The Yellow Vest movement in France: What's at stake?

Yellow Vest protests on Place de la Bastille in Paris on December  8, 2018, by Actualitte on Flickr -CC-NC-20.

The Yellow Vest movement (in French, Gilets Jaunes) started in October 2018, way before the call to mobilize on November 17. What many thought would be a simple protest has continued for two months. Frustration over fuel prices sparked the protest, but it has extended to protests against inequality in French society. Recently, French officials wondered if Russian political groups targeted the movement with a surge of disinformation, intent on weakening Europe.

Global Voices asked Yannick Sourigues and Juke Carolina to speak on the meaning of the Yellow Vest movement. Sourigues, a laboratory engineer in Paris, has been an active participant in the movement since October.  Juke, a consultant in Ardennes (northeast of France) and a Global Voices collaborator, has been following the movement closely since the beginning.

Global Voices (GV): The Yellow Vest movement wants to be non-political: what was the aim at the beginning and what are the goals of the current negotiation period?

Carolina Juke (CJ): Since the beginning, despite their claim, I feel that the Gilet Jaunes movement is prone to a certain political lenience. The inclination is inevitable to a movement that brands itself “popular” or “of the people”. Having to live in a small French town, in a region often called “region sinistrée,” I could sincerely feel a genuine despair of the population. For example, the hard working farming community and blue collar families have been traditionally under-represented and misrepresented. They have been fending themselves without the interference of … the central government … up to the point that they're bursting at the seam. Lack of opportunities and proper attention have shoved the community into bankruptcy, unemployment, suicides.

Yannick Sourigues (YS): Ce mouvement a démarré suite aux augmentations successives des prix des carburants. Des citoyens (Priscillia Ludosky, Eric Drouet, Jacline Mouraud…) ont appelé à manifester et à signer des pétitions sur les réseaux sociaux, et les gilets jaunes (GJ) sont maintenant dans la rue depuis le 17 novembre. Mais les revendications de beaucoup vont bien au-delà du simple problème du pouvoir d’achat. Le mouvement est bien plus profond que ça. Les GJ veulent que les inégalités sociales qui durent depuis des décennies (et même plus) cessent, et avoir plus de contrôle sur leur vie, en mettant en place notamment un référendum d’initiative populaire.

Yannick Sourigues (YS): This protest movement began because of the successive rise of fuel prices. Some citizens (Priscillia Ludosky, Eric Drouet, Jacline Mouraud …) made a call to protest and sign petitions on social networks, and since November 17, the Yellow Vests have been on the streets. But the claims go way beyond the issue of purchasing power. The movement is much deeper than that. They want the social inequalities of the last decades (and more) to cease, and gain more control over their life, by putting in place a referendum based on popular initiative.

Protest of the Yellow Vests around a roundabout in the town of Vesoul, France. Picture by Obier – CC-BY-4.0.

GV: What do you think is the main reason behind the frustration? Do you think the government's position is justified?

CJ: I keep hearing that people said that the movement was triggered by the ras-le-bol (tiredness) in general, how people are fed up being the cash cows for the government while being a part of lower-middle class — the government favors the rich in every way. The reason is very vague, but I believe that, in general, the current administration has failed to deliver its campaign promises. On the environment, for example. To be able to count on an idealist such as Nicolas Hulot, who has been rejecting ministerial positions in the past, is quite an accomplishment for the administration, but for some reason, Hulot and a few others resigned from their posts, leaving us to question what kind of dynamics are happening in the Elysée [Palace]. Undelivered campaign promises aren't something new in France, we see also [it] in previous administrations. However, today's populism, regardless of left or right leanings, detonated the ticking social bomb. When the president addressed the nation after the waves of protests, it was a ‘much adoed’ thing. His address managed to pacify slightly the movement who needed to be acknowledged by the head of state. However, I don't believe that the movement will stop.

