Today, 17 November, marks the one-year anniversary of the French Yellow Vests movement. To celebrate the occasion, another weekend of protests dubbed ‘Act 53’ has commenced with media reporting that the Place d’Italie, a public square in Paris, has been transformed into a skirmish ground. Elsewhere in Paris, protestors defied police as they travelled around the metropolis causing trouble. Additionally, although the movement has been reported on less over time, the AFP news agency noted that smaller protest demonstrations were held in other parts of France too.
Two factors are cited for what has sparked one of the more semi-continuous and often violent protests in recent history. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is public discontent with how President Macron’s government is planning to tackle economic reforms. Increased fuel taxes were a large grievance and something that Macron backed down from thanks to the early Yellow Vest protests. Other matters like wage reform and ending austerity measures continue to be motivators for protesting as concessions on these other economic issues remain absent. The second factor is a desire for new political reforms that would give the citizenry more power to influence the government and hold it more accountable. According to past reporting, this is agreed upon by many political viewpoints within the protest movement. This demand, if accepted by the government, would allow reforms such as the Citizens’ Initiative Referendum to become enshrined in law. Given that protestors are already upset with aspects of French living conditions, this would ensure that there is some sensible solution present to mediate grievances without resorting to the long and brutal protests which are now reported on a weekly basis.
So, while over time the movement’s continuation has lacked the great number of protestors from its beginning, the longevity of the Yellow Vest movement is undoubtedly symptomatic of deeper issues within France. The events of ‘Act 53’ can be understood in the same populist ‘rebellion’ movement that existed in the first few protests, albeit now there is less acceptance within media reporting on it. Perhaps they are more interested in the new Arab Springs and South American protests, but the regular use of violence in drawing attention to France’s problems has likely not won many people over. Part of this issue was present in disagreements within the movement early on, naturally over how demands should be met and solutions implemented. Ironically however, the lack of uniformity, despite consensus on what needs to change, has meant protests have continued while their methods have failed to effect systemic and positive change.
This does not mean the Yellow Vest movement should retire, on account of achieving little of their goals, but rather it should clarify within itself on what exactly it wants the government to do. One year of battling the authorities (who themselves are being squeezed through France’s economic issues) unfortunately does not sell well when negotiations and victory cannot be agreed upon. So, as in the original motivation for protesting, the movement should again define and recognize why they are doing their protests. And, once that is done, commit to appropriate actions, like reaching out to those in power and convincing people, in order to address the problems which are negatively impacting France. As much as looting and goading the authorities can send a message that something has got to give, the ‘might is right’ philosophy is not a method that will end well. After all, it is not often protests turn one year old if they are effective.