Members of yellow vest movement on the streets of France in November 2018. Photo: NightFlightToVenus/Flickr

What is going on in France at the moment?

Tens of thousands of regular people, citizens of the French Republic, are staging a democratic revolt against tax increases. It started with a hairdresser and a truck driver deciding to solicit signatures online. It has grown to encompass all of metropolitan France, and its overseas territories and departments.

What explains the growth of the movement?

It jumpstarted from a clever Facebook page calling on protesters to wear their fluorescent yellow safety vest that by law every French car must carry (so that drivers won’t get hit by a passing vehicle when they make emergency stops by the roadside).

The yellow vests represent a powerful symbol: the forgotten making themselves visible to each other and to the nation.

What form do the protests take?

Yellow vests have set up camps on traffic circles on the outskirts of most French towns and cities. They began by obstructing oil truck traffic to gasoline depots. Supermarket entrances off the roundabouts were blocked. Drivers were flagged down and asked to sign petitions against tax increases. People brought food and drink in support. Meals are served to protesters. Passing cars honk and wave their support. People struggling to make ends meet have found solidarity with others in similar circumstances. Squeezed middle-income people take part in the action.

Why have people decided to join protests?

 France has a history of popular revolts, leading to political change. The Fourth Republic was overthrown in 1958 by a virtual coup d’état. A four-year civil war ensued as the Fifth Republic was born. People talk more about May 1968, where first students and then workers revolted.

It is 2018, and a series of slights, policy mistakes, acts of bad faith, and poor judgement by successive governments have alienated a significant portion of the population. People are willing to demonstrate, sing the national anthem, and march together on Saturdays in Paris.

Why a “democratic” revolt?

Political life in a country with an electoral democracy includes seeking the consent of the governed. Such consent is implied when a government law receives majority votes in an elected assembly. In fact, consent is supposed — not granted by citizens. Lobbies and interest groups intervene, citizens are not consulted directly. Public demonstrations are a way for people to withdraw their democratic consent from government action.

Experienced political figures know they need to stay in touch with popular sentiment so as not to be surprised at election time. The current government is inexperienced. Having misjudged the mood of the country, it is slowly moving towards partially satisfying some demands of the protesters, without notable success in calming the situation.

The protests are angry; why are people so mad?

One of the first acts of French President Macron was to eliminate the tax on financial portfolios. Meanwhile, he began raising charges on local services, reducing grants to municipal governments, and cutting public services. People began to call him the president of the rich, or, as his predecessor François Holland quipped, the president of the very rich. The Macron austerity program provoked citizens to ask: we should pay more so that the wealthy could pay less? No satisfactory answer was available from the government and they lost the confidence of many.

Farmers concerned about commodity prices, and students angry about teacher layoffs and increases in classroom sizes have started their own protest actions.

Major trade unions have declared a day of action in sympathy with the issues raised by the yellow vests.

What is it about French taxes that made so many people mad?

French taxes are the highest in the OECD, as a percentage of GDP. Fully one-half of French state revenue comes from consumption taxes, which are regressive taxes, meaning lower-income people pay more of their income in taxes than people with higher income.

Increasing consumption taxes in order to protect the environment was opposed by Ségolène Royal, environment minister in the previous government, because in order to work the taxes have to hurt families. Royal argued that green policies have to respect social justice, or they will never garner the support to succeed. She is being proven right, of course.

Nonetheless, the French government announced increases in gasoline taxes, and particularly to diesel fuel. Many low-income car buyers were encouraged over the years to buy diesel vehicles as ecologically benign and less expensive to operate. The proposal was to make diesel fuel more expensive than gasoline … and to increase the taxes on gasoline.

Yellow jackets say: make the rich pay for the ecological transition.

The government initially froze the gas and diesel taxes for a year and now has withdrawn the tax increases indefinitely. In the meantime, the protests have spurred new demands — ranging from the resignation of President Macron to improving a range of public services, to making the entire tax system more equitable.

Why do news reports feature violence and rioting in Paris?

The French riot police were called in to keep the lid on things. Instead, presumably under orders, they attacked the peaceful protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and fire hoses. Outside agitators profited from the confusion. Vandalism occurred, and the TV images of broken windows, burning cars, and looting were frightening.

The government may have thought they could scare people off and break up the yellow vest movement. It was a serious misjudgement. France has a tradition of peaceful demonstrations, marches across the city. The police used tactics that lost government support and boosted the yellow vest movement.

Fully 72 per cent of the French population support the protesters. President Macron has 26 per cent approval.

Of course the TV images projected around the world have made people think Paris was burning, and violence widespread, which was wildly inaccurate.

What is at stake for French political parties?

Many of the yellow jackets are non-voters. Some activists from the extreme-right National Front and left-wing France Insoumise have joined the protests, but neither party is about to scoop up support as a result. Both the centre-right Gaullist Republicans and the centre-left Socialists are in disarray at the moment. The current centre-right government can hope that the lack of a viable political alternative will allow them to negotiate their way out of the crisis. Authoritarian figures will try and profit from mounting social stress, but this danger can be easily overstated.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: NightFlightToVenus/Flickr

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Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...