The yellow vest movement is borne out of anger. It's also a movement that no political party controls yet.
The demonstrations on Saturday, December 8 had been predicted, and with great trepidation.
During the week leading up to it, alarmist speeches by journalists, politicians, intellectuals and activists preceded this Act IV (the fourth week of mobilisation), sometimes going as far as citing the risk of death.
Act III, which took place on December 1, was particularly violent. The protests throughout France, the road blockades, the extensive damage and the confrontation between demonstrators and the forces of law and order have caused a real crisis in the government, with events overrunning the Interior Minister and tensions between Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and President Emmanuel Macron.
Following the drama of Act III, the fourth instalment seemed more controlled by law enforcement agencies, and it was almost possible to believe the movement was running out of steam. The government was much more aggressive in its management of the demonstrations.
An exceptional number of police were deployed, with approximately 89,000 police officers mobilised and armoured vehicles on the streets. In a further sign of the quashing of the movement, police arrested more than 2,000 people in just one day, with 1,700 people held in police custody. Despite this, the number of protesters remained high, at least 136,000, and the damage they caused was just as severe, if not worse, than last week, especially in Paris.
It would, therefore, be wrong to say that the movement is drawing to an end. There is still anger and the government reaction and images of police violence circulating on social networks are only feeding it.
Act V is already planned. Although the government is trying to give the impression of control, especially after the fiasco of December 1, it is still weak. The popular support enjoyed by the ‘gilets jaunes’ or yellow vests is 77 percent of people say they are justified to continue the movement - puts the executive in even greater difficulty.
After speaking in Argentina at the G20 summit on December 1, Macron has since been mute. He only expresses himself through ministers, first through Philippe and then through statements to the media.
His speech is eagerly awaited because up until now the few attempts to respond to the protests have failed. For example, after announcing a six-month moratorium on the increase in fuel prices, which raised many criticisms, Philippe then announced the outright cancellation of the increase in fuel taxes for 2019. But the Elysee Palace is a month late if fuel prices were the trigger for this movement, it hasn’t been the main reason for anger since the first Saturday of protests on November 17.
Indeed, what characterises this movement, and makes it a new and thus elusive to control, is its multifaceted and inconsistent demands. In its early stages, the emergence of the yellow vest movement on social networks was criticised by a large part of the left for the speech used, for its more right-wing, even extreme-right ideas. Its main initiators, who had proven links with extreme right-wing groups, combined anti-tax proposals with a chauvinistic and sometimes even anti-migrant speech. But since the first day of demonstrations on November 17, things have changed dramatically.
Suspicious of the presence of the far-right, left-wing organisations have revised their tactics and decided to invest in this movement to try to give a much more progressive tone to the demands made by some of the yellow vest protesters.
Demonstrations have themselves become a challenge for the various political organisations, it is a question of bringing the anger over to their side. That is why we see opposing political figures, such as the leader of the left-wing party La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing party National Front, lending their support to the demonstrators.
The yellow vests are not yet a determined movement, the borders remain unclear, their claims are uncertain. Its social composition is equally important, it is difficult to describe its characteristics, the profile of demonstrators is heterogeneous. However, one can surmise that the movement is mainly composed of the popular and middle classes, mainly white, in social difficulty, aged between 30 and 40 years old and politicised.
Like the sociological profiles of demonstrators, there are many reasons for their mobilisation. They are calling for the abolition of taxes, increase in the minimum wage, Frexit (the desire to leave the EU), measures for the homeless, a ban on plastic, restrictions on the reception of migrants and so on.
All of these claims are in an allegedly official list on social networks. It seems that the yellow vest movement has given an opportunity for many citizens to express their anger at the Macron government. The sources of this anger are diverse and sometimes contradictory. The issue of migrants has become one symbol, some criticise Macron for doing too little, while others find his policies incongruent with human rights. However, there is a central point where anger from both sides comes together and is directed at government policy.
Macron's popularity has fallen steadily for months. Currently, just 18 percent of French people have a favourable view of their president, and this unpopularity is even greater among the popular and middle classes. This seems to be the price of his policies since the beginning of his mandate, particularly the austerity measures aimed at the most disadvantaged social groups, by reducing social assistance while multiplying gestures towards the wealthiest populations. For France, Macron has thus become the president of the rich, and the abolition of the wealth tax is a symbol of that.
Macron's intervention in the protest movement is expected, but there doesn’t seem to be an easy exit from the crisis and it is likely the challenges will continue. How events will progress and the political orientation of the yellow vest movement in the coming weeks, are both difficult to predict.
There is anger, but it still lacks an organisational and ideological framework to give it precise direction and demands.
As Felix Boggio Ewanjé pointed out, the yellow vest movement is a floating (or empty) meaning, which does not refer to ideology or political philosophy. Everyone can, therefore, wear one and give it whatever meaning they wish. But a protest does not remain empty of meaning for long, it is now a question of knowing which political camp is able to grasp this anger and give a progressive or conservative direction to the yellow vest movement. That is what is fuelling the current struggle.
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