“Yellow Vest” activists have vowed to bring the French capital Paris to a standstill next weekend, prolonging their campaign of disruption to force President Emmanuel Macron to ease fuel taxes. Government officials fear the flash demonstrations, which are morphing into a more broad-based grassroots protest against the French leader’s economic policies in general, are hardening into a long-term challenge to the state, which they are scrambling to contain.
On Monday — the third day of protests — the Yellow Vests (gilets jaunes), who are named after the high-visibility jackets all motorists are legally obliged to carry in their vehicles and are drawn mainly from low-income earners in small-town and rural France, blocked roads around nearly half a dozen refineries and fuel depots as well as gridlocking traffic in several major cities across France, including Toulouse, Marseilles, Strasbourg and Lille.
New movement gets serious
The agitation was originally intended as a one-day event when the campaigners, who have been organizing via Facebook and other social media platforms, mounted a mass blockade last Saturday to protest price hikes of so-called “eco taxes,” levies on fuel meant to dissuade the French from using cars. More than 280,000 protesters turned out to paralyze French highways and disrupt Paris. But the protest has snowballed into a revolt of rage against Macron, who is mocked by the Yellow Vests as the “president of the rich” and whose lofty pro-European Union vision infuriates them.
More than 400 people have so far been injured in the flash blockades. One woman was killed when a panicked driver hit a roadblock. More than 300 have been arrested, although some police unions have expressed sympathy with the Yellow Vests and promised officers would police the blockades gently and not make arrests for petty offenses.
A new breed of activists
The protest has not followed France’s normal routine for street agitation. Generally, demonstrations and strikes are organized by labor or party leaders, who can engage with the government as demonstrations unfold and leverage the leadership into a deal.
But the Yellow Vest movement is as sprawling and amorphous and non-hierarchical in organization as the Occupy movements in the United States. While the Occupy activists were progressive and left-wing in ideology, the Yellow Vests are more right-wing based and they echo the populism of French politician Pierre Poujade, who in 1954 founded a right-wing movement for exasperated artisans and small shopkeepers angry with high taxes.
There have been reports, too, of Yellow Vests shouting racist and homophobic slurs, and in a village near Lyons, a gay councilor and his partner were attacked. Officials of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National and Nicolas Dupont’s Aignan’s movement have sought to get involved, helping to mobilize supporters for last Saturday’s protest.
An unlikely leader
The Yellow Vests’ figurehead is Jacline Mouraud, who at first glance is an unlikely symbol of revolt. The 51-year-old is an accordion player, hypnotist and spiritual medium from Brittany, but she shot to prominence when on October 18 she posted a video message denouncing Macron for “persecuting drivers.”
In her video, which went viral, she ridiculed the French leader and listed a series of grievances including high fuel taxes, which have been hiked as part of Macron’s proposed “green revolution,” the targeting of diesel vehicles, the use of speed radars, traffic tickets and plans to expand road tolls. “What are you doing with the dough, apart from changing the china at the Élysée and building a swimming pool?” Mouraud mocked Macron in the video.
She was referring to published reports this year of a palace order for a new set of plates costing taxpayers more than half a million dollars and plans to build a new – but inexpensive – presidential swimming pool.
Macron’s aides have struggled to balance their contempt for the movement - one ridiculed Mouraud as a soothsayer “who generates spirits from under her fingernails” — with their need to somehow defuse it. The eclectic nature of the movement with the grievances protesters are expressing - and their disdain for Macron in particular - makes it even harder for government officials to comprehend it, let alone develop ways to disarm it. Some officials hope that the amorphousness of the movement will end up being its downfall and that it will peter out much as the Occupy movements did.
Honeymoon ends, storm begins
In a bid to deflate support for the Yellow Vests, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has announced plans to spend 500 million euros in compensatory measures, including a tax credit for those on low incomes to trade in high-polluting cars for hybrids. But Philippe warned that the green taxes would continue. “A government that would change direction all the time, that would zigzag around the difficulties, would not take France where it must be taken,” he said Sunday.
The Yellow Vest agitation has coincided with Macron’s sharp drop in popularity. His approval ratings have fallen to 25 percent — not quite hitting the depths of his predecessor, Francois Hollande, but perilously low for a relatively fresh president, say analysts.
Le Pen, who lost to Macron in last year’s presidential contest, clearly hopes to benefit from Yellow Vest agitation. A recent poll showed that her party leads voting intentions for the European parliamentary election next May, at 21 percent to 19 percent for Macron’s La République en Marche.