What Can we Learn from France’s Gilets Jaunes Protests?

  • 12/21/2018
  • Reporters Desk

By William Below, RLn Paris Correspondent

Paris, France —At 6 p.m. on Dec. 7, shop owners all around Paris were boarding up their windows as if a Gulf Coast hurricane were about to blow through town. We were in our building, at the wine merchant downstairs, as workmen finished covering the display window with thick sheets of plywood. “After last weekend, I prefer to take no chances,” the shop manager told us. “I’d rather have the day off than risk having my inventory looted.” I looked around at the premium bottles of Cristal champagne and VSOP Cognac thinking that if I were a ski-masked marauder, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

That this ,kind of preparation was happening in a neighborhood four miles from the Champs-Elysées, the expected meet-up place of the Gilets Jaunes yellow (literally, yellow vests), the protesters recognizable by wearing exactly that, is testimony both to the surprising level of violence visited on the capital the previous week, and the apprehension the protests caused amongst Parisians. Every Saturday since mid November, the Gilets Jaunes protests have spilled onto roundabouts and highways around France, and lately in Paris as well.

Burned cars, shattered shop windows and ransacked stores aren’t uncommon in Paris, when protests become prey to opportunistic mayhem by hoodlums and hooligans who usually arrive towards the end of those protests. But this seemed different — the Gilets Jaunes had covered the Arc de Triomphe in graffiti and smashed the contents of the museum inside. It was a more-than-symbolic attack on the capital, itself.

On the eve of the protest, Paris was eerily quiet. On the morning of the protest, we watched a live stream of the Champs-Elysées as crowds of protesters gathered. Earlier that week, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the repeal of the gas tax, ostensibly the reason the protests had sparked at all. Nevertheless, the Gilets Jaunes converged on the Champs-Elysées. This time, 8,000 police and gendarmes had been deployed throughout the city and some 89,000 throughout France. Despite the security, by the end of the day, scores of cars were once again burned, buildings ransacked and torched; 1,200 people had been detained.

This past May the French presidential general election pitted Marine Le Pen of the extreme right National Front party against Emmanuel Macron, leader of a newly formed centrist party that had come out of nowhere to largely replace the mainstream Socialist party. In fact, neither of France’s main parties would make it to the general election. After Trump and Brexit, the possibility that France would swing to the far right was a credible threat.

A typical Le Pen voter was less educated, living in a rural region or small town and working in a low paying job (less than 1,250 euros per month). The more money people made, the more likely they were  to vote for Macron. Le Pen voters were also galvanized by anti-immigrant and white nationalist sentiment. Although Macron trounced Le Pen, taking 66.1 percent of the vote, the National Front received record support in the primaries (7.64 million votes) and over 10.5 million votes in the general. These people did not go away. According to a survey taken in the last few weeks, a Gilet Jaune protester tends to be male, makes 1,700 euros per month, works in an office rather than in a factory, doesn’t feel that labor unions represent his or her grievances and is unaffiliated politically with either the right or the left. Many are protesting for the first time.

Macron came into power with no shortage of enemies on the right and the left,  but an ambitious reform agenda, nonetheless. Those  included casting off some of France’s entrenched employee pro- tections, both to kickstart the economy and make France more competitive. Macron sees France becoming a “startup nation.” Once in office, he abolished the wealth tax, in place for 40 years, followed by the loosening of worker protections, making it easier to fire employees. These reforms, along with Macron’s personal wealth from his days as an investment banker, helped give him the reputation of “the president of the rich”. A few “basket-of-deplorables”-style comments did little to change opinions. In one comment he suggested the “Gallic soul” was hostile to change, evoking images of white, rural clans resisting the fast-moving globalized economy.

One protester suggested that while the political class discussed the end of the world due to climate change, the average person is just happy to get to the end of the month. The regressive nature of a carbon tax on diesel and gasoline would hit middle to low income rural families disproportionately. While any additional tax could seem like an existential threat to low wage-earners, a gas tax seems to particularly target rural regions where the drive to work is longer, services sparse and public transportation spotty, if not non-existent. It was hard for many not to feel that rich city dwellers, who hardly need cars, were addressing climate change on the backs of the poor.

On Dec. 10, President Macron addressed the French people on television, offering a series of additional concessions. They include increasing the minimum wage by 100 euros per month, cancelling a tax increase on those receiving the lowest pensions and exempting overtime pay and bonuses from  taxes. While the concessions will come with a high price tag for the government, they don’t seem to have bought  Macron much wiggle room. Indeed, the Gilets Jaunes are planning a fifth round of protests for Saturday in Paris. For Parisians and their businesses, it means continued disruption during the last critical weekends before Christmas, adding to losses already calculated at well over one billion euros nationwide. At least one of the capital’s 20 neighborhood mayors is calling for Macron to ban the protests, a sure formula for even more violent clashes.

There is likely no good way to impose a carbon tax, no matter how justified it may be. One takeaway for enlightened policy makers is the need to give more consideration to rural-urban tensions before levying environmental taxes. Macron’s pro-business reforms and perceived coddling of the rich while  tampering with France’s strong employee protection laws, has unleashed some of the country’s potent and deep-rooted passions. How he handles the ensuing confrontations will determine both the viability of his reform agenda and France’s role as a bastion against a European populist revolution.

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