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Eye on France: The Yellow Vests may be gone, but they won't be forgotten

Coletes amerelos durante protestos nas ruas de Paris. 15/12/18
Coletes amerelos durante protestos nas ruas de Paris. 15/12/18 REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Gone but not forgotten would be one way of summing up France’s yellow vest protest movement as seen by the Paris newspapers.

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The interior ministry counted a total of 66,000 protestors all over France on Saturday, that’s about half the number who turned out a week earlier, and is a dramatic decline from the estimated 300,000 who demonstrated on the first Saturday of the movement, back on November 17.

Le Monde points to the virtual invisibility of protestors in Paris, where no more than 3,000 people turned up for Saturday’s fifth show of force. The police had to arrest only 179 suspected troublemakers, compared to 1,082 the week before.

The centrist daily says it’s one of the paradoxical aspects of this movement that, despite the broadly rural origins of most protestors, the turn-out in Paris has been absolutely crucial. First of all, because the capital is the seat of central government and official home of President Emmanuel Macron.

Secondly, because the yellow vest organisers knew that their media impact would remain slight if they did no more than slow down traffic at roundabouts on secondary roads.

The slowdown in participation can be explained in several ways.

Le Monde says some people feel that presidential promises to abandon proposed fuel taxes, increase the minimum wage and otherwise boost spending power mean that the movement has achieved what it set out to do.

Then there was the fear of violence, most of the city-centre protests having degenerated into pitched battles with security forces.

The Strasbourg murders would also have played a part in keeping people away.

And then there’s the simple fact of fatigue - five weeks is a long time at the barricades, especially with Christmas just around the corner.

The end of an era

The editorial in conservative paper Le Figaro is headlined “The divided Republic”.

The right-wing daily is delighted to announce the end of a phenomenon which rocked political institutions, media, trade unions and the economy.

The protestors exposed the unfair nature of the taxation system, the stupidity of some official norms; they drew attention to social and geographical rivalries, to questions of identity, of class, of security. They revealed a deep anger against a vague but powerful élite.

The danger, as imagined by Le Figaro, is to suppose that France can now continue as if the past six weeks had never happened. The nation is divided, republican political institutions are under pressure.

The conservative paper warns that the preparations for next year’s European elections will be the next crucial test. If the debate in the lead-up to those polls is not conducted at the level of the ordinary citizen, says Le Figaro, then popular anger will flare up again.

Meanwhile, on the the left...

Left-leaning Libération thinks the deadline may be even closer than next summer’s European polls. Next month see the launch of the direct collection of income tax; 2019 is the year in which unemployment insurance, pensions and the French civil service have to be reformed. None of that is going to be easy, especially in the heated wake of the broad national debate which President Macron has promised to convene.

The details of the presidential deal

Speaking of promises, business daily Les Echos has the French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, explaining the details of government reaction to the protestor’s demands.

The administration is still committed to reform, claiming that only fundamental change will address the sources of social anger.

The trajectory promised by the president is not abandoned; it’s just going to be differently applied.

And it’s not going to be cheap, with the minimum estimate of the cost of presidential promises running to 10 billion euros in 2019 alone. That will put France above the public spending limit accepted by Brussels, unless a lot of additional savings can be made.

Internet hysteria and the historian

The French historian Sylvain Boulouque has been telling the weekly magazine L’Obs about his misfortunes on the internet.

Boulouque was invited to comment on pictures from the second weekend of demonstrations on the French 24-hour news channel BFMTV.

In the course of identifying participant groups, Boulouque made a mistake: he saw what he called a “monarchist” flag when, in reality, he was looking at the old, pre-Revolutionary flag of the north-west French region of Picardy, frequently brandished by supporters of far-right leader Marine Le Pen. In other words, he saw right-wing extremists where there were probably just Picards. He admits he was wrong.

Dangerously, however, that error has been used by what the French call the right-wing “fachosphere” to drown out Boulouque’s efforts to detail the implication in yellow vest violence of elements of the extreme right and left-wing ultras, of some “ordinary” protestors, and the common criminals and opportunists known as “casseurs” who profit from occasions of public disorder to break windows and steal things.

Because he made one, insignificant mistake, he says he has become the victim of a torrent of abuse on social media. Abuse which surges in volume and intensity each time Sylvain Boulouque makes a TV appearance. He has, incidentally, been dropped as a contributing expert by BFMTV.

His case is a warning against what he calls the “totalitarian intimidation” used to great effect by some who refuse to accept Boulouque’s analysis of the hidden political attachments of many supposedly “ordinary” gilets jaunes. And who are happy to use social media as a weapon in that intimidation.

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