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The Persistence of the "Yellow Vest" Movement

BLOG - 9 January 2019

Nothing seems to work. Not the concessions made by President Macron on 10 December -nearly €10 billion in various social measures- which widen the public deficit and undermine France's credibility within the Eurozone. Nor the holiday season, which was supposed to bring serenity and calmness. Not even the high levels of violence that the government obviously hoped would lead to an unanimous condemnation among the population, as it has happened in the past. No, there’s nothing to do about it. The Yellow Vest movement lingers and continues to exist. "We won't let go", its protagonists keep repeating. And France now seems to be getting used to witnessing street clashes every Saturday, constantly increasing in intensity.

Admittedly, the movement involves fewer demonstrators; 50,000 throughout the country this Saturday according to figures from the Ministry of the Interior. A figure up from the previous week but far from the 288,000 people involved in the first mobilization on November 17 which, to date, is a record. Similarly, while at the end of November, according to various surveys conducted, more than 80% of French people said they supported the Yellow Vests, they are now only one in two.

At the end of November more than 80% of French people said they supported the Yellow Vests, they are now only one in two.

This level of support remains considerable. A great number of French people show immense empathy for their demands, whether social or for an improvement in purchasing power, which has become the primary concern of the French in the face of unemployment, social equality, tax justice or politics, in order to renew the functioning of democracy. These are undoubtedly the reasons for the persistence of the Yellow Vest movement, which is currently writing a new chapter in the history of major social movements in France since the major strikes of 1936 and the "events" of May-June 1968 lasted more than two months.

The Yellow Vests express a social anger that has been smoldering for some time but has worsened since the beginning of Macron’s presidency and may not be easily extinguished. It reflects a profound anxiety from significant segments of society – employees in the public and private sectors, craftsmen, small entrepreneurs, retired people, single mothers, women facing economic and social uncertainty– who are impoverished, left on the margins of globalization and affected by the changes that impact their work and their territories. They feel abandoned, even despised, threatened for their future and that of their descendants. To which is added an embedded French cultural value: the passion for equality, hating the rich. Similarities have been made with the French Revolution with the wearing of the Phrygian cap and the criticism against Emmanuel Macron, compared to Louis XVI, and his wife, associated with Marie-Antoinette.

The Yellow Vests also highlight the political mistrust that France has been experiencing for decades and that has probably increased since Emmanuel Macron's election, notably with his theorization of the "republican monarchy". Distrust of the political class (except for local elected officials), national institutions and the European Union. The Yellow Vests’ demand for a RIC (Référendum d'Initiative Citoyenne, or Citizens' Initiative Referendum) is appealing because it seems to be able to answer the crisis of representation, which also involves the decline of interest organizations, intermediary bodies, trade unions and political parties.

The Yellow Vests express a social anger that has been smoldering for some time but has worsened since the beginning of Macron’s presidency and may not be easily extinguished.

However, the Yellow Vest movement has many weaknesses and limitations. It is fragmenting. First, on its various sensibilities; some Yellow Vests feel close to the extreme right, others closer to the left. Others advocate their apoliticism. Secondly, there are dissensions concerning strategic hypotheses; on the way negotiations will be conducted, on the radicalization of the movement (which could trigger an extremely dangerous dynamic), and on the political structuring (giving a voice to representatives for the EU elections for example). The future of the movement is at stake. So is the faith in the President of the Republic, the Fifth Republic, representative democracy and the ability of political leaders to bridge the multiple divisions that exist in France in order to rebuild society.

 

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