French 'yellow vests' making a comeback

NotreDameYJPARIS - After a quiet summer, the Yellow Vests were hoping for a busy fall. So when Amandine Cantournet saw a call put out in late September urging a “historic” 45th gathering on the Champs-Elysées, she was willing and ready to make the five-hour drive from her home near the Swiss border to Paris.

She arrived upon a scene of confusion.

“I think I saw more security forces on the street than protestors,” said Cantournet, who said the police made it nearly impossible for her and other Yellow Vests to organize effectively.

That Saturday a few weeks ago ended in more than 150 arrests, a disastrous attempt to join forces with a simultaneous youth climate protest and above all, a failure for members of the leaderless movement to organize in one place.

Originally billed as a possible “comeback” for the Yellow Vests, the chaos and disorganization of that Saturday left a number of pundits questioning the movement’s shot at a revival – attendance as well as public support has steeply dropped since the first protests almost a year ago.

Still, some analysts insist the Yellow Vest’s continued presence – no matter how small – is meaningful in itself – and to not bet against them.

“We have a bizarre situation where [the movement] is still there,” said Bruno Cautres, a political science researcher at The Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as Science Po, one of France’s leading political science universities. “Even if you have less people demonstrating...47 Saturdays in a row... we have never seen that before in France.”

Now nearly a year after it the movement first appeared about of nowhere – the Yellow Vest protests began last November in response to a planned fuel tax but quickly grew into a wider anti-establishment movement broadly calling for lower taxes on the poor, higher taxes on the rich and better public services – it's 'leadership' insists that it is heading for success.

“Our anger is stronger than ever before, it’s been accumulating over the last year,” said Francois Boulo, a spokesperson and organizer for the Yellow Vest chapter based in the western French city of Rouen. “We’ve just been waiting for the right moment to express that anger.”

That “moment,” according to Boulo, is likely to come on Nov. 17, when Yellow Vests will officially mark the movement’s one-year anniversary. Boulo said he anticipated turnout to be similar to the height of the movement when it drew more than 280,000 participants across the country.

He says there is a “physical and mental fatigue” resulting in lower participation in recent months.
“We’re tired and afraid of the violence coming from the security forces,” Boulo said. “Six people have lost a hand at these protests. People are afraid, and that’s extremely worrying for us.”

Indeed, violent clashes between demonstrators and police has been a mainstay of the protests. Statistics from the independent French site Mediapart show that at least two-dozen people have lost an eye, 315 have reported head injuries and 5 hands have been severed. Two people have been killed, including an elderly woman who killed by a grenade that flew into her apartment during a protest in Marseille.

Meanwhile, support for the movement among the public has dropped.

According to a recent poll from the behavioral marketing group BVA, support for the Yellow Vest movement currently hovers at around 40 percent, a far cry from the nearly 75 percent approval ratings recorded last November.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s 37 percent approval ratings, on the other hand, are at their highest level in more than a year.

“In a certain way, the [Yellow Vests] were very good for me,” Macron told Time Magazine in late September. “Because it reminded me who I should be.”

In response to the movement, Macron embarked on a months-long “Great National Debate” earlier this year, attending hundreds of local town hall meetings across the country, debating with people as they aired out their grievances to the man so many had billed as an “elitist” and “president of the rich.”

When he unveiled the 2020 budget plans in late September, Macron pledged €9.3 billion in tax cuts to households and another €1 billion in cuts to businesses. This, in addition €5 billion already promised to some 12 million households earlier this year.

The spending has pushed France’s public debt to nearly 100 percent of GDP. To make up for the tax cuts, Macron wants to revamp the state funded pension system that currently takes up 14 percent of public spending. This too, has been met with fierce resistance from unions across the country’s transport and health sectors. More than 40 percent are opposed to the reform.

Those numbers should be considered a warning, says Cautres.

“Macron cannot afford a second crisis...you can only get one crisis in your mandate,” said Cautres referring to the Yellow Vest turbulence of the last year.

Even so, the French unemployment rate currently stands at around 8.5 percent, its lowest rate in over a decade and down from 9.5 percent when Macron took office in May 2017.

Looking ahead, the movement now wants more official civic engagement.

It ran candidates in May's European Parliament elections. And despite winning less than 0.6 percent of the vote in that poll, some Yellow Vests hope to do better in the upcoming municipal elections in March.

Last month, the collective Yellow Vest Citizens presented a list of candidates for the municipal elections in Paris, led by Thierry Paul Valette, one of the movement’s figureheads.

“The movement has always said it needs to be structured to be effective,” said Valette, adding the municipal elections were a chance to achieve that structure.

“We must show the country that we are engaged,” he said. “So many of our grievances come from being shut out of local politics for too long. We need to turn that discourse around. And what better way to do that, then show up on the political stage?"

Photo: April 20, 2019 - Paris, France - A protester holding a sign reading "Millions for Notre Dame de Paris. What about the poor?"
Credit: Jabeen Bhatti/ ARA Network Inc. (04/20/19)

Story/photo published date: 10/14/19

A version of this story was published in the The Washington Times.
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