For about five weeks now the less well off French people have been disagreeing with their government, the head of that government, President Emmanuel Macron, especially. Without going into complicated detail about the reasons, a brief description would be that it was because of a correlation of a new motor vehicle fuel tax, ostensibly to finance reducing carbon in the climate, keeping wages and other taxes as they are whilst he had already relaxed taxes on the wealthy corporations and individuals to the point of legitimising tax evasion in order to keep them here in France. Discontent began with murmurings among people who were immediately hit by the pending fuel tax.
How it began
It was not so-called ‘ordinary’ drivers at first but users of commercial vehicles whose kilometrage is already high but whose real terms income was already reduced by frozen tariffs whilst the price of petrol and diesel had already risen over the last few months. They saw their in pocket income shrinking. In some respects the proposition that the carbon tax needed to be tallied met little opposition, but the manner in which it happened without redressing the balance for working people across the board hit home. It was not just the lower socio-economic groups but well into what one may call the middle class. Of course the lowest income people such as farmers, taxi drivers and small delivery service type of fuel consumers felt the impending blow most of all but others who commute, take children considerable distances to school, travel a long way for doctors, hospitals, shopping and many other necessary resources felt the blow. Wages in France are perhaps higher than many other European countries and wage equity is perhaps one of the best of all, but the tax burden undoes that. Despite the minimum income (SMIC), there are so many people who work outside the formalised employment structures when that must be paid such as small farmers, albeit it now a tiny percentage of all agriculture at 2% but still a considerable number, self employed artisans, trades and professions, the catering and culinary sector and several others that create a sizeable number of people who would be hit most of all. It also meant a knock on of fare rises, but outside urban areas since public transport is all but nonexistent it appeared to make it initially a rural issue.
What is the protest about?
Gilets jaunes say that the rebellion is not just about the fuel tax, indeed which has been dealt with, but it is about Macron. There has been at least 40 years of neglect in peripheral France that has brought with it distrust of all political parties, including the established far right and far left, but moreover distrust of ‘official’ media. The protestors are demonstrating about persistent unemployment, low wages, welfare cuts, high prices and high taxes. Since his election in 2017 Macron has become a large part of the problem. There is something about his overconfident and sometimes arrogant manner that makes the blood of people outside France’s 22 prospering metropolitan areas boil. When he was elected in 20117, he promised to create new opportunities for those neglected parts of France. His reforms are beginning to work, with employment creation climbing and the long enduring youth unemployment falling; also average wages are slowly increasing. They are too slow though, matched by taxes that are outstripping what has been gained by slightly higher earnings.
The other side of the picture is always that less than 50% of wage earners actually pay any tax on their salaries at all. They earn too little, far too many also earn under SMIC. Other people who are borderline look safe enough until the total of 48% taxation that one way or another catches up with people. The annual property taxes, taxe foncière, and the resident/owner’s tax, taxe d’habitation, take away large chunks of money. Nobody can avoid them. Utilities such as water, electricity, gas and telephony carry considerable taxes. Buying a car or another vehicle, new or second hand, carry heavy and high taxes. People in the periphery need those vehicles because, as said, public transport in all but nonexistent, so they also pay already high fuel tax. Then there is VAT on things in France that do not carry that tax in other countries. I have often argued with people over this during the five weeks of protest. They are in other countries saying their wages are far lower than France, true, prices are as high and even higher, true, but the point is that when it comes to reports of people who find themselves with only €40 for themselves or €60 for a couple for a week, within the French economy it is not enough to feed, clothe and, in winter, heat oneself. There are too many reports of people saying they can afford four days of food and three without. People earning below SMIC were already in that state. They are entitled to benefits and receive them, except that people who are classified as self-employed cannot claim for themselves although they may be able to receive some benefits for at least their children or elderly dependents. That is the real problem.
Until the gilets jaunes protests began, most urban people and the media had had little or no contact with the ‘others’ who are mainly low waged employees, artisans and small contractors in a number of trades. I have chatted with a group of people protesting at a roundabout. The people standing warming their hands around a fire were pleased to receive foreign visitors and supporters also more than willing to talk about their grievances. They are mostly well behaved people who have been picketing roundabouts, crossroads and motorway tollbooths all over France for over a month. They stop traffic occasionally to have petitions sign, discuss their objectives and ask people to read short texts explaining their protest. It is generally good humoured, even being polite to people who rant and shout back at them. The gendarmes who are the protest places with them mingle and chat, it is friendly. When foreigners stop they try to find somebody who speaks at least some English, the most common non-French language, but a small number of Dutch speakers seem to be present much of the time in this area. The chances of people they stop getting angry and telling them they are wrong has never been high, as cars with the gilets jaunes on their dashboards show, but the almost inevitably vocal objectors include English residents who feel put out. I was certainly called a ‘terrorist’ by an angry wife and a ‘troublemaker’ by the husband at the wheel when I asked the woman to explain why and how that may be the case. When I asked them how long they had lived in France, to which they said eight years, I pointed out that their car had clearly not been re-registered as the law demands, therefore was not legally taxed and tested with even the UK number plate illegal. If they wished to object to me further I could call a gendarme over to take their complaint, knowing that she speaks English I was sure they would repeat what they had just told me. They shut up and were allowed to go. The real point was not about ‘shopping’ them but making them aware of their ignorance and double values. Plenty of French cars were also less than even remotely legal, they were mainly ‘friends’, therefore went away with no such details mentioned.
