax on overtime and end-of-year bonuses[49]
  • Decrease of fuel and motor taxes[50]
Parties to the civil conflict
Gilets jaunes
Lead figures
Non-centralised leadership

France Emmanuel Macron
President of the French Republic

France Édouard Philippe
Prime Minister of France

France Christophe Castaner
Minister of Interior
Number
287,710 protesters (peak, according to the Ministry of the Interior)[53]
8,000 police (15 Dec. 2018: Paris)
Casualties
Death(s)15 civilians (12 in France[55] and 3 in Belgium[56])
Injuries4,000[54]
Arrested8,700[57]

The yellow vests movement or yellow jackets movement (French: Mouvement des gilets jaunes, pronounced [muvmɑ̃ de ʒilɛ ʒon]) is a populist,[58] grassroots[59] revolutionary[60] political movement for economic justice[61] that began in France in October 2018. After an online petition posted in May had attracted nearly a million signatures, mass demonstrations began on 17 November.[62] The movement is motivated by rising fuel prices, a high cost of living; it claims that a disproportionate burden of the government's tax reforms were falling on the working and middle classes,[63][64][65] especially in rural and peri-urban areas.[26][66] The protesters have called for lower fuel taxes, a reintroduction of the solidarity tax on wealth, a minimum-wage increase, the implementation of Citizens' initiative referendums,[36] as well as the resignations of President Emmanuel Macron and the Second Philippe government.

The movement spans the political spectrum. According to one poll, few of those protesting had voted for Macron in the 2017 French presidential election, and many had either not voted, or had voted for far-right or far-left candidates.[67] Rising fuel prices initially sparked the demonstrations. Yellow high-visibility vests, which French law required all drivers to have in their vehicles and to wear during emergencies, were chosen as "a unifying thread and call to arms" because of their convenience, visibility, ubiquity, and association with working-class industries.[68]

The protests have involved demonstrations and the blocking of roads and fuel depots, some of which developed into major riots,[69] described as the most violent since those of May 1968,[70] and the police response, resulting in multiple incidences of loss of limb, has been criticised by international media.[71] The movement has received international attention, and protesters in many places around the world—some with similar grievances, others unrelated—have used the yellow vest as a symbol.[72][73]

Background

The issue on which the French movement centred at first was the projected 2019 increase in fuel taxes, particularly on diesel fuel.[74] The yellow vest became the symbol of the protests, as the French are required to have a yellow vest in their vehicles.

General discontentment

Already low in early 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron's approval rating had dipped below 25% at the beginning of the movement.[75] The government's method of curbing the budget deficit had proven unpopular, with Macron being dubbed the "président des très riches" (president of the very rich) by his former boss, François Hollande.[76]

Late in June 2017, Macron's Minister of Justice, François Bayrou, came under pressure to resign, due to the ongoing investigation into the financial arrangements of the political party (MoDem) he leads.[77][78] During a radio interview in August 2018, Nicolas Hulot had resigned from the Ministry of the Environment, without telling either the President or the Prime Minister of his plans to do so.[79] Criticized for his role in the Benalla affair, Gérard Collomb tried to resign in October 2018 as Minister of the Interior—leaving himself with only two jobs, as senator and mayor of Lyon—but saw his resignation initially refused, then finally accepted.[80][81]

Diesel

In the 1950s, diesel engines were used only in heavy equipment so, to help sell off the surpluses in French refineries, the state created a favorable tax regime to encourage motorists and manufacturers to use diesel.[82] The 1979 oil crisis prompted efforts to curb petrol (gasoline) use, while taking advantage of diesel fuel availability and diesel engine efficiency. The French manufacturer Peugeot has been at the forefront of diesel technology, and from the 1980s, the French government favoured this technology. A reduction in VAT taxes for corporate fleets also increased the prevalence of diesel cars in France.[83] In 2015, two out of every three cars purchased consumed diesel fuel.[82]

Fuel prices

The price of petrol (SP95-E10) decreased during 2018, from €1.47 per litre in January to €1.43 per litre in the last week of November.[84]

