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France’s ‘yellow vests’ only have one common message: anger at government

Why We Wrote This

France’s “yellow vest” protesters have been highly visible, but their motives have been cryptic, thanks in large part to their lack of leaders and structure. We wanted to find out what's driving them.

Dominique Soguel
French politician Raphaël Schellenberger listens to the demands of ‘yellow vest’ demonstrators on Dec. 6. The protesters have been gathering daily at a traffic circle in Mulhouse, France, since mid-November.

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For a movement that has thrown France into crisis, the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters have voiced a dizzying variety of demands. And since they have no leadership and are difficult to hold talks with, those demands can and do contradict each other. But what the protesters do share is anger that their needs and opinions have been ignored. They are not unlike US voters who support President Trump or British citizens who voted for Brexit, suggests Christophe Guilluy, a social geographer who has tracked the sentiment for the past 20 years. They come mainly from the middle and lower classes of society and live in the countryside or smaller towns where jobs are scarce, far from economically dynamic cities. They are “members of a weakened middle class who no longer find their place, either economically or culturally, in society,” says Mr. Guilluy. Because they live far from the cities and are often seen as losers in the process of globalization, “they are off the radar for the media and the political elite,” he adds. “They are no longer the reference point for politicians that they used to be.”

For Rosa Larocca, a middle-aged headmistress who can switch from a warm smile to a stern look in seconds, it’s all about politics. “The people want a different type of republic and they want [French President Emmanuel] Macron to go,” she says. “What we want are referendums.”

For Shanoon Redovanc, a bespectacled retiree sporting a black woolen hat, it’s about living standards. “This is not just about Macron,” he insists. “I’ve spent two winters without heating because I am scared of the bill. What we all have in common is the search for a life with dignity.”

And for Karl, an unemployed musician with a bushy ginger beard, it’s about social justice. “Poor children ... end up poor. Rich children ... end up rich. The inequality is there,” he points out. “How can this stand when the national motto is ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’?”

Camped around small fires in the middle of a traffic circle in eastern France one damp afternoon last week, the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protesters who have thrown the country into crisis voiced a dizzying variety of demands. Without leaders and difficult to engage in talks, the yellow vests nationwide are united by little more than anger that their needs and opinions have been ignored.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
Protesters wearing yellow vests watch French President Emmanuel Macron on a TV screen in Bouguenais, France, on Dec. 10.

But that anger runs deep – fueled by the same sort of socioeconomic malaise that has driven social upheaval in the US and Britain. “It comes from a long way back,” says Christophe Guilluy, a social geographer who has tracked the sentiment for the past 20 years. “Macron is paying the price for 30 years of government inaction.”

The president sought on Monday evening to pacify rebellious spirits. In a televised address to the nation he announced an increase in the minimum wage and different forms of tax relief, and urged employers to pay a tax-free Christmas bonus. He also pledged “an unprecedented debate” on ways to improve French democracy and make government more responsive to public opinion.

It was not immediately clear what effect that would have on the protest movement. But the president acted on a broad front, in acknowledgement of the fact that the demonstrations that began as protests against a fuel tax hike have spread to challenge the very nature of French society.

‘The truth is that we are broken’

The protesters, who have occupied traffic circles across France and staged occasionally violent demonstrations for the past month, are not unlike US voters who support President Trump, or British citizens who voted for Brexit, suggests Mr. Guilluy, author of “Twilight of the Elites.”

They come mainly from the middle and lower classes of society and live in the countryside or smaller towns where jobs are scarce, far from economically dynamic cities. They are “members of a weakened middle class who no longer find their place, either economically or culturally, in society,” says Guilluy. “They are peripheral France.”

Because they live far from the cities, and are often seen as losers in the process of globalization, “they are off the radar for the media and the political elite,” he adds. “They are no longer the reference point for politicians that they used to be.”

Karen Norris/Staff

On the traffic circle in Kingersheim, a suburb in the industrial town of Mulhouse, Ms. Larocca knows what he means. “The French people are revolting because they don’t feel heard, considered, or respected,” she explains.

Segher Hamitouche, a tall, skinny man who has been out of work for the past five months, living on his wife’s disability benefit, shares that view. “The press makes us out to be the ones who break things,” he says. “The truth is that we are broken.”

It is no accident that the movement has adopted the yellow vests, the hi-visibility fluorescent yellow vests that all drivers must keep in their cars in case of accident. “The message is clear,” says Guilluy. “We are visible again. We exist.”

Elsewhere in the world, that cry has made itself heard at the ballot box. But in France it spilled over onto the streets because the normal democratic channels are not working, says Guy Groux, an expert on social movements at the research center of the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Paris.

“It is very worrying for democracy,” he says. “France is suffering a crisis of representation because the French do not trust the people who are meant to be representing them.”

Calls for radical change

France’s political parties are the least trusted organizations in the country, enjoying the confidence of only 9 percent of the population, according to the latest annual survey by the IEP research center. The media and trade unions are also at the bottom of the list, at 24 percent and 27 percent respectively.

In contrast, 72 percent of the French public supports the yellow vests according to a poll conducted last week for the BFM TV channel.

Only 16 percent of the French think that political leaders take their opinions into account, the IEP survey found. In contrast, 83 percent believe politicians ignore them – a figure that has remained essentially unchanged since the first such poll was conducted in 2008.

That translates into some radical proposals from some of those occupying the Kingersheim traffic circle. “We need to look at everything again from zero, starting with the constitution,” argues Huguette Specht, a waitress and mother of four. “We want a political program that puts the people first, where their point of view counts.”

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
A protester waves a French flag during clashes with police at a demonstration by the France’s ‘yellow vests’ only have one common message: anger at government movement in Paris on Dec. 8.

Rebuilding trust would likely take years. The government is hoping that more immediately achievable measures on the economic front will assuage the yellow vests’ anger.

Many of the protesters in Kingersheim focus their discontent on their purchasing power, eroded over a decade of stagnant wages for unskilled and semi-skilled workers.

Bérangère Gabriel is one of them. A 34-year-old mother, she has cycled through a series of temporary “McJobs” as a cleaning lady, a cashier, a babysitter, a waitress, and a landscaper. At the moment she is unemployed, raising a child on state benefits totaling 700 euros ($800) a month.

“I am skipping lunch so that my son can eat,” she says. “That is not normal.”

Karl, the musician, says he is 2,000 euros ($2,280) in debt, more than he can manage on his social security income of 800 euros ($912) a month. “My generation started from behind,” he says. “Our parents left us nothing; we came into nothing and fell straight into debt. Every month we are juggling our bills, deciding which to pay, which not to pay.”

In a country where the globalized capitalist system has made cities and most of their residents wealthier, the Kingersheim protesters represent the citizens who feel left out and ignored.

“In one sense, they have already won,” says Guilluy. “Nobody can say anymore that they are not there.”

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