After the fifth weekend of “yellow vest” protests across France, the fate of that nation and its current government is more uncertain than ever. Since President Emmanuel Macron appeared on the airwaves recently to announce a series of concessions designed to placate the struggling classes, the numbers of gilet jaunes on the streets was cut by half. That means more than 60,000 protesters – not a number to be sneezed at – turned up to express their displeasure.
The End or Just the Beginning?
The yellow vest movement has been primarily a weekend affair, with protesters storming the streets on Saturdays and melting away back to their jobs and families during the week. The French population had ample time, then, to absorb the televised address given by Macron on Monday, Dec. 10. His first real public response offered up a range of proposals to quell the protests, including a rise in the minimum wage and reforms in education and taxes. The question afterward was whether that would be enough to rid Macron of his reputation as “president of the rich” and lure the French people into forgiving the government for its perceived ivory-tower policies.
…a persistent core of gilet jaunes continuing to protest in tens of thousands.
The answer appears to be a mixed bag, with demonstrators roughly halving in number from more than 100,000, but leaving a persistent core of gilet jaunes continuing to protest in tens of thousands.
On Dec. 16, 63,000 to 69,000 protesters appeared across France, with around 3,000 in Paris. Meanwhile, nationwide on-duty police forces have been said to number between 60,000 and 89,000, with a whopping 8,000 in Paris. Clashes between protesters and the police occurred in various cities, including Nantes, Bordeaux, and Toulouse. Gendarmerie (paramilitary forces) have taken an aggressive stance, firing tear gas and water cannons into crowds and beating some protesters with batons – multiple scenes of brutality have emerged, with outnumbering forces beating already subdued and unarmed targets.
Non-aggressive protesters have been targeted with water cannons and, in one case, shot in the stomach with rubber bullets for no apparent reason. Such scenes have been so numerous that Amnesty International pleaded in a statement that “French authorities must exercise restraint when policing demonstrations expected on Saturday and avoid any repetition of the injuries caused by their extremely heavy-handed response to protests by the ‘gilets jaunes’ and high school movements.” That is not to say that all protesters have been harmless – riots have been a key component of the movement, and members of the press in Toulouse have even called for a boycott of coverage in the city since some journalists were attacked by yellow vests there.
Despite the clashes, the most recent rounds of protests were relatively subdued. One protester attributed the downturn in numbers to a Dec. 15 terrorist shooting at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France, for which ISIS has claimed credit. “Since the Strasbourg attack, it is calmer, but I think next Saturday and the following Saturdays … it will come back,” said Loic Bollay, 44, while marching on the Champs-Elysees. The government did indeed encourage people to stay off the streets, citing safety reasons after the attack, but according to one anonymous gilet jaune who spoke to The Telegraph, “That’s merely an excuse to try and keep us off the streets. The attack and this protest have nothing to do with each other.” He added, “[Macron’s] taxes will cancel out the rise in the minimum wage,” by way of explanation for why he hasn’t given up protesting.
Another protester, Francis Queruel, a 70-year-old retiree, said, “There are nine million poor in France and people who work but have no money at the end of the month to eat .… When you’re hungry, it’s terrible .… People were silent for a long time, and now it’s the eruption of a volcano.”
Lionel Fraisse, also a retiree, said that Macron’s proposed solutions were just “to put the people to sleep.”
With protesters continuing to call for Macron to resign, and many calling for more direct democracy via regular referendums, it’s not clear how long the president, elected only 19 months ago, will be able to survive. As French academic Herve Le Bras observed, “It is calming down, but what remains of it all is a strong feeling of hatred toward Macron.”
While things may be calming down in France, they appear to be heating up elsewhere. Canadian cities saw small displays from yellow-vested protesters; in Toronto, two groups appeared on the streets, one bearing MAGA caps and one identifying with Antifa. While both expressed solidarity with the French movement, it seems they could not get along with each other, and police were forced to intervene in scuffles.
A few right-wing protesters blocked bridges and shut down traffic in central London, shouting slogans including, “What do we want? Brexit. When do we want it? Now.” But the most notable extension of the movement has been in Brussels, the European Union headquarters. Thousands turned out to march on the European Commission, reportedly to protest taxes, the cost of living, and the recent signing of the U.N.’s Global Compact on Migration, which brought about the collapse of Belgium’s government – although there was also a smaller counter-demonstration. Paramilitary troops used tear gas and water cannons against protesters, who threw rocks and firecrackers, in a continuation of protests that spread from France the previous weekend. One person died in a related traffic incident, and dozens were arrested.
The elite classes that lead these countries may be wondering how to quell this burgeoning populist movement of people of all political stripes. If the defiant masses are not so easily satiated as Macron and his colleagues had hoped, what is the next step?