Prices of petrol and diesel fuel increased by 15 percent and 23 percent respectively between October 2017 and October 2018.[85] The world market purchase price of petrol for distributors increased by 28 percent over the previous year; for diesel, by 35 percent. Costs of distribution increased by 40 percent. VAT included, diesel taxes increased by 14 percent over one year and petrol taxes by 7.5 percent.[85] The tax increase had been 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents on petrol in 2018, with a further increase of 6.5 cents on diesel and 2.9 cents on petrol planned for 1 January 2019.[86][87]

The taxes collected on the sale of fuel are:

  • The domestic consumption tax on energy products (TICPE, la Taxe intérieure de consommation sur les produits énergétiques), which is not calculated based on the price of oil, but rather at a fixed rate by volume. Part of this tax, paid at the pump, goes to regional governments, while another portion goes to the national government. Since 2014, this tax has included a carbon component—increased each year—in an effort to reduce fossil fuel consumption. The TICPE for diesel fuel was raised sharply in 2017 and 2018 to bring it to the same level as the tax on petrol.
  • Value added tax (VAT), calculated on the sum of the price excluding tax and the TICPE. Its rate has been stable at 20 percent since 2014, after having been at 19.6 percent between 2000 and 2014.

The protest movement against fuel prices mainly concerns individuals, as a number of professions and activities benefit from partial or total exemptions from TICPE.[28][88]

The protesters criticized Édouard Philippe's second government for making individuals liable for the bulk of the cost of the carbon tax. As the carbon tax has progressively been ramping up to meet ecological objectives, many who have chosen fossil fuel-based heating for their homes, outside of city centres—where a car is required—are displeased. President Macron attempted to dispel these concerns in early November by offering special subsidies and incentives.[89][90]

Diesel prices in France increased by 16 percent in 2018, with taxes on both petrol and diesel increasing at the same time and a further tax increase planned for 2019, making diesel as expensive as petrol.[91] President Macron is bearing the brunt of the protesters' anger for his extension of policies implemented under François Hollande's government.[91]

Speed limit reduction

The government's decision in 2017 to cut the speed limit on country roads from 1 July 2018 from 90 to 80km/h with the aim to save 200 lives each year, despite opposition, was a factor in the rise of the movement, being seen as a failure to understand the needs of rural residents who are totally reliant on their cars. Vandalism of traffic enforcement cameras grew significantly after the yellow vest movement began.[92][93][94]

Safety results have been improved in 2018, with hundred of lives saved, but since the Yellow vests movement road traffic insecurity increased again.

Economic reforms

The protesters claim that the fuel tax is intended to finance tax cuts for big business, with some critics such as Dania Koleilat Khatib claiming that spending should be cut instead.[95][96] Macron said the goal of the administration's economic reform program is to increase France's competitiveness in the global economy, and says that the fuel tax is intended to discourage fossil-fuel use.[89] Many of the yellow jackets are primarily motivated by economic difficulties due to low salaries and high energy prices.[97] The majority of the yellow jacket movement wants to fight climate change, but are opposed to forcing the working class and the poor to pay for a problem caused by multinational corporations.[98][99]

Yellow vest symbol

A high-visibility vest, the key symbol of the protests

No one knows how the high-visibility yellow vest came to be chosen as the symbol and uniform for the movement, and no one has claimed to be its originator.[68] The movement originated with French motorists from rural areas who had long commutes protesting against an increase in fuel taxes, wearing the yellow vests that, under a 2008 French law, all motorists are required to keep in their vehicles and to wear in case of emergency.[69] The symbol has become "a unifying thread and call to arms" because yellow vests are common and inexpensive, easy to wear over any clothing, associated with working class industries, highly visible, and widely understood as a distress signal.[68] As the movement grew to include grievances beyond fuel taxes, non-motorists in France put on yellow vests and joined the demonstrations, as did protesters in other countries with diverse (and sometimes conflicting) grievances of their own.[68][69] In the words of one commentator, "The uniform of this revolution is as accessible as the frustration and fury."[68]