Emmanuel Macron, is not a man not for turning, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s often bowdlerised words. He went on television to solemnly tell the nation that he had seen the error of his ways. He offered €15bn in financial relief for the angry people across ‘peripheral France’ who have blocked provincial roundabouts and protested on city streets in large cities, but most noticeably in Paris since 17 November. His offer includes a de facto 6% increase in the minimum wage, it was expressed as €100 a month on an ‘average wage, with a tax free Christmas bonus for low waged people and a partial abolition of the very much despised new tax on pensions. His statement went somewhat further than many people had anticipated. Polls began to find that a considerable portion of the French population that had been incredibly supportive of the gilets jaunes were beginning to think the protest should end. However, Macron has not gone far enough. He has not met what is considered a key demand, which is to reinstate taxes on the wealthiest individuals and companies in France. His argument for relieving the rich of that tax was to encourage wealth and enterprise to stay in France, to invest and develop in order to drive the economy and thus with it increase employment and help raise wages. The fact that he is not even bowing down to that demand, that such global corporations as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are getting away with exactly that ‘little people’ cannot get away with did not go down well. As for his €100 rise, it is really €20 since €80 had already been promised well before the protests and the Christmas bonus is conditional, only employers who can afford it. In the provinces not many people expect those bonuses. They are fed up with left, right and centre governments fobbing them off with promises that are never kept, they do not just want less tax and a fairer proportion of their earnings, but a regime that actually listens to them and acts on their needs, simply a representative government that bears its responsibilities to its electorate.
The wrong image
What has sullied the image of the protest is the violence and damage media show in large cities, Paris especially. Both police authorities and government ministers, including Christophe Castaner, the Minister of the Interior, have said that infiltrators, casseurs, have been sent in or gone in themselves, with confrontation with the police rather than the gilet jaune wearing protestors as part of their action. One minister even described them as ‘professional troublemakers’. They are from left, right and anarchist groups; many of the people arrested are 30 to 40 year olds, many of them with existing records of violence and disorder, including clear connection with political extremes. It is known that there are people who train these people to confront authority violently, how to do maximum damage and prepare the situation by planting caches of tools, weapons and all of the other ‘accessories’ of violent confrontation where they can to avoid detection by checkpoints and spot controls. Amidst the chaos the gilets jaunes have marched peacefully, protested quietly, very few of them becoming embroiled in the disorder. Five successive weekends have begun to now see a decline in numbers on the city streets which may signal a relaxation of the tense mood and less force behind ambition of the high visibility jacket wearing mass, but I personally doubt that. The gilets jaunes have made their previously invisible wearers the visibility and sense of power that they are reluctant to surrender until Macron goes a number of steps forward, then governance begins to be far more responsive to their more than reasonable demands.
There is an image problem outside of France. It is mainly a media creation that people feel insulted by here. There are frequent accusations of them being the creation and under the control of either Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, formerly Front national, Mélenchon’s La France insoumise, Russian (or Putin’s) intelligence services, the CIA, MI6 and various other ‘powers’. The French police are naturally high on the list as well, although the relationship between the authorities, the police especially, and gilets jaunes has been convivial rather than as confrontational as a set up would be intended to be. Of course there are pockets of bad tempered protest where there is intimidation of people stopped by protestors. It is no surprise to many that those seem to pop up where there are pockets of strong RN, FI, old style Stalinist communist and other extreme local government and support. The majority may occasionally be annoying but with some of them offering cakes and biscuits prepared over their campfires, Santa Clauses handing out chocolate to passing children and laughing protestors sharing coffee around the fires with gendarmes there seem to be more myths than truths.
The role of media
Neither the media nor internet created the gilets jaunes, they are not a movement or organisation but they have used social media to support their protest and keep it alive. Their indignation and suffering is authentic, there it is amplifying that by using the power of social media to turn their enduring sense of regional and class injustice into what is being unjustly portrayed by some as a sanctimonious, unrealistic, unstructured and leaderless revolution that is unlikely to achieve real relief to provincial France. The gilets jaunes are being targeted by dangerous propaganda generated by the alt-right in the USA and Russian bots who are claiming that France is in a state of utter turmoil therefore is to be ‘handed over’ to the UN, its peacekeepers and negotiators. They are claiming the French constitution is null and void, that Macron is an illegitimate president and there are many fake images circulating of alleged French police violence against peaceful protestors. The media are picking up the fake news, using some of it to make more spectacular points but are losing the actual message by doing so.
