Where do the Yellow Vests stand?

Where do the Yellow Vests stand?

More violence has broken out in France over President Macron’s proposed reforms. Will the Yellow Vests movement fade or is the unrest set to continue? Much depends on Macron’s image and the movement he is able to put together.

May has begun with yet more scenes of violence in the streets of Paris as the Yellow Vests protesters continue to battle French President Macron’s reform package. After a nationwide ‘grand debate’ listening tour and a pledge to close the elite ENA school which has educated many business leaders and presidents, Macron has taken some steps to ensure a more just and fair France. For many, however, Macron is still seen as a man of the elite. Public opinion considers him out of touch, aloof and even arrogant to the needs of the working class. Already, the militant trade union Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and regular protesters are doubting that his reforms will make any difference.

The Yellow Vests in context

The Yellow Vests protests initially started following a government plan to raise the gas tax. Allegedly, this would have disproportionally affected France’s rural population who rely heavily on cars. From there, strong grassroots advocacy led to road blockades and other direct actions, mainly through the use of social media. The term ‘gilets jaunes’ or Yellow Vests refers to the yellow safety vests that French motorists have in their cars, which the protesters started wearing during the demonstrations.

Initial demands from the Yellow Vests included raising the minimum wage, increasing pensions and restoring the wealth tax. However, the group has since turned into a broader anti-government movement that has occasionally been hijacked by anarchists and other rogue elements who are bent on destruction. Unfortunately, violent images tend to dominate the airwaves and public discourse. This has the consequence of diluting some of the legitimate concerns of nonviolent protesters.

Macron’s Support

President Emmanuel Macron has lacked a solid base of support since his election. This is mainly due to the rise of the Front National in the second round and the splintering of the mainstream parties. While a centrist who was able to form his own political party, Macron has been unable at times to shake his connection to former President Hollande, whom he served under as Economy Minister. While the two leaders are not close and the Socialist Party disintegrated owing to Hollande’s poor performance, Macron is still viewed as an establishment, elite figure. This has led to him being called the candidate and now President of the rich, owing to his background in banking and other elite French institutions.

After a recent address to the nation where he promised five billion euros in income tax cuts, a poll by Le Figaro, a newspaper, found that 63% of those surveyed found Macron to be unconvincing, with 80% believing that the Yellow Vest protests will continue. France’s more militant trade unions have vowed to turn Paris into “the capital of rioting”, and more violent scenes are likely to occur. While industrial action and social unrest is more common in France, it is now occurring under a more fragmented political landscape that has affected the historic relationship between the unions and mainstream political parties.

The way forward

The Yellow Vests movement has exposed geographer Christophe Guilluy’s concept of a ‘peripheral France’, with an urban core of highly educated, mobile individuals and a periphery of lower and working class rural citizens who are further apart from their leaders and institutions. Macron is now leading a France, that according to Guilluy, is no longer defined by the left-right political spectrum, but rather the winners and losers of the global economy. In this sense, France may not appear to be that different from other industrialized nations facing similar debates such as in the UK and the US. The divide between the periphery and the core, oftentimes in the same geographic area such as Paris and the deprived suburbs or banlieues, is both a risk and an opportunity for Macron to deliver upon his promise for a fairer economy.

Macron is unlikely to be the messenger capable of bringing the Yellow Vest protesters off the streets. However, as previous analysis noted, Macron is a very skilled politician who knows how to speak to the right audiences at the right time. He is unlikely to back away from this challenge especially if the risks are further support for the far-left and far-right in the next general elections. If anything, Macron is a politician who holds his image and legacy in high regard, sometimes to his detriment but perhaps to his benefit in this instance. He will likely do all he can to ensure that a viable centrist alternative is possible in France, and that rural working-class voters from the periphery and progressive urban voters from the core can form a grand and sustainable coalition.

Furthermore, the upcoming European elections pose a significant challenge for Macron if he were to finish second to Marine Le Pen. Macron is hoping to lead a revival of progressive pro-Europe liberals in order to counter the national populist threat in France. Le Pen thus far has been able to attract a greater degree of support from the periphery where most of the Yellow Vests protesters come from. Should she gain more seats in the European Parliament, Macron would likely have to bring her into negotiations with the Yellow Vests leaders. That would likely lower the temperature a bit in the streets, but as long as Macron is the occupant of the Elysee, the protesters will remain a viable threat.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Alexander Brotman

Alexander Brotman received an MSc in International Relations from The University of Edinburgh. He previously was a researcher with the Center for a New American Security in Washington and has been published with PassBlue, a digital publication covering the UN, as well as Cable, an online global affairs magazine published by the Scottish Global Forum. His research interests include European politics, NATO and Russian foreign and security policy.