Are You Following the Gilets Jaunes Protests?


I heard about the gilet jaunes (yellow vests) protests when watching a YouTube video entitled, “France Teachers World How to Protest Properly.”

I loosely followed the protests ever since, but now I want to inform any of my readers who might not know what is going on. These protests in France are very important because of the stakes involved and they are the largest of their kind in the country since 1968. Not only will success by the protesters help those most in need in France, but it can add serious momentum to populist movements around the world.

Let’s begin by understanding who the yellow vests are and why they are protesting across France.

Who Are the Yellow Vests?

The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) are protesters who are part of a movement against the increase in fuel prices in France. The movement was named after the security jackets French drivers are required to carry in their cars because the fuel prices are hitting motorists hard. Their movement has no clear leader, but those who are apart of it insist that it have no connection to political parties and that it be known that the movement comes from the French People. It was set up that way to prevent individuals and groups from using the movement for their own ends.

The gilets jaunes movement includes people from different occupations (some are factory workers, some are unemployed, some are self-employed, and some are retired) and a large age range, but there are common threads that bind these people together. For starters, all the people protesting are outside of the country’s top 1%. Another common thread is that the motorists hit hardest by the increase in fuel prices tend to live in rural areas, thus access to a car is integral to their daily lives.

In 2017, Macron introduced new taxes for diesel and regular gas; those taxes were due to rise in the coming years. Currently, gasoline in France costs about €1.64 a liter (which is $7.06 per gallon), which is a little bit more than what diesel costs. Fuel taxes have consistently risen since 2014, but the cost of fuel was due to rise by 23% and 15% for diesel and petrol, respectively, in 2019. In addition, diesel will be taxed at 6.5 Euro cents per litre and petrol taxes would increase by 2.9 Euro cents.

The French government said that the policy was part of its program to transition the country to renewable energy, but many drivers pointed out that the policies would harm those in the lower tax brackets. Yet motorists were pushed to purchase automobiles that ran on diesel because they were told those cars were cleaner. Now, if drivers are required to move away from diesel cars, they will have to purchase new automobiles. Rebates offered by the government to help them purchase or rent electric vehicles won’t really help them.

What Are Their Demands?

The most obvious demand was for President Macron to do away with the tax increases, but that’s not their only grievance. Secondarily, the grievances of protesters had grown to include the fury over the change in speed limits. According to local politicians, residents in rural areas had protested the republic’s decision to reduce speed limits to 80km/h (50mph) on secondary roads. As the protests grew across the country, it became clear that they were also a rebuke on French President Emmanuel Macron, his centrist government, and the French elite.

The economic reforms introduced by French President Emmanuel Macron only worked to pinch those most in need of relief. When Macron was running for president, he promised to introduce reforms that would lower unemployment across the country and improve the French economy. However, according to an analysis of the 2018-19 budget by the country’s public policy institute, the lowest 25% would see lower or stagnant wages under Macron’s regimen. The middle class would see modest gains in their income, but by far, the 1% would benefit the most.

Thus, the protesters are fighting to improve their standard of living because most struggle to make ends meet at the end of the month.

When Did Yellow Vest Protests Begin?

Pricilla Ludosky has been credited for inspiring the gilet jaunes movement. Ludosky, a business manager, circulated a petition against fuel prices. The petition gained 879,000 signatures.

The idea of a nationwide protest is credited to Eric Drouet, a 33-year-old truck driver from Seine-et-Marne. He called for protests on a Facebook page and that post was shared. Soon afterward, a Facebook page for the protest, Blocage 17 Novembre 2018, was set up. By November 16, 2018, it had gained almost 25,000 followers.

As the Facebook page suggested, the yellow vest protests started on November 17, 2018 in response to the rise in diesel fuel taxes. The call to action was for protesters to take to the streets across France and slow down traffic, but it was meant to be a nonviolent protest.

What Has Happened Since the Protests Began?

Since the protests began, at least 10 people have died, hundreds have suffered injuries due to accidents between protesters and motorists, and hundreds were arrested. There have also been violent clashes between civilians and police since the first day. In many cases, protesters have suffered injuries due to the officers’ use of tear gas and flash balls (non-lethal rubber balls shot from specialized guns).

Here is a basic timeline of some of the events that happened since gilet jaunes took to the streets:

November 17, 2018

On the first day of the protests, between 244,000 and 280,000 people participated at 2,000 demonstrations across France and in French overseas territories.

The events were not without tragedy. During the first day of the protests, a 63-year-old woman was killed by a mother who was driving children to the doctor at Pont-de-Beauvoisin in the south-east Savoie region. The mother was arrested. Police arrested 52 others, after using tear gas in clashes with protesters.

Also, 106 people were injured, with five of these seriously injured. Most of the injuries were caused by motorists who were rushing through the crowds.

November 24, 2018

On November 24, 2017, the protests entered their eighth day. According to authorities, about 5,000 protesters were seen on the Champs-Elysees at the demonstration’s peak and there were at the most, 106,000 protesters nationwide.

