Yel­low vest move­ment in France strug­gles to or­ga­nize

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY RE­BECCA ROSMAN

PARIS | France’s yel­low vest pro­test­ers were hop­ing for a busy fall af­ter a quiet sum­mer. So when Aman­dine Can­tour­net saw a call last month tout­ing a “his­toric” 45th gath­er­ing on the Champs-El­y­sees in the heart of Paris, she was will­ing and ready to make the five-hour drive from her home near the Swiss bor­der to Paris. She ar­rived upon a scene of con­fu­sion. “I think I saw more se­cu­rity forces on the street than pro­test­ers,” said Ms. Can­tour­net. She said the po­lice made it nearly im­pos­si­ble for her and other yel­low vest demon­stra­tors to or­ga­nize ef­fec­tively.

The event last month ended in more than 150 ar­rests, a dis­as­trous at­tempt to join forces with a si­mul­ta­ne­ous youth cli­mate protest and, above all, a fail­ure for mem­bers of the lead­er­less move­ment to or­ga­nize once again in one place.

Orig­i­nally billed as a pos­si­ble “come­back” for the yel­low vests, the chaos and dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion left a num­ber of pun­dits ques­tion­ing the move­ment’s shot at a re­vival — al­most ex­actly a year af­ter the amor­phous protest move­ment first emerged with a string of some­times vi­o­lent con­fronta­tions that threat­ened to shake the foun­da­tions of the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron.

Much of that early en­ergy has dis­si­pated. Crowds have dwin­dled at yel­low vest events, and pub­lic sup­port has plum­meted.

Still, some an­a­lysts in­sist the yel­low vests’ con­tin­ued pres­ence, no mat­ter how small, is mean­ing­ful in it­self. It is far too early, they say, to write off the move­ment.

“We have a bizarre sit­u­a­tion where [the move­ment] is still there,” said Bruno Cautres, a po­lit­i­cal science re­searcher at the Paris In­sti­tute of Po­lit­i­cal Stud­ies, bet­ter known as Science Po. He noted that the yel­low vests still have man­aged to stage pub­lic protests.

“Even if you have fewer peo­ple demon­strat­ing … we have never seen that be­fore in France,” he said.

Even as the Paris protest failed to meet ex­pec­ta­tions, po­lice in the south­west­ern city of Toulouse bat­tled with nearly 1,000 yel­low vest demon­stra­tors with tear gas and water can­nons, and an­other 300 yel­low vest ac­tivists clashed with po­lice in Mont­pel­lier.


The yel­low vest protests — named for the bright jack­ets that French driv­ers are re­quired to have in case of an emer­gency break­down — be­gan last Novem­ber in re­sponse to an in­crease in fuel taxes that demon­stra­tors said would fall dis­pro­por­tion­ately on ru­ral res­i­dents and those in the prov­inces who lack ac­cess to pub­lic trans­porta­tion.

The protests quickly grew into a wider anti-es­tab­lish­ment move­ment de­mand­ing lower taxes on the poor, higher taxes on the rich and bet­ter pub­lic ser­vices. Af­ter a Novem­ber protest sent hun­dreds of thou­sands of demon­stra­tors into the streets, ap­proval rat­ings for the flat-footed Mr. Macron fell to just 25%.

Vi­o­lent clashes with po­lice in the heart of Paris and other cities be­came rou­tine, and yel­low vest pro­test­ers blocked roads and bridges and or­ga­nized work stop­pages. At least 10 deaths were linked to yel­low vest demon­stra­tions.

Mr. Macron in­tro­duced a sweep­ing se­ries of re­forms in re­sponse to the protests in April, and the yel­low vests’ res­o­lute re­fusal to or­ga­nize or name a co­her­ent lead­er­ship cost the move­ment mo­men­tum.

Yel­low vest ac­tivists in­sist their protest is alive and well and re­ports of its death have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

“Our anger is stronger than ever be­fore. It’s been ac­cu­mu­lat­ing over the last year,” said Fran­cois Boulo, a spokesman and or­ga­nizer for the yel­low vest chap­ter in the west­ern city of Rouen. “We’ve just been wait­ing for the right mo­ment to ex­press that anger.”