There are two important points that foreign media either wish to overlook or are in denial of. The first is that it is a protest without structure and leadership. When a number of people proclaimed themselves representatives of the ‘movement’, thus some kind of leadership, when the opportunity to meet senior politicians arose during the second week of protests, the mass of people around the country disowned those people so that no such meetings happened. It is a very spontaneous and disconnected protest that has used social media to communicate rather than organise, thus is well informed and seems well coordinated at times. In fact this strength is also one of its weaknesses. The other fact that foreign media appear to deliberately avoid mentioning is that the right to peaceably assemble derives from the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), which is incorporated into the current French Constitution. Article 10 of the Déclaration states that ‘no one should be bothered for his opinions, even religious ones, so long as their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.’ Since 1935, the right to assemble in a public space has been contingent on prior notification. Notification must be given to the local prefecture or town hall (mairie) of the town(s) where the demonstration or assembly is supposed to take place, at least three days, and no more than fifteen days, before the date of the demonstration or assembly. The gilets jaunes exploited a loop hole by choosing mainly sites on the edge of or outside definable municipal areas at first then affirmed their peaceful protests by notifying them. Authorities (prefect or mayor) may prohibit a demonstration if they believe that it would disturb public order. It this case they would risk losing voters, so very few would have dared even attempting a ban. So, peaceful demonstrations are generally allowed. If it is prohibited, organisers may challenge the decision before an administrative judge, who will verify whether such a prohibition is necessary to protect public order and security. In this case there have been no bans which, given there are no organisers, is fortunate. The right to peaceably assemble is furthermore guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which France is a party.
The French have a phrase for pushing all limits to the bitter end without considering the consequences which is ‘jusqu’au-boutisme’ (more or less to the end-ism). It is a quite blunt refusal to recognise when a cause is lost; a refusal also to recognise when one has succeeded. This is part of Macron’s dilemma. In the view of the gilets jaunes he started it, now they will finish it, but his last word is not their last word. They show signs of greater anger such as placards and banners saying he should be overthrown, there is even a mock gallows with a totally white, thus unidentifiable dummy, hanging that is distasteful in many people’s view. Otherwise the amicable atmosphere at the demonstrations continues. Some of them proudly explain they will continue to stand there at the roundabout despite working hard all week. They are still full of enthusiasm. In fact, they all seemed contented to be socialising, discussing work, life and their hopes of creating another, better world. Some are saying they would like the gilets jaunes to join a wider campaign to move away from capitalism with fewer cars, less consumption, better quality of life and a cleaner, safer environment. Some of them have marched with gilets vertes, greens, among their number. A few environmentalists have combined the yellow and green. In principle none of them is against the carbon tax their fuel tax was supposed to pay for. They simply believe there is a better way, such as taxing the wealthy. Other protestors remain firmly focused on profound fault lines in France so speak a little about the people can actually afford to think about the end of or change to the ‘system’, although most of them are more concerned about getting through until the end of the month themselves or others they see struggling.
Will the gilet jaune protest succeed and survive?
If there is any single thing that particularly expresses the durability and determination of the protest is what has often been said by gilets jaunes: “We’ll stick it out to the end.” Christmas, cold weather and flagging participation may attenuate their visibility and people may cease to really notice groups of people by roadsides, but the unique ability of the French to protest until the bitter end, to try to maintain the spirit of their national motto, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and naturally jusqu’au-boutisme may see them there for some time to come. Will they entirely succeed? Given there is no actual end, perhaps not, but they have already achieved a lot and some more would make it a massive victory for the people over the power holders. No doubt there will be plenty of ifs and buts to explain to me how wrong I am. I am quite sure that most, if not all, will come from outside of France. I have had those discussions already with people going back to the violent casseur minority who are infiltrating or are planted in the peaceful protests as their point of reference and explanation for why I am totally wrong. I live in a provincial part of France, I know protestors, I go out among them, I am listening more than giving them my opinion. What they say locally I also see and hear in most other places. I see no violence or damage, only good humoured either rain soaked or freezing determined people who have a sizeable majority support of the entire nation, do not want or need political parties or other interfering groups to organise or intervene. This is the grassroots speaking out. Whoever cannot or will not accept that is highly likely to be the victim of fake news more than they are expressing informed opinions. I shall continue to have my gilet jaune on my dashboard and shall also share some of the rain and cold with the people on the roadsides but the moment there is any sign of violence or vandalism then they will lose my support although I suspect many of them would walk away with me.
I began by asking if they are the ‘new revolutionaries’? No, not really, they are just ordinary people who want to be seen and heard. They have been the ‘other’, neglected in the French periphery for around 40 years. They have had enough of that, they are making themselves seen and heard. The protest may have a little of a revolutionary air to it, but none of the people consider themselves revolutionaries.
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