The day saw some more violence and property destruction. During the protests, a trailer was set ablaze and it exploded on the Champ-Élysées, the most popular thoroughfare for tourists. Some people tore up paving stones and build barricades, which they ultimately set on fire. A man tried to attack firefighters, but he was held back by protesters.

The police on the Champ-Élysées hit protestors with pepper spray, tear gas, and water cannons. Police on the Avenue de Friedland fired rubber balls at demonstrators. In all, about 130 people were arrested, and 20 people were injured across the country.

Public officials showed that they were out of touch with the public. President Macron, who approval ratings were as low as 26%, took to twitter and praised the police officers while placing the blame for the violence on protestors. French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner claimed that individuals from the far-right (who were influenced by Marine Le Pen) were responsible for the violence. Castaner also negatively compared the sizes of the crowds from the first weekend of protests to the second.

Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National), shot back at the minister. She said that violence could be blamed on “a few rioters” and said that the government was so inept to allow that many protesters to reach the Champ-Élysées. She also called out the minister for trying to discredit the giles jaunes movement.

December 1, 2018

On December 1, 2018, the yellow vest protests in France carried on for a third week. On the third Saturday, French authorities said that there were 36,000 protesters around the country and about 5,500 in Paris.

Early on December 1, demonstrators removed the barricades protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Solder under the Arc de Triomphe and sprayed graffiti on monument. The graffiti read, “Yellow jackets will triumph.”

The protest soon turned into a riot in Paris. Some demonstrators overturned cars and set them on fire. Others built up barricades that they soon set on fire.

Police in the capital again clashed with protesters. As NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reported, officers shot 10,000 tear gas volleys and used 134,000 liters in water cannons in street battles with protesters. According to the police, some demonstrators threw rocks at police officers.

At least 90 people, 14 of them police officers, were injured. Another 350 people were arrested. The demonstrations in other parts of the country were largely peaceful.

December 2, 2018

On December 2, 2018, President Macron held a security meeting to discuss his government’s response to the protests. At that point, he was considering calling a state of emergency. In any event, it was hard for Macron to decide on a course of action due to the leaderless nature of the yellow vest movement.

December 4, 2018

It was clear that the French government started feeling the pressure after three weeks of sustained protests. On the 4th of December, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe suspended the plan to raise fuel taxes for six months. However, this was not enough to put an end to the protests.

December 5, 2018

A day after announcing that the government would suspend fuel taxes, government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux signaled that more concessions were possible. In particular, he would not rule out bringing back the wealth tax, which was slashed shortly after Macron assumed power in May 2017.

Elsewhere, three big unions in France discussed joining the protests, but at least one union said that it didn’t plan to work directly with the yellow vests. In a joint statement, the CGT and FO trucking unions called for action to protest a cut in overtime rates; the unions also called for a meeting with the transportation minister. FNSEA, the largest farmers’ union, said that it would call for protesters to fight for a better income for farmers, but it would not officially join forces with the gilets jaunes.

December 10, 2018

Macron was set to meet with representatives from five major trade unions, representatives from three employers’ organizations, and local officials. The meeting was aimed at quelling tensions. Later that evening (at 8:00 pm local time), Macron was due to give an address to announce the measures his government was taking in response to the protests and violence.

December 14, 2018

By mid-December, the gilets jaunes protests began to take their toll on the French and German economies. In France, private sector businesses reported activity that reached a two-and-a-half-year low. German private businesses reported four-year lows in activity. As a result, the Euro dropped below the $1.13 mark.

January 3, 2019

On Thursday, January 3, 2019, Eric Drouet, the Facebook user who brought up the idea of a national protest, was charged with organizing an unauthorized protest. He was arrested the night before while on the way to meet other demonstrators on the Champs Élysées. Drouet was previously charged with “carrying a prohibited category D weapon” when he was found allegedly carrying a wood stick at another protest.

As it was clear that the authorities in France were cracking down on the demonstrations, the actions by the police were questioned. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a far-left leader who ran in the 2017 French presidential election, called Drouet’s arrest an abuse of power. Benjamin Cauchy, described as “another gilet jaunes media figure,” said that the police would only serve to radicalize the movement.

January 5, 2019

On this day, some protesters from the Free French Army used a forklift to ram through the doors of the Ministry of Finance and Economy.

The annexe housed government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, who was unharmed. He was able to escape through a back door.

On the same day, a boxer can be seen punching a police officer.

The boxer was later identified as Christophe Dettinger, a 37-year-old former French boxing champion who retired in 2013.

January 7, 2019

On January 7, 2019, Christophe Dettinger turned himself into the authorities. Dettinger, who was a French light-heavyweight champion in 2007 and 2008, made a video explained his reasoning for going after police officers. In the video, posted to Facebook shortly before he turned himself in, Dettinger admitted that he reacted badly to the situation, but he had lost his cool because he and his wife had been teargassed on Saturday, January 5.

