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Eye on France: How bad is the yellow vest crisis?

Yellow vest protesters on a roadside in Alsace, France, 17 November, 2018.
Yellow vest protesters on a roadside in Alsace, France, 17 November, 2018. Guillaume Krempp/Rue89 Strasbourg

The weekend saw a continuation of protests all over France by the so-called "yellow vest" demonstrators. The movement was particularly violent here in Paris, as various other disgruntled elements and common criminals used the confusion to vandalise property, burn cars and fight running battles with the police.There have been calls from both the far right and the hard left for the government to be dissolved.


A short while ago, the headlines of the nine most-read articles in centrist daily Le Monde all contained the words “gilets jaunes,” perhaps the one French expression which no longer needs to be translated for an international audience. Just in case, “gilets jaunes” are the yellow-clad protestors who have been dominating the French political landscape for the past two weeks.

National emergency

Le Monde’s main story is critical of President Emmanuel Macron for his refusal to take the lead in the fight against the violence which, for the third consecutive weekend, saw cars, homes, and businesses burned in Paris, police headquarters destroyed in central France. Just back from the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Macron has visited the sites of some of the worst violence in the capital but has left the responsibility of meeting the political opposition and representatives of the demonstrators to his prime minister, Edouard Philippe.

Le Monde also notes the demands from both the far right and hard left extremes of the political spectrum for the immediate dissolution of the French National Assembly. The centrist paper says the executive appears to be stunned by the scale and nature of public anger.

The predominantly yellow front page of left-leaning Libération offers a glimpse of President Emmanuel Macron, and the suggestion that the executive is “submerged” by the violence of the citizen’s movement which began as a protest against proposed fuel price hikes just two weeks ago.

The editorial in right wing Le Figaro says the situation is now a national emergency.

Business daily Les Echos gives priority to the economic impact of the on-going protest movement, with the economy minister Bruno Le Maire saying the big supermarket chains have seen their turnover reduced by as much as 25 percent over the past two weeks, with restaurants and hotels losing 20 percent of their customers.

Les Echos warns that some businesses will have to have to start letting workers go if the situation is not resolved soon.

Communist daily L’Humanité says the protestors started by demanding more social justice, but suggests that many of them would now settle for a sense that the government is taking their concerns seriously.

Long list of complaints

Exactly what those concerns are is a huge part of the problem. What began as a movement of protest against a proposed hike in the price of petrol and diesel seems to have attracted every disgruntled citizen, so that the movement now includes those who fear for their diminishing spending power, retirees struggling to make ends meet, secondary school students worried about their future, unhappy farmers, the rural poor, the under-employed, the over-taxed, all those who feel that they have been failed, in one way or another, by the Macron administration and the president’s promise of a different sort of politics.

Efforts by the administration to negotiate with the protestors have run into the same problem. Who can be said to represent such an informal, multi-faceted movement? Can a driver in Normandy speak in the interests of a pensioner in Paris, or a single mother in Nice?

Part of the force of this movement has been its informal nature, with protests and blockades being organized using social media. But that leaves the problem of representation. The government can’t listen to every grievance. But who decides the priorities? And who speaks for the voiceless?

Le Figaro suggests that the first move has to be a step backwards on the original question of fuel price increases. Either President Macron has the courage to suspend, differ or abandon the original tax measures which started this row, says the conservative paper, or he risks mistaking obstination for determination.

L’Humanité is scathing of the ruling Republic on the Move party which, according to the communist daily, retreated to a chic suburb on Saturday to elect a new party leader while yellow vests, the unemployed, trade unionists and the French working class took to the streets to express their anger and disappointment.

The overseas image of France is taking a hammering

Our British colleagues are running endless reports of fire and fury in Paris, illustrated by the Arc de Triomphe virtually hidden in a cloud of tear gas. The BBC says France could soon see itself under a state of emergency; the Daily Mail says the army is on standby should the situation get any further out of hand.

International TV channel Al-Jazeera was careful to make the distinction between the ordinary, generally non-violent protestors and those criminal and extremist elements who are using the popular movement for their own ends.

Time magazine is talking of “an atmosphere of civil war,” and making knowing references to France’s revolutionary past. Time says many protestors see President Macron as “a rich know-all who is always right”.

The New York Times has no doubt that this is the most serious crisis the president has had to face, going on to describe the central Paris Champs Elysées shopping street as “a war zone”.

The Washington Post sent a reporter to the eastern city of Besançon, with a view to showing that Paris is not the only place where people are unhappy. The Post’s reporter met the director of a local taxi and bus company who says “we live on the side of a mountain. There’s no public transport to take us anywhere.” And the man from the Post also spoke to a local pensioner who said he was protesting because “he is fed up with the way Macron rules like a king, with his contempt for the poor and the worker.”


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