Origin

Éric Drouet and a businesswoman named Priscillia Ludosky from the Seine-et-Marne department started a petition on the change.org website in May 2018 that had reached 300,000 signatures by mid-October and close to a million a month later.[62][100][101] Parallel to this petition, two men from the same Department launched a Facebook event for 17 November to "block all roads" and thus protest against an increase in fuel prices they considered excessive, stating that this increase was the result of the tax increase. One of the viral videos around this group launched the idea of using yellow jackets.[102]

The first gilets jaunes protest in Vesoul, 17 November 2018

The movement is organised in a leaderless, horizontal fashion. Informal leaders can emerge, but some have been rejected by other demonstrators and even threatened. According to John Lichfield, some in the movement extend their hatred of politicians even to any "would-be politicians who emerge from their own ranks".[103][104] The yellow jacket movement is not associated with a specific political party or trade union and has spread largely by social media.[105]

The yellow vests movement has been described as a populist,[58][67] grassroots[59] movement for economic justice,[61] opposing what it sees as the wealthy urban elite and the establishment.[106] Many of the protesters live in tight financial circumstances, often in rural or outer-urban areas where there is "weak economic growth and high unemployment", and where depending on a car for transport is "essential, and increasingly costly".[67] According to the BBC, "It’s no accident that cars were the spark that ignited this anger. Not needing one has become a status symbol in France. Those in city centres have a wealth of public transport to choose from, but you need to be rich enough to live in the centre of Paris or Marseille or Bordeaux".[59]

The movement has drawn supporters from across the political spectrum.[58][59][67] An opinion poll published by the Elabe Institute showed that in the presidential election in May 2017, 36% of the participants voted for Marine Le Pen and 28% for Jean-Luc Melenchon in the 2017 presidential elections.[67][107] Five Le Monde journalists studied the yellow vests' forty-two directives[34] and concluded that two-thirds were "very close" to the position of the "radical left" (Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Benoît Hamon, Philippe Poutou and Nathalie Arthaud), that nearly half were "compatible with" the position of the "far right" (Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and Marine Le Pen), and that all were "very far removed" from economically "liberal" policies (Emmanuel Macron and François Fillon).[108] Étienne Girard, writing for Marianne, says the one figure that gathers wide support in the movement has been dead for thirty-two years: the former humourist and presidential candidate Coluche.[109]

Some media outlets were shocked at the hostility they felt during the movement.[110] BFM TV, for example, decided every journalist they sent out should be accompanied by a bodyguard on 8 December,[111] because of the strong aversion the yellow jackets had shown for the network.[110][111] About three weeks later, 25 yellow vests prevented Ouest-France from being delivered in parts of the Vendée and Loire-Atlantique because they did not like an editorial.[112][113]

International media have also reported on the disproportionate violence used by the French police response against the protestors, including the use of explosive grenades and flashball weapons resulting in multiple incidences of loss of limb and sight by the protestors.[71]

According to Stéphane Sirot, a specialist in the history of French trade unionism, the unions were hesitant to join forces with the yellow jackets because the movement included people trade unions traditionally do not represent (business owners and the self-employed) as well as people who simply did not want to negotiate. The presence of far-right elements in the movement was also off-putting to the CGT.[114]

A significant number of misleading images and information have been circulated on social media concerning the protests. According to Pascal Froissart, the leaderless, horizontal aspect of the movement contributes to the dissemination of disinformation, as nobody is in charge of public relations or social media messaging.[115]

One of the goals of the yellow jackets is to obtain the right to direct initiative, in other words the right to petition the government at any time to propose or repeal a law, to amend the constitution or remove a public official from office. The bottom-up Swiss model of government, where referendums are frequent, has been compared to the top-down French governmental system to explain the lack of a similar movement in French-speaking Switzerland.[116][117] Étienne Chouard, a French economics and law teacher, and a retired dentist named Yvan Bachaud, who named the RIC, were among the earliest proponents of such referenda.[118] More recently, several politicians included the idea in their 2017 presidential platforms.[119][120][121]