That “mo­ment,” Mr. Boulo said, is likely to be on Nov. 17, when yel­low vests will of­fi­cially mark the move­ment’s one-year an­niver­sary. Mr. Boulo said he ex­pects turnout to be sim­i­lar to what it was dur­ing the height of the move­ment, when more than 280,000 across the coun­try par­tic­i­pated.

He ac­knowl­edges that “phys­i­cal and men­tal fa­tigue” has re­sulted in lower par­tic­i­pa­tion in re­cent months.

“We’re tired and afraid of the vi­o­lence com­ing from the se­cu­rity forces,” Mr. Boulo said. “Six peo­ple have lost a hand at th­ese protests. Peo­ple are afraid, and that’s ex­tremely wor­ry­ing for us.”

In­deed, vi­o­lent clashes be­tween demon­stra­tors and po­lice have been reg­u­lar at the protests. Statis­tics from the in­de­pen­dent French site Me­di­a­part show hun­dreds of se­ri­ous in­juries, in­clud­ing head wounds and losses of eyes or hands. Two peo­ple have been killed, in­clud­ing an el­derly woman when a grenade flew into her apart­ment dur­ing a protest in Mar­seille.

Pub­lic back­ing for the pro­test­ers, strong in the early days, has dropped.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll from the be­hav­ioral mar­ket­ing group BVA, sup­port for the yel­low vest move­ment hov­ers at around 40%, a far cry from nearly 75% last Novem­ber.

Mr. Macron’s cur­rent ap­proval rat­ing, at 37%, is at its high­est level in more than a year.

“In a cer­tain way, the [yel­low vests] were very good for me,” Macron told Time magazine in late Septem­ber, “be­cause it re­minded me who I should be.”

A ‘great’ de­bate

In re­sponse to the move­ment, Mr. Macron em­barked on a month­s­long “Great Na­tional De­bate” this year. He at­tended hun­dreds of town hall meet­ings across the coun­try and de­bated with peo­ple as they aired their griev­ances to the man so many had billed as an “elit­ist” and “pres­i­dent of the rich.”

When he an­nounced the 2020 bud­get plans late last month, Mr. Macron pledged nearly $10 bil­lion in tax cuts to house­holds and an­other $1.2 bil­lion in cuts to busi­nesses. That is in ad­di­tion to $5.5 bil­lion in tax cuts al­ready promised to some 12 mil­lion house­holds ear­lier this year.

The spend­ing has pushed France’s pub­lic debt to nearly 100% of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct. To make up the lost rev­enue, Mr. Macron wants to re­vamp the state-funded pen­sion sys­tem, which takes up 14% of pub­lic spend­ing. This, too, has been met with fierce re­sis­tance from la­bor unions across the coun­try’s trans­porta­tion and health care sec­tors. More than 40% op­pose the re­form.

Those num­bers should be con­sid­ered a warn­ing, Mr. Cautres said.

“Macron can­not af­ford a sec­ond cri­sis …,” the re­searcher said. “You can only get one cri­sis in your man­date.”

Even so, the French un­em­ploy­ment rate stands at around 8.5%, its low­est in over a decade and down from 9.5% when Mr. Macron took of­fice in May 2017.

Look­ing ahead, yel­low vest ad­vo­cates say they want more of­fi­cial civic en­gage­ment.

The move­ment ran can­di­dates in Euro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tions in May. De­spite win­ning less than 0.6% of the vote, some yel­low vest back­ers hope to do bet­ter in the up­com­ing mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in March.

The col­lec­tive “yel­low vest cit­i­zens” last month pre­sented a list of can­di­dates for the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in Paris, led by Thierry Paul Valette, one of the move­ment’s best-known fig­ures.

“The move­ment has al­ways said it needs to be struc­tured to be ef­fec­tive,” said Mr. Valette, adding that the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions could be a chance to or­ga­nize.

“We must show the coun­try that we are en­gaged,” he said. “So many of our griev­ances come from be­ing shut out of lo­cal pol­i­tics for too long. We need to turn that dis­course around. And what bet­ter way to do that than to show up on the po­lit­i­cal stage?”

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