France’s yellow vest protests began about a month ago, and the phenomenon is spreading. What started in Paris as a motorists’ protest against carbon taxes introduced by the French government has morphed into a wide-ranging movement against unaffordable living costs and authoritarian power structures across Europe. An estimated 120,000 demonstrators marched and rioted across France, and their influence was felt around Western Europe.
The French government was eventually forced to scrap the planned eco-tax on diesel and gasoline, or at least postpone it for the duration of 2019, but the move did little to stem the outpouring of frustration and anger. Now, President Emmanuel Macron has finally attempted to speak to the people – but will he be able to win back the masses, or will it prove too little, too late?
Macron Addresses the Nation
Macron appeared on television screens on Dec. 10 to address the French public. In a short speech, he adopted a fatherly tone: first scolding, at times apologetic and conciliatory, but always paternal. He decreed a “social and economic state of emergency,” during which he has asked his government to act fast and institute a program of reforms, some specific and others more abstract:
- Reinvent and restore the educational system so that everyone can find work after graduating, and with an income capable of preserving “dignity.”
- End “illegitimate advantages” that some hold in terms of taxes; reform corporate tax; address tax evasion (however, there will be no redress of Macron’s earlier easing of France’s “wealth tax”).
- Scrap planned increase in pension tax for low earners.
- Institute a €100 (U.S. $113)-per-month minimum wage increase for employees – at no cost to employers.
- Eliminate social charges and taxes on overtime pay.
- Consult regional mayors to decentralize decision-making.
- Reform unemployment and retirement benefits.
- Exercise better control over expenditures.
- Institute societal rules that are clearer, simpler, fairer.
- “Tackle immigration.”
- Order employers “who can” to give an end-of-year bonus to all employees, tax-free.
Macron acknowledged “partial responsibility” in not reacting fast enough to fix “40 years of malaise” in France and called for an “unprecedented debate” at all levels of society. “We will not resume the normal course of our lives, like so often in the past after crises, without really drawing any lessons from our experiences,” he declared. “We are at a historic juncture for our country.”
Yellow Vest Agenda Expands
Will these changes be enough to convince the French public to give Macron another chance?
It’s difficult to identify the gilets jaunes: The original ragtag bunch of regional motorists has been joined by disillusioned people from various walks of life. The movement has no clear leadership or political affiliation but attracts participants ranging from the far left to the far right and everything in between. Their goals have broadened from simply preventing a fuel tax to raising wages and pensions, lowering university costs, Frexit (French withdrawal from the European Union), pulling out of the Marrakesh Agreement (also referred to as the U.N.’s Global Compact on Migration), and on the list goes. Unfortunately for the president, the one major topic that seems to unite the disparate band of protesters is anti-Macron sentiment. No matter how this movement ends – with a whimper or a bang – there are serious questions as to whether the French president, whose approval rating has plunged to 18%, can survive this episode of rage politically.
The streets of France were filled during the fourth weekend of protests (Dec. 8-9); the Interior Ministry deployed 120,000 police officers, gendarmes (paramilitary forces), and firefighters, matching the estimated number of protesters at a remarkable ratio of around one-to-one. The yellow vest movement has been noted for its rioting and chaotic methods, which have been heavily tamped down by law enforcement through the use of rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas, batons, and armored vehicles that resemble military tanks. While one might expect the French public to disassociate themselves from an increasingly destructive movement, it appears that the gilets jaunes have managed to retain the support of 66% of the French people.
We shouldn’t be called the ‘yellow vests,’ but the ‘empty pockets.’”
Businesses and tourist attractions in Paris closed their doors in fear of an estimated 10,000 demonstrators. Protests and police clashes also have taken place in regional French cities, including Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille, Nantes, Brest, and Grenoble – as well as in neighboring European countries Belgium and Holland, albeit in smaller numbers.
The Movement Spreads
Perhaps the heart of the yellow vest complaint is bigger than Macron and even bigger than France. “Social Winter Is Coming,” predicted protesters in Belgium, despite its prime minister, Charles Michel, denying he would follow Macron’s fuel tax example. While some may see Belgium as a relatively inconsequential nation on the world stage, its capital city Brussels is home to European Union headquarters, making it the center of the E.U. bureaucracy. Hundreds attempted to take the protest to the European Parliament, the E.U. Council, the E.U. Commission, and associated buildings, clashing with police while attempting to pass a blockade on the route.
“There, in ‘Europe,’ they’re having fun, they’re laughing,” one Belgian protester told NBC Euronews. “The people who make the laws are the ones driving us further into the ground. We have empty pockets. We shouldn’t be called the ‘yellow vests,’ but the ‘empty pockets.’” Only days later, the nation’s government has fallen apart – although that’s practically routine for fragmented Belgium.
The Netherlands also witnessed an overspill of yellow vests, although enjoying a more peaceful mood. One protest organizer denied that economic concerns were at the heart of Dutch dissatisfaction, telling reporters, “Freedom of expression is under pressure, we have to be politically correct. It is a struggle.” On the other hand, an older couple told reporters, “Our children are hard-working people, but they have to pay taxes everywhere. You can’t get housing anymore. It is not going well in Dutch society …. The social welfare net we grew up with is gone …. The government is not there for the people. It is there to protect its own interests.”
London saw a Brexit Betrayal march on Dec. 9, with some members expressing solidarity with the yellow vest movement, although it was countered by the obligatory “anti-racist” counter-protesters. Around 1,000 Swedish protesters gathered outside their parliament objecting to the Global Compact on Migration, with some wearing yellow vests. By contrast, Euroskeptic and anti-migration Italian leader Matteo Salvini celebrated six months in power on Dec. 8, with 80,000 supporters in attendance at a Rome rally.
It seems Western Europe is not happy. Can Macron save the day with his soaring rhetoric, or will his speech be perceived as nothing more than lip service? With the yellow vest movement expanding across borders, perhaps the problem is too big for one man (and a few loyal officials) to fix.