Timeline

A protest on 17 November cutting the road near Belfort

The protests began on 17 November 2018, and attracted more than 300,000 people across France with protesters constructing barricades and blocking roads.[86][122] John Lichfield, a journalist who witnessed the riots, described them as insurrectional.[40]

In addition to roads, protesters also blocked as many as ten fuel depots.[123] On this first day of protests, a 63-year-old pensioner was run over by a motorist in Le Pont-de-Beauvoisin while she was demonstrating at a roundabout at the entrance to a commercial zone.[102][124] A motorcyclist died after being struck the same day by a van trying to get around a barricade.[125] On April 25, 2019, Macron announced reforms after yellow vest protests.[126]

Fatalities and injuries

Gilets jaunes leader Jérôme Rodrigues who lost an eye after a police intervention[127][128]

As of 22 December, 2018, 10 fatalities had been linked to the protests in France.[129]

Fatalities
Date Number Context
17 November 1 pedestrian + car[125]
19 November 1 motorbike + lorry[125]
1/2 December 1 car + HGV/LGV[125]
1 December 1 tear gas grenade (Marseille)[130][131]
10 December 1 car + HGV/LGV[132]
12/13 December 1 pedestrian + HGV/LGV[132]
14 December 2 car + HGV/LGV[133]
car + car[134]
20 December 1 pedestrian + truck[135]
22 December 1 car + truck[129]

By late December, over 1,843 protesters and 1,048 police had been injured.[136] Injuries included tens of facial trauma (jaws or even eyes) caused by police non-lethal weapon ammunition,[137] nicknamed flash-ball despite not being of the type,[138][139] that are supposed to be fired at the legs, not at the head, and are accurate enough for this purpose.[140]

As of 14 January, 2019, 94 had been seriously injured, including 14 monocular blindness and one person still in coma, had been reported [141][142]

Impact

Adama Committee and Nuit Debout

On 29 November, François Ruffin, the founder of extreme-left Fakir magazine, organised a mobilising meeting with various French left-wing movements, at which Frédéric Lordon spoke of the Yellow Vests, saying "If the Nuitdeboutistes who got all wound up into deforestation and anti-specist commissions can't get moving when this happens, then they are the last of the last".[143]

Students protesting against the government's educational reforms

Angered by Macron's education reforms and plans to change the baccalauréat (a secondary-school leaving exam), students protested in cities across France.[144] Students expressed concern that these reforms will lead to further inequalities of access to higher education between students in urban, peri-urban, and rural areas.[145][146][147]

On 6 December, over 140 students were arrested outside a school in Mantes-la-Jolie. A video of the mass arrest—showing students kneeling with their hands behind their heads—inspired indignation.[148] Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French Education Minister, said that although he was "shocked" by the scene, it needed to be viewed "in context".[149][150] Amnesty International issued a report about the incident.[151] On the same day, France Bleu reported that Saint-Étienne was "under siege".[152] It was in this context that the mayor of Saint-Étienne suggested, first by tweet then by press release, that the Festival of Lights in neighbouring Lyon be cancelled to free up police in the region.[153]

University students have reportedly joined the movement, denouncing the planned increase of tuition fees for foreign students from non-EU countries.[154]

Christmas shopping season

Overall, by mid-December, trade losses of €2 billion had been reported as a result of the blocked roundabouts leading to commercial zones and the closures of urban chains. The chain supermarkets, in particular, reported that traffic had been down significantly, estimating the overall loss at around €600 million as of 13 December.[155]

A terror attack on 11 December 2018 at the Strasbourg Christmas market contributed to heightened public security concerns and smaller demonstrations in Act V. Conspiracy theories began to be circulated on social media forthwith, suggesting that the attack, which had been perpetrated by a 29-year old man with multiple criminal convictions, was in fact a manufactured event.[156][157]

Vinci growth

Vinci SA, which operates roughly half of France's highway concessions, stated in its annual report to investors that traffic had dropped nine percent in the final three months of 2018 as a result of the protests.[158] CEO Xavier Huillard said the fourth quarter loss "wiped out the increase in traffic of the first 10 months".[159]

