What now for France's Yellow Vest protesters?

A Yellow Vest protest in Limoges, central France
A Yellow Vest protest in Limoges, central France ©PASCAL LACHENAUD/AFP
Text by: Tony Cross
4 min

France's Yellow Vest protesters have mounted the most serious challenge yet to President Emmanuel Macron's government. But they seem divided as to what their next move should be. Local activists are to meet at a national level to try to give the movement some structure. But does that go against the nature of a protest that has so far been organised from the bottom up, mainly through social media?


The informal nature of the movement is "both a strength and a weakness", says Jonathan Deval, who runs the Yellow Vests Toulouse Facebook page and stresses that, for now, he is not a spokesman of the movement.

"It’s a strength, obviously, there’s no denying that," he told RFI by phone on Monday. "But in the long term it’s going to do us damage because there are people who exploiting the movement to make a name for themselves or to join our demonstrations to commit acts of vandalism or attack journalists. That’s not our idea of what the movement’s about and it’s not at all the image we want to present to people.”

Who can speak for Yellow Vests?

After Saturday's protests, which mobilised over 80,000 people nationwide and saw clashes with the police on Paris's Champs Elysées Avenue, one Facebook page called for a new national protest in Paris next Saturday.

To hear our audio report of Saturday's protest in Paris, click here

But the call raised the issue of the legitimacy of any would-be representatives.

Who can call a demonstration and who can't?

And who can denounce the call for another national demonstration as a provocation, as a certain Benjamin Cauchy, widely presented in the media as a Toulouse Yellow Vests spokesman, did?

Deval has no time for him.

"Mr Cauchy proclaimed himself spokesman but there are no Yellow Vests spokespeople in Toulouse or even in France," he declares.

Despite the movement's apolitical image, it has emerged that Cauchy has been a local councillor for the mainstream-right UMP (now the Republicans) and has links to the hard-right anti-tax Debout La France party, according to Franceinfo radio.

Other self-appointed spokespeople have been found to have links to the far right and Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has accused "ultraright" movements of infiltrating the demonstrations and initiating clashes with the police.

The movement's spontaneous nature, calling demonstrations without informing the police beforehand, has also meant two deaths and a high number of injuries at roadblocks as protesters and motorists lost their tempers with each other or simply panicked.

And there have been attacks on journalists, including one against a BFMTV crew in Toulouse, which Deval has condemned while accusing the channel of falsely claiming there were physical assaults.

National structure to be established

He says that most Yellow Vests want to avoid political exploitation and that a national meeting has been organised to give the movement a more formal structure.

"At the moment we’re trying to link up, to coordinate at a national level," he says. "Tomorrow we have a meeting with lawyers to establish a legal structure for the movement.”

Will that mean this spontaneous, grassroots movement will have leaders?

“That’s what will allow us to elect leaders and spokespeople because at the moment the only spokespeople are self-proclaimed," he comments, obviously with one eye on Cauchy. "We’re a citizens’ movement and we should elect our representatives.”

Not just about fuel prices

The government accuses the protesters of not caring about climate change because they oppose the fuel tax rise.

But, for Deval as for many of the protesters, that is "the straw that broke the camel’s back".

“Our first demand is about social inequality. It should be the same for everybody,” he insists. “Don’t tell us it’s for the environment when big polluters like cruise-liners, airplanes, jumbo jets and so on don’t pay the ecotax, when multinationals like Starbucks, which has God knows how many outlets in France, don’t pay any tax in France. We want everybody to pay tax, not just the worst-off.”

So is the movement a real threat to Macron's government?

“If Mr Macron continues to turn a deaf ear, as he has done so far, and plays the ecological transition card, it could well go on and become dangerous," comments Deval. "Not in Toulouse, because were peaceful, we’ve called for a peaceful movement, but when you see what happened on the Champs Elysées it could well become dangerous. Mr Macron must stop turning a deaf ear, it’s not just the tax on fuel, it’s everything and we want things to be the same for everyone.”

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