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Eye on France: What next for the yellow vest movement?

Protesters wearing yellow vests, the symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel prices, occupy a roundabout in Sainte-Eulalie near Bordeaux.
Protesters wearing yellow vests, the symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher diesel fuel prices, occupy a roundabout in Sainte-Eulalie near Bordeaux. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Today’s French newspapers will have made disappointing reading for President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minister Edouard Philippe.


The efforts by the president and prime minister to put out the fires of social anger don’t appear to have had much positive effect.

Many yellow vest protestors say they are going to continue the movement. A number of secondary school students are rallying to the cause, as are some rail workers, some long-distance drivers and a number of farmers.

Even some police and firemen’s unions are calling on their members to support the yellow vests, on the basis that everyone is affected by the social injustices about which the demonstrators have been complaining.

I'm repeating "some" and "many" to cover my ass, since no one at the moment really knows whether the protest movement is running out of steam or is going to plunge to a new low in violent confrontations this weekend. I noticed this morning, for example, that the vast majority of the Paris museums have decided to remain closed on Saturday, and that's hardly a positive sign.

Political feeding frenzy continues

There's not much joy on the political front either for the Macron/Philippe tandem.

Conservative daily Le Figaro reports that the parliamentary left-wing bloc representing the socialists, the hard-left France Unbowed and the communists will, on Monday propose a no confidence motion in the government, to give the opposition an occasion to indicate that there were other ways in which the whole sorry business could have been handled. That's a purely symbolic gesture, given the strength of the ruling majority. But symbols have shown themselves to be centrally important in this conflict.

Of course, by Monday, the French political landscape could have changed dramatically. The police are preparing for “major violence”; the government and some protest groups are pleading for calm.

And so we wait, with everyone forgetting that the two billion euros which the cancelled carbon tax was supposed to add to the French energy transition effort are now gone for good, to say nothing of the damage, police overtime, loss of hotel and tourist revenue which this has cost an economy which was just beginning to get back on its feet.

Variations on the theme of doom and gloom

Among those providing interesting side-lights on the French social unrest are the Catholic archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, who gets a strip torn off him in today’s Libération, and the historian Michel Pastoureau, who reflects on the dubious choice of yellow as the symbol of the movement.

We’ll get his reverence out of the way first.

Libé is not impressed by yesterday’s press release from the archdiocesan office, signed by Aupetit.

The left-leaning daily says the ecclesiastical communiqué is “shocking,” for its lack of political insight as much as for the obsessions which it reveals.

The archbishop kicks off his analysis of recent events by complaining about selfishness and the erosion of the notion of the common good.

He says, and I quote, “demands for liberty and equality are frequently abused by influential groups who call for new rights without any concern for society’s most vulnerable members . . .

“National emergencies,” the archbishop continues, “the big questions facing our country, can not legitimately be annexed by particular social groups or categories.”

As if, says Libé, the right of workers to get to the end of the month without going into the red was not a big question. The paper thinks the archbishop is still worried that unmarried women, who are of course a social group or category, will rush out and become surrogate mothers. Hence the charge of "obsession".

And the left-leaning paper reminds the Catholic boss of Paris that his boss in Rome, Pope Francis, has based his leadership of the church precisely on an effort to listen more carefully to outsiders, the insignificant, the voiceless.

Maybe, Libé suggests, Archbishop Aupetit should swap his fancy chasuble for a simple yellow vest. But that might be asking for a miracle.

Yellow is the colour of treason

Michael Pastoureau is interested in colour, and he reminds us that yellow is the traditional shade of treason, cowardice and betrayal. Throughout history, or at least since people had the leisure for this sort of question, gold has been the only version of yellow worth getting excited about.

Unhappy husbands in the theatre wear yellow. Those who are not brave are similarly daubed, as are strike-breakers, cheats and practically anything on the decline, aging, rotting. “Yellowing” is what happenes to an old book or a very old sandwich, but it’s rarely a term of praise.

Pastoureau suggests that it may all come down to chemistry, since it has been, until quite recently, extremely difficult and expensive to produce a yellow which remains vibrant and luminous.

Political parties have consistently avoided yellow, according to Michel Pastoureau. So we have blue conservatives, red communists, pink socialists, black anarchists and green ecologists.

The only exception is the German liberal group, the Free Democratic Party, who chose yellow. But they really help to prove the rule by frequent shifts of alliance, sometimes supporting the Christian Democratic Union, sometimes the Social Democrats.

But it turns out the yellow vests may not have made such a bad choice after all.

Michel Pastoureau suggests that yellow could be the colour of the future, since it is so little present in our daily lives, give or take recent protests, and is surely due for an upsurge in popularity. It was already associated with high-visibility and safety and is now linked to popular revolt.

Maybe Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move party will choose it as their symbolic colour? Or maybe not!

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