Tourism

The riots have led to a declining number of tourists to Paris, with hotel owners reporting fewer bookings in the run up to the summer tourist season.[160] Cancellations have risen as visitors are scared off from traveling to France for safety and security concerns, while corporate trips have also sought to avoid Paris, because the protests have turned the city into a liability.[161] Overall, France reported the largest decreases in international tourist activity in Europe, compared to countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Germany.[162]

Cultural impact

A video of comedian Anne-Sophie Bajon, known as Labajon, in the role of Emmanuel Macron's lawyer wearing a yellow vest, has been seen several million times on social networks.[163] Dancer Nadia Vadori-Gauthier improvised a choreography in the street during demonstrations with the fumes of the various gases and fires of cars.[164] On 15 December 2018, on the sidelines of the demonstration on the Champs-Élysées, Deborah De Robertis organized a demonstration in which five women appear topless in front of the French police, with a costume reminiscent of the French Goddess of Liberty Marianne.[165] A video of a performance by yellow vests protesters at a roundabout of Michel Fugain's 1975 hit song Les Gentils, Les Méchants ("The Good Ones, The Evil Ones") received over 800,000 views online.[166] A restaurant in Nîmes created a yellow vests-inspired hamburger, served on a bright yellow bun, with a circular "roundabout" beef patty, onions from the vegetable plot of the Élysée Palace, "tear gas" pepper sauce, and "CRS sauce" made of cream, ricotta, and Saint Môret cheese (a reference to the French riot police, the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité).[167]

Reactions and counter-protest

In late November 2018, polls showed that the movement had widespread support in France (ranging from 73[168] to 84 percent).[105] An opinion poll conducted after 1 December events found that 73 percent of French people supported the gilets jaunes and that 85 percent were opposed to the violence in Paris.[169]

Truckers were targeted by protesters, and the industry made their displeasure with the situation known to the government in an open letter.[88] Two labor unions, CGT and FO who had initially called on truckers to start striking on 9 December,[170] retracted their call on 7 December, after having consulted the government and their membership.[171]

The recently-named[172] Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, blamed Marine Le Pen, Macron's opponent in the 2017 presidential election, and her Rassemblement National party for the violence on 24 November 2018 after she had reportedly urged people to go to the Champs Élysées.[173] Le Pen responded that letting people assemble on the Champs Élysées was the government's responsibility and accused the Minister of the Interior of trying to increase the tension to discredit the movement.[173]

French riot police in Paris, 24 November 2018

Although President Macron had been insisting that the fuel tax increases would go through as planned, on 4 December 2018 the government announced that the tax rises would be put on hold, with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe saying that "no tax deserves to endanger the unity of the nation".[35][174]

In early December 2018, the prime minister announced that the price of the Électricité de France blue tariffs would not increase before March 2019.[48]

On Sunday, 9 December, the Elysée called trade unions and employers' organizations to invite them to meet on Monday 10 December so Macron could "present the measures" he intended to announce later in the day.[175] On 10 December, Macron condemned the violence but acknowledged the protesters' anger as "deep, and in many ways legitimate".[176] He subsequently promised a minimum wage increase of €100 per month from 2019, cancelled a planned tax increase for low-income pensioners, and made overtime payments as well as end-of-year bonuses tax free.[176][177] However, Macron refused to reinstate a wealth tax he scrapped upon entering into office.[178][179] Amnesty International called on police to "end use of excessive force against protesters and high school children in France".[151][180]

Police, unlike other public sector employees, either saw their wages raised by €120–150 per month by an agreement signed on 20 December,[181] or received an annual €300 bonus by an amendment voted into law the previous day.[182] Nicolas Chapuis, writing for Le Monde, says this was likely due to 85% turnout in recent police union elections and the exceptional levels of activity.[181]

In may 2019, once the yellow vest protest was finished, Édouard Philippe changed his view on his main political decision for saving lives, allowing a 90 km/h speed limit, agreeing that the speed limit of local roads become managed at local level (département) rather than decided by the primer minister.[183]

