Riots instigated by the so-called “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow vests) in Paris won’t have failed to attract considerable attention recently; they’ve almost consistently been in daily headlines for nearly three weeks. Images circulating on the internet and television show a Paris that hasn’t been seen for a while: smoke-filled crowds, disintegrated cars, the Champs Elysées practically a ghost of a thoroughfare that is usually bursting with people. According to French media, riots to this extent haven’t occurred for decades. What started out as a post on social media has grown to a national uprising over rising fuel taxes, and more besides.
According to French media, riots to this extent haven’t occurred for decades
So, who started it? It all began with the government announcing a rise in fuel taxes for January 2019, which led to a call for protest by two lorry drivers on 10 October. An organised peaceful protest was then agreed with local authorities for 17 November. Initially, this began in smaller towns with some road blockages and meetings calling for support of the movement. Despite it originally being a peaceful protest, some took to violence which even began to claim a few lives. Then, two weeks ago, a Facebook event was circulated announcing a collective march on Paris at the weekend, and this is where the situation worsened. This is now the third weekend that protestors have clashed with police over the proposed tax, and not just in Paris; almost 100,000 police officers have been deployed throughout the whole country, attempting to quell the worst violence.
But while French people have a constitutional right to protest, what are the consequences for others? While some are happy not to go to work and protest for what they believe is a justified cause, others have families and relatives to provide for, which they struggle to do without their cars. It gets worse for those in rural areas who are completely dependent on vehicles for their day-to-day lives, especially where other modes of transport are inexistent. It’s hard to protest for something which may have a profound effect on your life while at the same time struggling to make ends meet. What’s more, the violence has meant that businesses and shops have been forced to close at what is arguably the most profitable time of the year, and on several Saturdays at that, when the Champs Elysées is probably at its busiest. We’re no longer thinking of a weekend break to Paris just before Christmas either; many hotels have seen hundreds of cancellations. What is normally a glittering city has now been left with a faint, dull glow.
It’s this sense of injustice and hopelessness which has arguably propelled the riots to be about more than just an increase in fuel prices, but about a failure to address the needs of a population, at least in the eyes of protestors. According to a YouGov poll published only last week in France, the French president’s popularity has shot down to a mere 18%. A stark contrast to last year just after he was voted in as head of state. His reputation certainly hasn’t been helped by the riots and cries of “Macron, démission!” up and down the country. There are some that feel that an increase in fuel will diminish their purchasing power and leave their fridges empty at the end of the month. But there are also those who accuse the president of being inhuman and inconsiderate, which is just adding fuel to the fire (pardon the pun).
It’s hard to protest for something which may have a profound effect on your life while at the same time struggling to make ends meet.
Macron made a speech last week in which he vowed to raise the minimum wage by €100, a tall order for millions of French earners. However, he also admitted that he knew that people were angry at him and that he would do everything possible to help those in the most precarious situations. These might seem like empty promises, but some found them convincing. Of course, it’s impossible to placate everyone at once, but the freeze on the fuel tax is one step of many in that direction.
It’s important to grasp the bigger picture in this situation with many differing opinions. Europe is at a turning point, and not just because of Brexit. A wave of support for the far right is spreading across the continent, and frequently become used as an outlet for dissatisfaction and anger at stagnating wages, climbing rents and insufficient social support. Worryingly, the far-right party “Rassemblement National” (formerly “Front National”) have turned the anger of the “Gilets Jaunes” to a completely different issue.