France struggles to contain revival of the Yellow Vests protests three years on

Third anniversary of gilets jaunes protests and the country is still on a knife edge

For Emmanuel Macron, the third anniversary of the Yellow Vests protests is a reminder of division over France’s economy and evidence his presidency can ride out confrontation capable of bringing the country to a standstill.

The start of the gilets jaunes movement in 2017 was triggered by anger at soaring energy prices.

Those conditions have re-emerged in recent weeks and the presidency is anxious to avert a new mass revolt before the French president’s potentially tough campaign for re-election starts next spring.

Mr Macron has moved swiftly to nip new protests in the bud, pledging a €100 ($113) sweetener for six million people in lower income groups to offset the rising cost of petrol.

At the latest protests by gilets jaunes – named after the fluorescent yellow vests French motorists are legally obliged to keep in their cars – the sum was dismissed as derisory.

It remains to be seen whether there is appetite among disenchanted French people for direct action on the scale of the original protests. So far, the demonstrations have been low key, in marked contrast to those of three years ago.

What began then as a spontaneous response to a proposed green tax on fuel rapidly gathered strength, propelled by social media.

As the rebellion grew, it led to the most serious street disturbances in France since the so-called Paris Spring of May 1968.

With no real leadership, structure or coherent policy, the gilets jaunes seemed easy targets for ridicule. But the spontaneous, unaligned nature of the movement came to be seen as a strength.

How tumultuous protests grew
  • A fuel tax protest by French drivers appealed to wider anti-government sentiment
  • Unlike previous French demonstrations there was no trade union or organised movement involved 
  • Demonstrators responded to online petitions and flooded squares to block traffic
  • At its height there were almost 300,000 on the streets in support
  • Named after the high visibility jackets that drivers must keep in cars 
  • Clashes soon turned violent as thousands fought with police at cordons
  • An estimated two dozen people lost eyes and many others were admitted to hospital 

From the first act, as each Saturday of protest was called, in November, 2018, huge numbers were drawn week after week on to the streets of Paris and other cities or to block motorways, refineries and entrances to other businesses. On a single day early in the demonstrations, up to 1,300,000 were estimated to have rallied or taken part in thousands of roadblocks nationwide.

From origins that were essentially rural, with marked far-right support, they went on to attract far-left sympathisers and many ordinary working and lower middle-class people, as well as violent agitators such as the Black Blocs.

The hardline police response aroused international concern, but officials and police unions point out that more than 1,000 officers were hurt, many seriously.

As rank-and-file police officers struggled to cope with the scale and intensity of the protests, Frederic Lagache, general secretary of the Alliance police union, described their exasperation at being made scapegoats. “We have been mobilised for 20 weekends in a row, 20 weekends in a row without rest, and 20 weekends in a row that we have been criticised. We are fed up with it.”

In the first full year of demonstrations, more than 10,000 arrests were made, leading to 3,100 convictions and 400 prison terms. Between 10 and 13 deaths were reported at, near or arising from protests, and among thousands of injuries were 24 cases of demonstrators losing an eye after being hit by rubber bullets fired by police.

Despite the frequency with which peaceful protest degenerated into mob violence and attacks on property, from small businesses to government buildings, the movement received consistently high public support in opinion polls.

Even among those who did not take part and who disapproved of violence, there was some understanding of militant elements. ”You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” is a comment heard often – and not only on the lips of committed gilets jaunes.

Macron's woes

Mr Macron’s approval ratings slumped – they have since improved substantially – and ”Macron out” slogans became a familiar sight at rallies. The protests caught the imagination of many uninvolved voters.

The protests and the disruption they caused rattled the president and his ministers.

Among concessions they offered, the fuel tax plan was scrapped and minor improvements made to some benefits. Mr Macron made a television address in December 2018, hoping to placate protesters.

But by then, although essentially leaderless, gilets jaunes had expanded their demands. They sought, in particular, ”citizens’ referendums” on assorted subjects. Their critics pointed to the division and uncertainty created by, for instance, Britain’s Brexit referendum, while supporters countered that other countries had successfully held similar single-issue polls.

As scenes from the protests were circulated worldwide, protesters in at least 25 more countries adopted yellow vests. Their motivations ranged from hardline support of Brexit in Britain and far-right causes in Canada and Australia to calls for greater job opportunities and better public services in Iraq.

The weekly demonstrations continued through the end of 2019 before numbers began to dwindle. Some commentators felt the president had taken the wind from protesters’ sails with the concessions granted and an admission of errors in handling the crisis; others said the voice of the street was gradually overwhelmed by the rigour of a police and judicial response driven by his government.

Covid-19 pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic led to the first French lockdown being imposed in March last year, the movement effectively came to a standstill.

The question now is whether attempts to rally protesters once again on household budget issues will confound the theory that the gilets jaunes are, for now at least, a spent force.

In tracing the history of the movement, The National spoke to activists, armchair sympathisers, opponents, politicians, authors and analysts.

Many thought the protesters’ ranks had become too depleted to make a serious impact, despite a yellow-vest presence during relatively unpopular demonstrations against the enforcement of Covid-19 passports and compulsory vaccination for key workers, including health professionals.

Other organisers cling to the hope of a renaissance. Khider Mesloub, who took part in the protests and co-wrote a book on the gilets jaunes, says a weakening of spending power and more expensive essentials could spark a “season two”. He speculates that disaffection could spread beyond France.

There is little to suggest this is likely. Intelligence services looking for signs of a significant rebound of the movement, such as blocked roundabouts, have detected only a patchy resurgence. While protests have been staged in several towns and cities, turnouts are described as “timid” or “feeble”.

But in a volatile country with a long history of noisy street politics, there is recognition that one false move by government or police could change everything. The broadcaster Europe 1 reported on a confidential study that said the conditions for revolt are present. “One poorly understood measure, one development or some polemic could light the gunpowder,” it said.

Updated: November 17th 2021, 2:06 PM
How tumultuous protests grew
  • A fuel tax protest by French drivers appealed to wider anti-government sentiment
  • Unlike previous French demonstrations there was no trade union or organised movement involved 
  • Demonstrators responded to online petitions and flooded squares to block traffic
  • At its height there were almost 300,000 on the streets in support
  • Named after the high visibility jackets that drivers must keep in cars 
  • Clashes soon turned violent as thousands fought with police at cordons
  • An estimated two dozen people lost eyes and many others were admitted to hospital 
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