France's Yellow Vests - new ways to defend old values

Yellow Vest (Gilets jaunes) protestors demonstrate on the Champs Elysees on Saturday
Yellow Vest (Gilets jaunes) protestors demonstrate on the Champs Elysees on Saturday Lucas BARIOULET / AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to listen to the "cries of social alarm" from the Yellow Vest movement that has erupted across France over the last 10 days. Macron's speech Tuesday made few concessions to a movement that has no formal structure and has largely been organised on social media. But is it even clear what all the Yellow Vests want?


"You have a lot of people who say gas is not the only issue," says sociologist Michel Wieviorka. "The general issue for many people is that they cannot live with 1,000 euros a month - or with 1,500 euros [the minimum wage] a month - and they need a little bit more to live a normal life."

The Yellow Vests' demands seem largely individualistic.

Not for them traditional trade union or social campaigners' calls for pay rises or government action to tackle poverty.

Michel Viewiorka discusses the Yellow Vest movement

The spark that lit their fire was the rise in petrol and diesel prices - the right to drive seems to be a basic one to them - and many protesters see cuts in all taxes, not just the green tax on petrol and diesel, as the way to improve their living standards.

Contradictions on both sides

"You know that in France we expect a lot from the state and in some places there is less and less state," comments Wieviorka. "So some people say we want to pay less taxes as individuals but sometimes the same people or other people say 'We want to have public services in the place where we live'."

A contradictory position, then, but, says Wieviorka, so is the government's response, which is "You will pay more taxes and don't ask us to spend too much money for the state."

Macron has promised to reduce or scrap the planned fuel tax rises if world oil prices continue to soar.

Who represents Yellow Vests?

He has also promised to invite Yellow Vest representatives to a national consultation and ordered Environment Minister François de Rugy to meet them now.

But who will he meet?

The movement's lack of structure has meant that self-appointed spokespeople have sprung up across the country, only to be disavowed by their supposed comrades.

On Monday a national meeting chose a delegation of eight to meet the president and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, while stressing that they are "not leaders or decision-makers but messengers".

But that decision has been criticised on Facebook pages whose administrators feel left out of the selection procedure.

And a list of demands ranging from a rise in the minimum wage to cuts in employers' social security contributions - "to be put to a people's referendum" - also seems destined to prove controversial.

Defence of French model

While the protests' organisational methods - social media, mobile phones etc - are similar to those of new social movements like Occupy Wall Street or Spain's Indignados, its motivation is not so innovative, according to Wieviorka.

"This movement is connected to the defence of the old French model, within the nation-state redistribution, industry ... this is not finished but it is collapsing and these people say 'We don't want to pay for this collapse', which is actually far from what we could call new cultural movements," he says.

"At the same day in Paris ... we had the Yellow Vests on the one hand - the old world trying not to disappear totally - and the new world, we had a big protest by feminist activists protesting against violence against women.

"So you had the old world and the new world. I don't say one is better than the other but culturally it was very different people."

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