Explained: The 'yellow vest' protests that brought France to a standstill

After Paris was hit by a fourth weekend of destructive protests, who are the "gilets jaunes" activists and what do they want?

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More than 1,700 people were arrested across France during the latest "yellow vest" (gilets jaunes) protests at the weekend, with clashes breaking out in Paris and other major cities.

It was the fourth weekend of nationwide protests against rising living costs, fuel taxes and President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership.

The embattled leader is expected to address the demonstrations in a much-anticipated speech in the coming days.

The interior ministry said some 136,000 people took part in the latest protests across France on Saturday, around the same number as on December 1.

But it was the capital which again bore the brunt of the violence and destruction, with protesters setting fire to cars, burning barricades and smashing windows. Police in Paris said they made 1,082 arrests, up sharply from 412 in the previous round.

Police reinforcements were boosted to 8,000 across the city, with armoured vehicles deployed in Paris for the first time.

Shops along the Champs-Elysees and central department stores stayed shut with their windows boarded up to avoid looting. The Eiffel Tower, major museums and many metro stations were also closed as parts of Paris went on effective lockdown.

The French government has pledged a range of measures to end the demonstrations.

But who exactly makes up the "yellow vest" movement, and will the government be able to quell their anger after a month of increasingly fiery protests?

Who are the protesters?

The "gilets jaunes" (yellow vest) movement sprang up in late October against increases in fuel taxes announced as part of Mr Macron's efforts to pay for clean energy initiatives.

While the protests began over fuel taxes, they have snowballed into a wider movement against Mr Macron, largely among people in small-town and rural France.

Many accuse the former investment banker of being an arrogant "president of the rich" who is out of touch with the struggles of ordinary people in the provinces.

TOPSHOT - Protestors wearing "yellow vest" (gilet jaune) gesture on December 8, 2018 near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris during a protest against rising costs of living they blame on high taxes. Paris was on high alert on December 8 with major security measures in place ahead of fresh "yellow vest" protests which authorities fear could turn violent for a second weekend in a row. / AFP / Eric FEFERBERG
Protestors wearing "yellow vests" on December 8, 2018 near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. AFP

Donning the luminous safety vests French drivers are required to carry in their cars, the protesters have blocked motorways and petrol depots since their first Saturday of demonstrations on November 17.

Many have continued to man blockades since then, playing havoc with traffic and causing fuel shortages ahead of the busy holiday season.

Organisers have called protests every Saturday since, which degenerated on December 1 into running battles with police in Paris, where more than 200 vehicles were burned and 412 people arrested.

What do they want?

Different protesters have different aims, and there is no widely recognised group of leaders for the movement which took root on social media.

They want a change of government policies which they see as favouring the rich, a change in a government seen as too technocratic, and for some, a change at the very top.

Some remain focused on lowering fuel taxes and other financial burdens, saying low-income families in particular are paying the price for Mr Macron's push to reform and revive the French economy.

Others have made it personal and say Mr Macron must resign, still fuming over his decision to cut taxes for the highest earners shortly after sweeping to the presidency last year.

Some are particularly outraged at a president they see as extravagant, after he ordered a new set of china for the Elysee Palace for a reported €500,000 (Dh2 million) and a new carpet worth a reported €300,000.

An immediate increase in the minimum wage and pension benefits has also been a rallying cry.

Underpinning the movement is a widespread complaint that overlooked provincial workers on modest incomes barely scrape by after paying some of the highest tax bills in Europe.

An apolitical movement with members who vote for parties of various stripes, the "yellow vests" have won support from everyone from far-right leader Marine Le Pen to far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Why do they pose a challenge?

The government has admitted it failed to appreciate the depth of the anger, and has announced it will cancel a fuel tax hike set for January, of seven euro cents for diesel and three cents for unleaded.

Coming increases for electricity and gas prices were also frozen, as were new vehicle inspection norms which would have hit users of older diesel cars.

The moves were dismissed by protesters - and Macron's political opponents - as too little, too late.

Since then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has floated the idea of a bonus payment for low-paid workers.

But efforts to negotiate have gone nowhere, not least because the movement's purported leaders have largely declined invitations to talks - some because they were threatened by other "yellow vests."

Adding to the government's headache, the movement has retained solid public support despite scenes of chaos in the capital last weekend.

Opinion polls show 70 to 80 per cent of respondents backing the protesters, even as Mr Macron's approval ratings plunged to record low of 23 per cent in an Ifop-Fiducial survey this past week.

And protesters have remained adamant they won't back down now.

"This movement has revealed how millions of French people live," said Jacline Mouraud, whose YouTube tirade in October over rising fuel prices propelled her to the fore of the revolt.

"It's no longer a source of shame to admit that you can't make ends meet at the end of every month," she said in interview with French daily Le Figaro on Friday.

Is Russia involved?

Authorities have launched an investigation into social media activity from accounts allegedly drumming up support for the protests, sources told AFP.

According to the UK's Times newspaper, hundreds of online accounts linked to Russia were used to stoke the demonstrations.

Citing analysis by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, The Times said the accounts spread disinformation and used pictures of injured protesters from other events to enhance a narrative of brutality by French authorities.

Protests beyond France 

The movement has spread beyond France's borders, with around 400 arrested at a "yellow vest" event in Brussels on Saturday and peaceful demonstrations taking place in Dutch towns.

The French protests also attracted the attention of US President Donald Trump.

"Very sad day & night in Paris. Maybe it's time to end the ridiculous and extremely expensive Paris Agreement and return money back to the people in the form of lower taxes?" he tweeted.

The demonstrations are not directly linked to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which Mr Trump has abandoned to the dismay of Mr Macron and other Western leaders.


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