Fifty years since the uprisings of 1968, Paris has been burning. The French people have again erected barricades in the boulevards of the capital, set alight cars and piles of rubber tires, and battled with security forces. The gilets jaunes movement, named for the yellow vests all French drivers must carry, began on Saturday November 17th and is now in its fifth week.
The protests have been widespread and well attended, the most populated of which have occurred in Paris. However, the numbers of protesters in Paris is still relatively small when compared to the overall numbers of protesters in France – around 10,000 at its height compared to around 300,000 nationwide.
Reporting on the movement has focussed on the street protests in Paris, protests which have produced the striking images of the Champs Elysees on fire and smoke rising above the Arc de Triomphe. Media needs people to view it, and these pictures are eye-catching.
The core of the gilets jaunes are not the masked protesters battling police in the capital and setting the streets alight, but the population of rural France who feel excluded from the wealth of France and betrayed by Macron, who was elected on a promise to reform the French economy and improve people’s lives. This population, the working-class of France, has been squeezed hardest by the neoliberal economic policies which have dominated France, as they have the world, in the past three decades.
“We don’t live, we survive”https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-46480867
What makes this movement different from other protest movements in France in recent years is the nature of its population. The bulk of the movement are the shop owners, nurses, teachers, garage mechanics, pensioners and other middle-earning French who have seen their standard of living decline while the wealthy and the corporations in France continue to enrich themselves. One gilet jaune says in a BBC interview that the middle has been erased from French society, leaving only the rich and the poor.
This is one cause of the violence towards the city of Paris, seen as a symbol of the success and wealth of the French metropolitan class. While this class has increased its wealth exponentially in the last three decades on the back of neoliberal policies, the majority of the French people have suffered.
“We don’t live, we survive”. These are the words of one gilet jaune from Reims. The combined income of her and her husband, both in working-class jobs, is barely enough to keep them afloat every month. This is emblematic of the underlying causes of the movement: the little people have been pushed too far, and now they’re pushing back.
In the last two weeks, the French government has offered some concessions to the gilets jaunes: a 100 Euro increase in the amount of money those on minimum wage receive from the government, a tax-free Christmas bonus for low-paid workers, and a softening of the hated new tax on pensioners. This comes after the government removed the diesel tax, which sparked this movement, from the 2019 budget.
These capitulations give the impression that Macron is listening to the concerns of the French people. He isn’t. His ‘concessions’ are not aimed at solving the underlying wealth inequality which caused the anger behind the gilets jaunes movement, rather at opening a valve to release tension in the short term while appearing reasonable and attentive to the wider French public, whose support for the gilets jaunes has hovered between 60% and 70%. The centrality of the de facto minimum wage increase suggests that the government’s concessions are either misguided or cynical. The majority of gilets jaunes are working higher than minimum wage jobs, and still struggle to survive. Macron has offered them nothing.
Macron is unable to solve the problem because he is restrained by his politics. In his speech to the French people, the most watched political address in French history, Macron made it clear that he planned to push ahead with his neoliberal reforms. He refused to reinstate the wealth tax, a central demand of the gilets jaunes, the repeal of which gained Macron his reputation as ‘president of the rich’. His meagre offerings to the French periphery are little more than crumbs, while the French wealthy classes continue to feast.
What comes next for the gilets jaunes? Without clear leadership and defined demands, it is unlikely that they will be able to achieve the systemic change necessary to address the underlying issue of social inequality. But the discontent and anger which caused this movement won’t go away and kicking it down the road as Macron has done does nothing to address the problem.
Successive French governments have failed to close the “social divide” identified by Jacque Chirac in 1995: Macron is simply continuing a strong tradition in the French political class. Eventually the French people will move again, and with defined goals and leadership they may be able to affect real systemic change.