YS: En fait, les gens en ont marre de devoir travailler toute leur vie pour une misère, alors qu’ils voient une élite gagner des millions ou des milliards si facilement et être exemptée d’impôts par les gouvernements. Mais la plupart des Français ne sont pas fainéants, ne sont absolument pas jaloux et ne veulent pas être milliardaires.  Ils veulent tout simplement vivre, et non survivre. Nous vivons malheureusement dans un monde fou où l’argent est roi, et où on nous a toujours appris qu’il fallait avoir un emploi pour vivre, quitte à justifier les pires actes. La position du gouvernement n’est pas justifiable du tout pour moi. Un président méprisant, qui refuse de parler à son peuple, qui propose aux forces de l’ordre une prime de fin d’année pour contrôler ses citoyens, ou qui ose opposer GJ et écologie (alors que son bilan actuel sur l'écologie est loin d'être favorable), est clairement totalement déconnecté de son peuple. Même dans son discours du 11 décembre, on aurait dit que le président était une machine sans émotion. Comme beaucoup d’autres GJ, je pense qu’il est indispensable de changer le système actuel qui nous conduit à détruire la Nature, et donc nous conduit à notre perte.

YS: Basically, people are tired of working their whole life in misery, while seeing an elite win millions or billions so easily and being exempt from taxes by the government. But most French people are not lazy, are absolutely not jealous and don't even want to be billionaires. They only want to live, not survive. Unfortunately we live in a crazy world where money rules, and where we have always been taught that we need a job to live, even if that means committing the worst actions. The government's position cannot be justified at all. A despising president, who refuses to talk to his people, and who offers an end-of-year bonus to the police forces in order to control his citizens, or who dares to oppose to the Yellow Vests and the ecology (even if his current end-of-year ecological impact statement is clearly far from being healthy) is clearly totally disconnected from his people. Even during his speech on December 11, he seemed like a machine emptied of any emotions. Like many other Yellow Vests, I think it is urgent to change the current system that leads us to destroy nature, and thus leads us to our fall.

GV: The movement has been going on for a few weeks; right now, what would be an acceptable solution for the Yellow Vests and the government?

CJ: We're now at the fifth week of street protests and the government is holding a meeting with representatives of the movement. This is a good start. Last Monday, the president spoke about how the administration wants to remedy the “economic and social emergency.” The question now is the deliverables and timeline. Only time will tell.

YS: Honnêtement, je ne sais pas. Une augmentation significative du pouvoir d’achat sera peut-être suffisante pour certains, mais d’autres, dont moi, veulent surtout que le peuple reprenne la main sur son destin. Un changement radical du système est nécessaire. J’ai participé au rassemblement pour la VIe République en mars 2017, et nous étions nombreux à vouloir par exemple un renversement de la Ve République, ce qui est demandé par une partie des GJ.

YS: Honestly, I don't know. A significant increase of the purchasing power could be enough for some, but others, including me, want that the French people to take their destiny into their own hands. A radical change of the system is needed. I participated in the rally for the sixth Republic in March 2017, and a lot of us wanted to see, for example, the downfall of the fifth Republic, also a request by some Yellow Vests.

GV: There was violence, and some were hurt. What is your take on these events?

CJ: [Is] the government justified in containing protests [using] full urban warfare style? No. Tear gas is inhumane and violent. I am personally anti-tear gas anywhere, [especially] in a peaceful protest. Tear gas is being used too much, too often. In a small town like Charleville-Mezieres, tear gas was launched against the trouble makers who deliberately smashed public property. However, there are always a few people who get caught in the mess without the intention to destruct. I also noticed that in Paris, the authorities are using the stop-and-frisk method, one I believe is a better method of containment.

YS: Il y a eu des centaines de blessés et huit morts depuis le 17 novembre et c’est très triste. Les moyens mis en œuvre par les forces de l’ordre ont été exagérés  et, sur de nombreuses vidéos prises par les manifestants, on peut voir que ceux sont les forces de l'ordre qui ont commencé les agressions. On sait aussi que certains agents se sont fondé parmi les GJ. A voir. Sinon, je ne suis pas violent, mais je comprends tout à fait que certains s’en soient pris à des symboles de l’oligarchie financière comme Starbucks ou des banques

YS: There were hundreds of casualties and eight deaths since the November 17, and it is very sad. The methods taken by the police have been extreme, and you can see in many videos taken by the protesters that it was the police who provoked aggression. We also know that some agents infiltrated among the Yellow Vests. Let's see. I am not violent, but I completely understand that some [protesters] targeted symbols of the financial oligarchy like Starbucks or banks.

GV: What do you think of the fact that famous politicians like Florian Philippot, Toni Brunner, and even Donald Trump spoke in favor of the movement?

