The Speaker
Sunday, 21 July 2024 – 08:17

The Grip of the Gilets Jaunes: One Year On

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Politics will always be a central part of French culture. From the first and second revolution to the protests of May 1968 to the general strikes of today, the word protest and to be French seems synonymous.

One year on and the anger of the Gilets Jaunes still haunts France, with many of its biggest cities bearing the brunt of such large-scale protests. Over the weekend, thousands took to the streets of Paris to demonstrate, marking the first anniversary of the movement.

From the beginning, death to taxes

What started as a protest over fuel tax, soon grew to be much more. In October of last year, thousands of protesters took to the streets, even in the smallest towns, to protest Macron’s proposals for a fuel tax. Protesters blocked the streets with their cars and claimed roundabouts as their fortresses. It would seem bizarre to an outsider, especially as the fuel tax was a response to mounting pressures to reduce emissions and protect the environment.

However, it runs far deeper than environmental welfare. Upon taking office Macron promised to lower taxes for everyday French people, especially after enormous tax hikes introduced by his predecessor, Francois Hollande. Fast forward a year and a half later after the election and the idea of a tax on fuel ignited anger deep in the hearts of the normal working population. It would affect the poorest and most rural communities the most, as cars are often the only mode of transport in many parts of rural France.

But the efforts on the Gilets Jaunes paid off. Only weeks later Macron’s government overturned the decision to introduce a fuel tax and announced they would seek more effective and inclusive ways to reduce France’s emissions. However, Macron’s U-turn was merely a sticking plaster over what was to come next.

Paris is burning, but why?

Amongst the violence on the Champs Elysée, the agenda of the Gilets Jaunes is more than about money, it is about power with the fuel tax being the fuse that lit the bonfire.

Many weren’t surprised that the fuel tax caused such uproar as being without a car in France is now seen to be a symbol of great wealth, especially as the majority of people without them now live in central parts of the main cities, with high rent costs and an array of options for public transport. Those with more money have the best deal.

However, the creation of wealth is not spread out, it’s becoming more concentrated, unsurprisingly in the centre of big cities. These areas are also known for being the best places for job creation but with many working-class people in France unable to live in these areas, the average French person is pushed out to the periphery, with the gap between where people live to where they work growing drastically. It is a case of the rich getting richer.

The New Revolution?

Three-quarters of French people polled by Odoxa in October of this year believe that the protests aren’t over. Despite, losing momentum many members of the Gilets Jaunes movement appear keen to continue pushing their anti-establishment message.

On the 5th December, union strikes are set to take place across France, with even many civil servants joining the ranks. Many officials fear that the Gilets Jaunes and Union protestors could join together, creating a resurgence of the mass movement. Some individuals involved in the upcoming 5th December protests have expressed concerns, saying that without joining with the Gilets Jaunes the impact of their movement may do nothing. 

People in France want real change and a move away from the status quo seems to be the only way. President Macron has attempted to create reforms intending to reverse anger and bring peace back to France, including increasing minimum wages, however, thousands can still be bombarding the streets of French cities in dismay; it’s just not enough. 

French people feel they can no longer watch elected officials treat democracy as a game. Upon election, many believed the promises by the President to reduce tax and create better living standards. People have expressed upset for not allowing the people to choose using referenda, being told they may have to work longer to feel the real effects of the job they do. With the addition of unions and the flame of the Gilets Jaunes refusing to blow out, it is clear that protests still have the potential to reignite. 

Could the problem be solved at the next election? 

The Gilets Jaunes movement has often refused to have a leader even with many members in the past attempting to rise to the top. It is therefore unlikely that the Gilets Jaunes themselves can organise themselves in a way to run as a movement at the next election.

In response to the continuing protests, Emmanuel Macron is refusing to back down on his reformist agenda and it is clutching at his final attempts to defy protestors. However, the Gilets Jaunes are becoming the face of working-class France. These were normal people, now often in the spotlight across the globe (not necessarily for always the right reasons). Without an upcoming election to broadcast the solutions of opposition parties and with retrospective failures to please the working classes in France, even from the socialist parties, it is difficult to decipher how parties may respond. But with Macron’s continuing defiance, it could be more than likely that plans are afoot from opposition parties to meet mounting demands.

Further to this, France’s politics is almost set in stone, it is institutionalised. Like what happened at the 2017 Presidential election, rhetoric could be peddled, and promises could be made as Macron did by promising tax cuts, before returning to the status quo not long after. Macron, who originally began En Marche, the new kid on the block in French politics, the fresh face with all the answers, has arguablly failed drastically to deliver. France is stuck in the balance when it comes to what lies ahead but there is certainly potential for a new movement to arise at the next election that could bring water to the fires started by one of France’s most radical movements.


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