Why France's Gilets Jaunes Protests Continue to Rage On
We spoke to a Parisian activist and academic about why they started and what they have evolved into.
Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Alamy Live News
So it's all kicking off in France again. What's new? Well, yes, but this mass mobilisation appears to have a little more bite. A mystery force has entered French politics – the gilets jaunes – and it isn't just your usual assortment of trade unionists, students and anarchists.
Donning their yellow vests (which, in France, you have to keep in the boot of your car by law) in protest at a fuel tax proposed by President Emmanuel Macron, thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country, causing all sorts of mayhem, and being met with the predictable police backlash. Burning cars have been driven into bridges on forklifts, paving stones ripped up and used as barricades on the streets of Paris, and now even school kids are joining the revolt.
I talked to Parisian activist and academic, Aurelie Dianara, to help make sense of this new revolutionary phenomenon taking France by storm.
This interview has been edited for length.
VICE: So what initially sparked the protests?
Aurelie Dianara: The initial reason why the gilet jaunes movement started was to protest against the rise in fuel prices. In the last year, the prices of diesel and petrol have been increasing a lot because of the increase in the price of oil, but then the government announced about a month ago that it would introduce, as of the 1st of January, 2019, a new tax – a carbon tax – on petrol and diesel. This obviously created widespread discontent among a part of the population of France, particularly those who live in rural areas and in the smaller towns, who have to use their cars every day to drive to work. The price of fuel cuts a lot into their income, so this is why they initially started to protest. Clearly, this protest very quickly evolved into something much broader, into a mass movement with much wider demands, much wider claims, which has now evolved into the biggest movement France has seen in decades, and which has put the French government into profound crisis.
What’s happened since? How did people organise to take to the streets?
When the government announced this new tax on fuel, people started organising mainly on social media; there's been no specific organisation or body of people commanding the process. In the weeks before the protests started, lots of groups on Facebook started popping up where people would discuss different demands and proposals. They also used Facebook polls where everyone can add a proposal and then people can vote. This is how they came up with their official 40 demands last week.
The first protest was organised for the 17th of November. That was the kick-off day of the movement all across France. They organised road blocks, which they called "snail" operations, to slow down traffic, and also actions at pay tolls. There were over 2,000 actions over France that first day. Lots of people were arrested, some people injured and one person died. There were massive clashes with the police, and police repression in response. Despite more police repression in the days following, the movement continued: people decided they weren't going to just go home until the government heard their protests. And so they decided to march on Paris and other cities every Saturday. We've seen very big numbers of demonstrators every weekend since the start of the movement. I think there were 100,000 on the 24th of November, probably 150,000 on the 1st of December and [estimates put it at 125,000 this past Saturday, the 8th of December].
Some gilets jaunes delegates were nominated to meet the government via Facebook, although their legitimacy was called into question almost straight away by the movement, with pretty much all of them pulling out. The general feeling is people want the movement to carry on in the streets. The whole thing only seems to have amplified in the past weeks, the past days, and other sectors of trade unions and the left have now been mobilising and expressing support for the movement as the government hasn’t given a satisfying answer.
Is Macron’s carbon tax still going to be implemented?
On Tuesday [the 4th of December] the government announced they had suspended the tax for six months, which obviously wasn't too satisfying for a movement which by now has far surpassed that initial demand of scrapping the carbon tax. Also, it was only a six-month suspension, which is a joke, a transparent attempt by the government to make sure they get votes in the European elections in May. It has now announced the increase in fuel prices has been cancelled at least for a year, so there won’t be an increase in 2019.
This clearly is about more than fuel prices. What’s the wider economic situation like in France and how has this contributed to the gilets jaunes?
It's quite obvious that there's a growing, but invisible, part of France that has suffered in the past years, especially since the 2008 crisis. The social and fiscal policies that have been adopted by Macron and his predecessors have only increased inequalities in the countries; it is this rising inequality that is very much felt, even though the government probably wasn't fully aware. It's something that is probably not as evident in the bigger cities, although it is evident in the suburbs of the big cities. There is a sense of despair and decreasing living standards that have pushed people to the point of explosion.
If the gilets jaunes aren’t your typical demonstrators, who are they made up of?
That’s the question everybody has been asking since the 17th of November, when this part of France that was invisible before decided to wear these yellow jerseys and make themselves visible. The general observation is that the movement is pretty diverse. There are precarious workers, part-time workers, unemployed people, unemployed people on benefits; there are retirees, teachers, small businessman and craftspeople and artisans. What's important is that there are a lot of women wearing the yellow vests, taking part in the road blocks, partly because women are a particularly precarious group in this economy. There are people who come from left and right-wing parties, but initially the movement was made up of people who claimed themselves to be apolitical – a citizens' movement; people who have never demonstrated before and were proud of that fact. The common point between all these people is that they couldn't make it to the end of the month.
If you listen to the news and watch TV in France, we’ve been listening to people who explain that, at the end of the month, they don’t have food in their fridge and have too many taxes and outgoings to pay; that they can’t feed their children; and they only have €50 at the end of the month to buy clothes and other stuff. It's quite striking how many testimonies we’ve been hearing in the past few weeks from a lot of voices that weren’t heard before.
The carbon tax was framed by Macron as an environmentally friendly measure. He’s right that people clearly need to stop using cars so much. Why didn’t people support him?
Yes, you’re right: the government presented the increase in fuel prices as a measure that would partly finance energy transition in an ecological way. The problem is that there are studies showing this [tax] was going to weigh five times more on the lower classes than on the higher classes. It isn't that the gilets jaunes are against or don't care about nature and ecology; it's more that they can’t get by anymore, so they think the money should be taken from somewhere else.
At the beginning of the movement, people were looking at the gilets jaunes with a lot of confusion, almost quite fairly, because they saw it as a movement who wanted to burn more fuel and to increase pollution. But in the following days and weeks, when the movement started to organise, though its organisation is still quite unclear it has started to issue demands and has evolved into something much more.
Quite quickly after the 17th of November you could hear at every protest, "Macron resign." Then they started to voice demands that were going far beyond the questions of taxes and fuels. They were insisting on lowering taxes for the poor, but also insisting on increasing the minimum wage. They were demanding the reintroduction of the wealth tax and new ways of redistribution to the people. The creation of a citizens' assembly and of more frequent local and national referenda. I would recommend reading the 40 directives of the people – it's really interesting to see how the demands have widened to include a lot of people who aren't obviously connected to the questions of fuel taxes. The first demand is the resolution of homelessness immediately. They want a maximum salary. The implementation of rent controls and the end of the closing of railway stations, post offices, schools and hospitals. Obviously all these demands are a huge challenge to the established order.
British protests are meek in comparison to yours. Why are the French so militant?
[Laughs] There's an image of the French as a revolutionary people. I don't know whether it's more of a myth than a reality. I don’t know – you're British, you tell me! One thing is that, for all the militancy – there have been plenty of social movements and street protests in the last few decades – nothing has been obtained. All the mobilisations against the labour laws and the privatisation of the railways, education reforms; all these movements have been very strong, with mass mobilisations, and yet they ended in no result for the people. Gilets jaunes seems to be different.