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Exclusive: The Yellow Vests, What’s Behind French Discontent?

photo of Yellow Vests activists protesting in France
Courtesy of Catherine Shakdam

Citizen Truth spoke with activists on both sides of the Yellow Vests movement to understand the motivation behind the protest now spreading across Europe. 

“We are France and France will be heard, I can tell you that much!” Speaking to Citizen Truth in exclusive comments, Marianne Grouiller, a Yellow Vests activist based in Paris is adamant France’s age of discontent is more than just a phase. Rather, it’s the compounding of chronic socio-economic mismanagement and a lack of political courage.

France’s issues she explained “are not new, they are not even original. We are plagued by the same issues our parents and grandparents had to contend with: high unemployment, inequalities, a sense that our struggles do not matter in the face of realpolitik, disenfranchisement, dysmorphic immigration laws…. The list is endless and the crisis real.”

Grouiller’s concerns are symptomatic of France’s socio-political malaise. Cutting across France’s national landscape sits a stubborn feeling that something ought to dramatically change and if not, then maybe everything would have to give.

In any case, it is unlikely France will accept platitudes from its political elite. For weeks on end  France has taken to the streets, pushing back against a system and a leadership it says not to trust any longer to act for the common good.

Less than half-way through his mandate, President Emmanuel Macron saw his ratings plummet to 27 percent approval, a rather bleak number if one considers how much hope was pinned on his presidency.

“President Macron needs to seriously pay attention to what it is we are saying and demanding! We are not going away, and we will not be dismissed by our state representatives. Let’s be clear, our president was elected by the people to serve the interests of the Republic…and we are the Republic. We, the people. France is not the ruling elite,” said Grouiller.

The thread that could undo the Fifth Republic first unraveled on Oct. 10, 2018, when two disgruntled truck drivers called for roadblocks in protest of rising fuel prices. Little could anyone expect that this call for action would translate into a grand popular outcry, and potentially, a revolution.

If the word revolution carries a dramatic connotation, the reality of it all is very much on the doorstep of the Elysees, a reminder that when France is pushed into a corner, its many voices are capable of overturning governments. 

Diffuse Yet Focused

The very nature of the Yellow Vests movement is exactly what makes it so powerful. As Rachel Donalis puts it in an article for the Atlantic: “The gilets jaunes [yellow vests], so named for the roadside safety vests that drivers must keep in their vehicles at all times, are here to stay precisely because the movement is so inchoate in form, so leaderless in organization, and so diffuse in its demands. And also so successful in driving the debate. Political parties across the spectrum and labor unions have been trying to channel the movement’s momentum, but so far to no avail. That puts France in uncharted political territory.”

Indeed with no leadership to speak of to engage with, the French government cannot negotiate any respite other than renewed threats of military violence to quell the movement.

Grouiller noted: “President Macron now wants to tackle France’s issues through a grand national debate only he wants it his way or no way at all, and such bravado is unlikely to endear him to any of the protesters.” 

The Yellow Vest Protest Spreads

Macron’s political conundrum is not just his to bear. The Yellow Vests movement is catching on in the rest of Europe: Belgium, Italy, Spain, Greece, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, a clear sign that the people are calling for a serious re-conceptualization of their state institutions and what position their state representatives ought to have.

More than 100 protesters turned up for an anti-government yellow-vest demonstration in Dublin. In Poland yellow-vested farmers blocked the main motorway 20 miles from Warsaw, complaining over a range of grievances.

Protesters wearing yellow vests in Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, have blocked major roads, including the border crossings with Turkey and Greece, demanding not just cheaper fuel and higher living standards but the departure of a government they likened to the Mafia.

“If the hike in the price of fuel triggered the yellow vest movement, it was not the root cause,” writes geographer Christophe Guilluy. “The anger runs deeper, the result of an economic and cultural relegation that began in the ’80s…. Western elites have gradually forgotten a people they no longer see.”

Macron Still Has His Supporters

But it would be unfair, however, to paint the Yellow Vests movement as the only voice around. Plenty of French remain supportive of President Macron and for very good reasons: His reforms make sense economically.

Gaston Carpentier, a school-teacher and staunch supporter of President Macron told Citizen Truth he believes the president to be the man to maneuver France through the crisis. “President Macron inherited France’s problems, he didn’t create them, and so we need to be careful when it comes to lay blame at his door. Yes, our officials have missed the ball, and they have in many ways betrayed the spirit of their mandate, but let’s be honest, we need Macon to transition us out of this crisis…. We can’t simply scratch the Fifth Republic and write a new one. We need to work within the system.”

While the president may be capable of weathering the storm, at least as far as facing up to the issues the Yellow Vests movement put forward, it is his management of the protests that could set fire to the barricades. For several weeks now scenes of violence and chaos leading to severe injuries and mass arrests have muddied the public debate, quite literally pitting the people versus the state.

Juliette Rebet, a demonstrator in Paris, said: “It’s not normal to treat people the way we are being treated. We have injured people every Saturday.”

Paris deployed 5,000 police around the capital during the week of Jan. 20, notably around government buildings and the Champs-Elysees shopping area. About 80,000 police fanned out nationwide.

 

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Catherine Shakdam

Catherine is a geopolitical analyst and commentator for the Middle East with a special focus on Yemen and the Gulf countries. She has been published across several prominent media outlets including: The Huffington Post, Sputnik, Citizen Truth, Press TV, The New Eastern Outlook, RT, MintPress, Ayatollah Khameini’s website, Open Democracy, the Foreign Policy Journal, The Duran, The American Herald Tribune, Katehon, and many more. Educated in both the UK and France, Catherine’s expertise and research on Yemen have been quoted by the UN Security Council on several occasions since 2011.

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