France’s Prime Minister Edouard Philippe met with the opposition Monday as the country hunted desperately for a way to tackle the worst street riots seen in Paris since the student protests of May 1968. Over the weekend, mobs of protesters rampaged through exclusive neighbourhoods, fighting off riot police as they trashed posh villas and cafes, set vehicles on fire, and vandalised some of the French capital’s most revered and globally recognised landmarks.
Waves of cancellations have hit hotels, and as investors panicked, supermarket chain Carrefour, highway operator Vinci, hotel chain Accor, and the national carrier Air France tanked on the bourses Monday, even as the stock market index itself rose. As protesters blocked supplies, oil supermajor Total said several of its filling stations had run dry.
On Sunday, President Emmanuel Macron convened a cabinet meeting that weighed imposing an emergency — the third time in recent years after the ones following the November 2015 Paris terror attacks and the protests by youths in poor suburbs in 2005 — but a government Minister said Monday that this option was “for now not on the table”.
What’s happening in France?
On November 17, nearly 300,000 people in smaller towns and rural areas across the country participated in an extraordinary demonstration led by drivers wearing high-visibility vests, to protest rising living costs and, especially, higher taxes on automobile fuels that President Macron had announced earlier this year. The demonstrations — the initial mobilisation for which began online — have not ceased since; they escalated spectacularly on Saturday when protesters took over some of the richest streets and most iconic locations of Paris, battling tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets, and stun grenades, but holding their ground.
On Monday, the gilets jaunes — “yellow vests” — blocked several highways mainly in southern France, and access to a major fuel depot near Marseille. After the meeting with Prime Minister Philippe in Paris, Laurent Wauquiez, the leader of the centre-right Les Republicains party, said the government had failed to gauge the depth of public anger — and while it had conceded to having a debate in Parliament, “what we need are gestures that appease, and these must be born out of the one decision every Frenchman is waiting for: scrapping (fuel) tax hikes.”
Three people have so far died in the protests across France, and more than 260 have been wounded; 400 have been arrested.
So, who are the yellow vests?
Supporters of the movement are mostly ordinary people belonging to the middle and working classes, but include some elements identified as “radical” and “fringe” as well. They are of all ages and come from across the country, mostly from outside the big cities. Their movement began spontaneously — and even after three weeks, the yellow vests have no clear leaders beyond eight semi-official spokespeople who have been giving media statements. The absence of identifiable leaders has made the government’s task of dealing with them even more difficult. The movement continues to rely mostly on social media to organise.
How badly are they squeezed?
Those who are protesting have indeed had their lives degraded by rising costs, even though they can’t be called “poor” when compared to millions in many countries, including in India. A report in The New York Times assessed their situation as “not deep poverty, but ever-present unease in the small cities, towns and villages over what is becoming known as ‘the other France’, away from the glitzy Parisian boulevards”. Protesters who came out initially were angry at high diesel and petrol prices and rising inequality in society, and expressed deep resentment against both these inequities as well as those whom they saw as benefitting from this unfair situation.
Diesel, the most popular automobile fuel in France, has become 23% costlier over the past year, rising to €1.51 (around Rs 121) per litre on average, the costliest since the early years of this millennium. While global oil prices have fallen in recent weeks, Macron’s government has raised the hydrocarbon tax by 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents on petrol this year, and announced a further increase of 6.5 cents on diesel and 2.9 cents on petrol from January 1 next year. The protesters’ main demand is a freeze on the increases.
Do the protesters have a lot of support?
As they have spread and deepened, the protests have taken the shape of a broad outpouring of rage against the President himself and his policies. Both have been assailed as being “pro-rich”, and there have been calls for Macron to go, and the talk of “revolution”. Public support for the protesters is very high: 70% of respondents in a Harris Interactive poll conducted after Saturday’s violence said they backed the yellow vests. A survey by Elabe recorded an approval of nearly 75%, including more than 50% of Macron voters.
On Monday, 1,000 teenage students, many wearing yellow vests, raised slogans of “Macron resign!” in Nice, AFP reported. Around 100 schools nationwide were blocked fully or in part by students protesting new requirements for entering university, a reason unrelated to the yellow vests’ protests. France’s biggest public sector union, CGT, called for nationwide protests on December 14 to demand an “immediate” increase in the minimum wage, pensions and social benefits, Reuters reported. The CGT said it shared the “legitimate anger” of the yellow vests.
Will the protests hurt Macron politically?
The higher taxes on fuel are part of Macron’s campaign for cleaner fuel to fight climate change by incentivising the exchange of diesel-run vehicles with less polluting models — a policy goal that he has said he will not abandon. This refusal to bend — the President said Saturday that the protesters only wanted to “wreak chaos”, and that “no cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc de Triomphe is defiled” — along with his background as a former investment banker, have strengthened the narrative of elite apathy towards working-class concerns.
A BBC report made the point that while Macron has shown he is not afraid of protesters, staring down unions and pushing through difficult reforms on labour laws and railway workers’ pensions, the yellow vests are a different kind of challenge, given that they have no official leader, organisation, or party affiliation. The report quoted social scientists as saying that “a movement that goes beyond political differences [is] dangerous for Macron” because “as long as the opposition is split between left and right, his power isn’t challenged”; and that the “unstructured” gilets jaunes, a movement of a kind not seen since before the French Revolution, “poses a serious political question”.
The anti-establishment anger could hurt Macron in 2019’s European elections, in which the far right has frequently done well. Besides the Republicains, both far-left Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right Marine Le Pen have backed the yellow vests, the BBC report said.