Comparisons

Adam Gopnik writes that gilets jaunes can be viewed as part of a series of French street protests stretching back to at least the strikes of 1995. Citing historian Herrick Chapman, he suggests General de Gaulle's centralisation of power when creating the French Fifth Republic was so excessive that it made street protests the only "dynamic alternative to government policy".[184]

The 1 December riots in Paris were widely acknowledged to have been the most violent since May 1968.[70] Paris-based journalist John Lichfield said that the 1968 events had a joyous side to them, largely absent from the yellow vest movement, but that both movements were similar in that they lacked recognized leaders, much as the banlieues riots of 2005 had.[103]

According to French scholar Béatrice Giblin, comparisons between the gilets jaunes and the Bonnets Rouges—who opposed a new eco-tax in 2013—were inapt because the latter "had been taken in hand by real leaders, such as the mayor of Carhaix, or the great bosses of Brittany" whereas that was not the case for the yellow jackets.[185]

Some have compared the yellow vests to other modern populist movements such as the Occupy movement in the United States,[67][186] the Five Star Movement in Italy,[59][67] and Orbanism in Hungary.[184] Others have drawn parallels to popular revolts in late-medieval Europe like the Jacquerie,[187] to Poujadism, to the Brownshirts,[103][188][189] and to the French Revolution.[190][191]

Foulards rouges (red scarves)

On 27 January 2019 a counter-demonstration occurred in Paris by a group identifying themselves by the foulards rouges ("red scarves") they chose to wear. They put out a joint statement with other groups saying: "We denounce the insurrectional climate installed by the yellow vests. We also reject the threats and constant verbal abuse (aimed at non-yellow vests)".[192][193][194]

Concerns about extremist elements in the movement

Concerns that the yellow vests movement were providing a new forum for extremist views were more frequently reported in the media after Alain Finkielkraut was insulted in week XIV. Vincent Duclert, an expert on anti-Semitism, said that while "the gilets jaunes are not an anti-Semitic movement, each Saturday there are anti-Semitic expressions by groups of the extreme right or extreme left." Jean-Yves Camus, expert in French political extremism, identified an "inherent weakness of a movement that lets the people speak" as being that anyone (whether far left, far right, radical Islamist or anti-Zionist) can say whatever they want in the street with little concern for propriety or legality.[195]

Finkielkraut, interviewed by BFM-TV, was especially concerned with the viral nature of what he called a new type of "anti-racist" anti-Semitism (which he says consists of comparing the Israeli colonization of Palestine with Nazism). He named Dieudonné and Alain Soral as those responsible for propagating this new form of anti-Semitism.[196]

Protests outside France adopting yellow vests as a symbol

Locations of yellow vests protests

The largest "yellow vest" protest outside France was held in Taipei with over 10,000 demonstrating on 19 December. Their principal concern was tax justice.[197][198] Some protests in other countries are related to the central concerns of the French movement (taxation, high-living costs, representation, and income disparity). Others are related primarily by the use of the readily-available symbol.

Belgium

A gilets jaunes protest in Brussels, Belgium

Riot police in Brussels were pelted with billiard balls, cobblestones and rocks on 30 November, and responded with water cannons; 60 arrests were made for disturbing the public order.[199] Several oil depots had been blocked in Wallonia as of 16 November 2018, though protesters' attempts to block the Russian Lukoil depot in Brussels were quickly thwarted by police.[2] Some members of the movement began working to form a party for the Belgian federal elections in 2019 under the name Mouvement citoyen belge.[2][200] On 8 December, when protesters calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Charles Michel tried to breach a riot barricade, police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the demonstrators. The protesters involved were throwing stones, flares and other objects at police, resulting in around 100 arrests.[201]

As of 12 January, three people had lost their lives during gilets jaunes actions in Belgium: two drivers were killed mid-December when they were surprised by traffic queues caused by roadblocks and one protester was fatally hit by a truck when his group tried to block the E25 highway between Liège and Maastricht on 11 January.[56]

Other countries or regions

A gilets jaunes protest in London, United Kingdom