Also, on Jan. 7, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe appeared on a prime-time segment on TF1. During his interview, he said that there had been 5,600 arrests and 1,000 convictions since the gilet jaunes protests started. Philippe also said that the government was considering tough new measures to crack down on those looters, arsonists, and vandals while protecting peaceful demonstrators. One idea that has been floated about was setting up a register of rioters, like what was done to deter football (soccer) riots.

In Toulon, officials announced that an internal investigation had been launched into the actions of police commander Didier Andrieux. The commander was seen attacking several protesters. He had previously been given a warning in 2015 after he was allegedly involved in an incident with another police officer.

January 8, 2019

A fundraising page for Christophe Dettinger, the man seen punching a police officer on January 5, received over €114,000 in pledges until the effort was shut down. Leetchi, the website taking the pledges, said that the funds were only for Dettinger’s legal fees.

Despite Dettinger’s contrition, authorities were angered by Dettinger’s actions and the fundraising page. They argued that the crowdfunding effort was a condonement of violence against the police.

January 11, 2019

By the time the gilets jaunes protests entered their ninth week, 80,000 police officers were being deployed across the country. Of those officers, 5,000 of them would be stationed in Paris.

In response to the increased police presence, social media users suggested that they move some of their protests to the small town of Bourges in central France due to its accessibility. However, those plans caused for cautious measures to be taken in the town, including museum closures and the removal of parking meters. Local shop owners refused to shut down their businesses unless there was a security risk.

In the capital, the French government was still considering new laws to limit protests. However, human rights lawyers warn that some of the proposals would violate the French constitution.

January 13-15, 2019

On Sunday, January 13, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron released a 2,300-word letter addressed to the French public in which he discussed his plans for grand national debate. In the letter, Macron said that there would be “no forbidden questions,” but that he government would not go back on decisions regarding the wealth tax.

On Monday, people reacted to the letter, with lefties decrying Macron’s decision on the wealth tax. As the yellow vest movement gained steam, the wealth tax and the speed limit were picked up as causes because they were part of a larger complaint about the French elite. Soon after taking office, Macron get rid of the wealth tax and replaced it with a tax on real estate wealth.

Showing once again how out of touch the government was with less well-of French citizens, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire defended the government’s position on the wealth tax on Jan. 14. Butler said that the repeal of the wealth tax was integral to the country encouraging more investment and innovation.

To make matters worse, Le Maire advocated austerity by saying that the key question that should be asked in the debate was: “What public spending are you prepared to cut down so that we can reduce your taxes?” In a New Year’s speech to the press, Le Maire had said, “Our taxes are too heavy and too numerous.”

That said, the grand debate was due to be held from January 15 and conclude March 15. During that time, a series of town hall-style meetings will be held across the country.

January 26, 2019

By January 26, the yellow vest movement in France had entered its 11th weekend. In preparation, 80,000 police officers were deployed. About the same number of protesters showed up in demonstrations across the country.

By now, the movement has lost a bit of steam. One reason for that could be the series of town hall-style meetings French President Emmanuel Macron was holding across the country. There was also cause for disagreement among the gilets jaunes because one wing of the movement entered the arena to run in the European Parliament elections in May, which was discouraged by movement leaders.

Another thing to note was that the police were equipped with body cameras for the first time. This decision was primarily made to monitor officers’ use of their weapons, particularly guns that fire non-lethal rubber balls. Even though the weapons are supposed to be non-lethal, their use has caused serious injuries. Thus, the body cams are to provide context and evidence (of misuse or misconduct), if needed.

January 27, 2019

On Sunday, January 27, around 10,500 people marched in Paris to protest the type of violence they had seen during the gilets jaunes protests. These protesters, calling themselves the foulards rouges (red scarves), weren’t just critical of the demonstrators who vandalized property and attacked the police, but critical of the police who attacked protesters.

Some of the attendees of Sunday’s protest generally agreed with the gilets jaunes movement, especially in terms of the diesel tax and raising wages. However, the general sentiment during the protest was that the gilets jaunes didn’t represent all of the French people.

Is There a Chance That These Protests Will Signal a Greater Worldwide Movement?

It looks like the gilet jaunes movement is the start of something big worldwide. There is a burgeoning leftist movement in Germany, while gilets jaunes-inspired protests have popped up in Belgium, Croation, Ireland, and the Netherlands. There was also a demonstration held in the United Kingdom held by pro-Brexit demonstrators on January 12, which turned violent.

There are Americans watching the gilets jaunes protests who want to see something similar here but they’re not necessarily calling for violence. However, knowing how the police behave in the United States, violence isn’t far away, especially when people try to organize around a economic cause.

Also: If the Occupy Wall Street protests are anything to go by, it will be very difficult for Americans to organize around an economic cause, let alone get enough people on board. Besides the fear of retribution (from employers and the police), Americans tend to be individualistic and we are easily propagandized against our own cause.

Yet, if there is another government shutdown, there are specific groups of employees who would have solidarity if those employees simply walked off the job and called a general strike. Overall, I do believe there is cause for Americans to organize around labor, because we have seen some successes in terms of teacher’s strikes and the actions of the air traffic controllers.


Have any thoughts on the subject? Time’s yours.

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