Written by Alanna Melville
I recently returned from a 6-month exchange to Grenoble, France. This exchange was an amazing experience for me to study in French and build my language skills, travel around Europe to see the history I study in person and do some specialised courses that focus solely on French history, from a French perspective that I don’t have access to at home.
What struck me as I overcame my culture shock and settled into living in France was how much my history subjects – specifically France in the 12th and 13th century and the French Revolution – were also teaching me about the mindset of the French people. I realised that by learning about the history of the country I could understand more about how French people think now and why their culture and country is specific to them, and different from ours.
This difference in mindset was further demonstrated by the start of the Gilets Jaunes or Yellow Vest movement. On Saturday the 17th of November 2018, while I was in Milan attending a concert, 285 000 French people took to the streets to demonstrate against Macron’s proposed petrol tax. But who were these protestors? What makes them different from the protests that France is famous for? And at the end of the day, what do they actually want?
My birthday weekend trip to Nice; protestors fill the Champs Élysées.
Origins of the Yellow Vests
As I’m sure you’ve seen on the news, the Gilets Jaunes are a movement who started on Facebook in late 2018 against Macron. What you might not have seen is that their months of protesting are still ongoing. The name comes from the yellow hi-vis vests which protestors wear and which must be carried in all French cars by law. After years of not-great living conditions for the poorest people in France, and an increase of 23% in the cost of diesel and 15% in the cost of petrol in the last year, the increase of tax on petrol – progressive on carbon emissions, but raising the already-high cost of living, particularly in rural areas – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The first protests on the 17th of November brought out nearly 300 000 people, constructing barricades and blocking roads. This caused chaos, two deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The Interior Ministry allowed a gathering on the 24th of November at the Champ de Mars, the site of some of the best-remembered festivals of the French Revolution. This devolved into even more violence – fires, destroying signs and ripping up cobblestones - with 8 000 people causing an estimated €1.5 million damage. On December 1st, hundreds of cars were set on fire and a further €2-3 million damage was done, including graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe. These have been estimated to be the most violent protests since 1968. By this point, Macron had abolished the original petrol tax, and was now promising bonuses for those on minimum wage or struggling.
On the 2nd of December, the gilets jaunes published a call for a Financial “Etats Generaux” to be opened, for France to have more frequent referendums and more proportional voting in elections. There are 45 other demands, including a better tax system, especially for small business, a higher minimum wage, pension and homeless, unemployment, disability and child support, better job security to protect the jobs of French workers and keep business in France, re-nationalisation of gas and electricity, and a tax on air and maritime fuel instead of petrol.
On the whole, the gilets jaunes are the ‘little’ people; unemployed youth, retired people on low pensions and people who earn just enough to not be on government support but are still counting their euros down to the end of the month. However, they have also been hi-jacked by extremists from the far-right and far-left. These people are feeling suffocated, possibly justifiably, by big-business and the big-picture world view of Macron, which emphasises international business and the importance of Europe as a collective, rather than France and its own economy. Many of the gilets jaunes even voted for Macron back in 2017, saying that his youth inspired confidence in them.
“The Gilets Jaunes will triumph”
Outcomes of the Movement
The main outcome of the gilets jaunes so far has been the calling of a ‘Grand Débat National’, which was a series of local meetings to discuss four main topics: the transition towards more ecological industry, tax and public expenses, democracy and citizenship, and the organisation of the state and public services. This is an exercise in more direct democracy, where the citizens can put forward their complaints and opinions on how the country should be run and, if the government keeps its promises, it will listen and act according to the will of the people.
However, this debate is not enough. True change will only happen at the elections. European ones are being held in May but with presidential elections not reoccurring until 2022, the gilets jaunes have a while to wait. Perhaps because of this, some gilets jaunes have already expressed that they are not interested in participating in elections. Even in the debates so far, it appears that most of the turn-out is older, middle-class people, who are not a true representation of France and certainly not of the gilets jaunes. So, the results of this period remain to be seen.
However, the gilets jaunes are too large of a movement to have only one list of demands. Because Macron is so centrist, both the far-left and far-right are involved in the protests against him. So, no matter the outcome of the debates not everyone’s complaints can be addressed as some of them will no doubt contradict each other. However, in modern France I believe the republic is too well established to be destroyed by the gilets jaunes, and furthermore their ideas are not unified enough to produce a new, working state.
The view of Paris from Montmartre.
Viva la Revolution
The main legacies of the French Revolution are the overall protest culture of France, equality and human rights (with constraints, obviously) which underpin the whole Constitution of France. French people feel complete right to a ‘good life’, based on these ideas. This is the cause of things like the gilets jaunes. Where before the Revolution, France was a feudal system and poor people did not know that they could ever be something other than poor, nowadays everyone believes they have a right to participate in the middle-class culture. This culture includes the clichés of France; bon-vivant or good-living – good food, good wine, long summer holidays to Spain, etcetera.
So, the true outcome of the gilets jaunes still remains to be seen. But the revolution of the 1790s remains at the fore of French attitudes to politics and international views towards France. One article I found even said that the French revolution “gave the modern world its most influential tradition of universalist democracy”. But today’s protests may have the power to send France in any political direction, and if the extremists win it may in fact become completely un-democratic.
The Eiffel Tower from a ferry on the Seine.