CJ: This is the problem of Yellow Vest movement. Since it's riding on social and economic issues, it can't be apolitical and has become a honeypot for populist politicians. This movement became something of free publicity to them, an unabridged opportunity to stay relevant until the next election. The extreme and ultra left as well as right wanted so badly to hijack the movement and its narratives and peddled false information on local Yellow Vest Facebook groups. And when people are angry, nobody cares to fact-check and debunk. I find this rather sad. A movement that could've been a true cry out that unites people turned into something so divisive.

YS: Ces personnes ne m’intéressent pas du tout. Le mouvement des GJ ne souhaite être associé à aucun parti politique.

YS: I am not interested in these people at all. The Yellow Vest movement does not wish to be associated with any political party.

GV: A lot of fabricated and ill-intentioned information has circulated. How do you discern truth versus fake news?

CJ: In general, I don't engage in forums, I consider it a time waste to argue with angry people. But I have the habit to share links of verified news to debunk fake ones.

YS: Il est en effet très difficile de trier les informations, notamment sur Internet. J’ai évité de partager plusieurs informations d’amis sur Facebook par exemple car, après vérification, elles s’avéraient fausses. Pour se rapprocher de la vérité, il faut comparer plusieurs sources d’informations : les médias officiels (que vous n’avez pas à croire sur parole je rappelle), les médias alternatifs, les sites officiels des gouvernements, des institutions européennes ou mondiales… Suivant le domaine d’investigation (scientifique, historique…), il m’arrive de me tourner vers des sites universitaires, des MOOC, des chaînes Youtube… Lire les commentaires de certains internautes peut également s’avérer très enrichissant. Bref, ça demande parfois énormément de temps, mais c’est le prix à payer.

YS: It is indeed very difficult to filter information, especially coming from the Internet. For instance, I have avoided sharing some of my friends’ posts on Facebook because after checking, they turned out to be wrong. To get closer to the truth, you need to compare multiple sources of information: official media (I remind you that you don't have to believe every word of it), alternative media, official government websites, European or international institutions … Depending on the topic (scientific, historical …). I sometimes check university websites, MOOCs, Youtube channels … Reading people's comments can sometimes be very fruitful. Anyway, it … needs a lot of time, but it is the price [we] pay.

GV: How do you foresee the coming weeks and the resolution of this conflict in the long term?

CJ: I think things will be quieter now, especially with  … Christmas and terrorist shooting in the Christmas Market of Strasbourg [December 11]. The movement will fizzle off the streets but it won't die down. It will manifest in other forms through different protests. The Yellow Vest is now an emblem that unites those who protest.

YS: Franchement, personne ne peut vraiment prévoir ce qu’il va se passer. Il y a des chances que le mouvement se calme pendant les vacances de Noël, mais ça ne changera rien à la motivation des GJ. Les gens reviendront en début d’année si nécessaire. Je souhaite personnellement un éveil des citoyens du monde entier.

YS: Honestly, no one can really know what will happen next. Chances are, the movement slows down during the Christmas holidays, but nothing will change the Yellow Vests’ motivations. People will come back next year if needed. I personally hope for an awakening of the citizens of the world.

GV: Is there a message you would like to send across to Global Voices readers?

CJ: Whenever I read the news about the Yellow Vest movement on non-French media, I get the impression that the media is missing many details and nuances. I see articles saying that the movement is part of an anti-green tax. That it's an anti-Macron protest. It's really not that simple. It's much more nuanced than what the media say. It's about the French people, their daily problems and their future. There are more peaceful protests than violent ones portrayed on TV and captured on cameras.

YS: N’ayez pas peur de ce mouvement, qui se veut pacifiste avant tout. Les GJ sont de simples humains comme vous qui veulent que tous nous puissions vivre enfin sereinement. Le chemin est encore long mais nous sommes de plus en plus nombreux à vouloir un monde meilleur, que ce soit chez les GJ18 ou dans d’autres mouvements comme celui des Indignés. Le mouvement des GJ (ou quel que soit son nom) devrait être mondial. Prenez le temps de vous faire votre propre opinion.

YS: Don't be scared of the movement, it aims to be pacifist above all. The Yellow Vests are simple human beings like you who wish that we could all finally live in peace. There is still a long way to go but there is more and more of us who want a better world, whether it is at the Yellow Vests in 2018 or in other movements like the Occupy movement (Indignés in French). The Yellow Vest movement (or whatever its name) should be worldwide. Take the time to form your own opinions.

(Feature image: Paris, 08/12/18 – Gilets Jaunesacte 4″ by Olivier Ortepla (CC BY 2.0)

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