Last weekend marked the 32nd week of protests in France. We look at how did it start; what did it become; and what next for the movement?
In October 2018, a movement began on social media in France. It was called the ‘Gilets jaunes’ after the French name for the high visibility yellow jackets which are compulsory by French law in case of a breakdown. On 17th November 2018, they began the first of a series of widespread protests across the streets of France, even spreading into parts of Belgium (see Figure 1). Whilst news of the protests has almost disappeared in the UK media, they have continued every Saturday since ‘Acte I’ on 17th November (see Figure 2). Last weekend marked ‘Acte XXXII’ and although the number of protesters is decreasing, the protests continue. In fact, the protests last weekend were the largest since mid-May. Figure 2 shows two different numbers of protesters, because organisers are increasingly disputing official numbers, and included the protesters from the ‘March of the Century’ climate change protest, part of the protests inspired by Greta Thunberg, in the number of protesters for ‘Acte XVIII’.
This series of protests is a prime case study of how well-intentioned environmental policies can actually enhance socio-economic divisions. But how did a demonstration against a fuel tax quickly become a protest about French President, Emmanuel Macron, and his government?
The roots of the controversy
The ‘Gilets jaunes’ movement started in response to a scheduled rise in the ecological fuel tax in January 2019. This ‘eco-tax’ was first introduced by the French government in 2014 and was scheduled to rise routinely every year until 2022. The aim of the tax was to finance France’s transition to green energy. Almost 20% of the EU’s total CO2 emissions in 2016 came from road transport and thus cutting fuel emissions is vital for France to meet its CO2 reduction targets. In fact, France has played a key role in getting all EU environment ministers to agree to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars by 35% by 2030 compared to 2021 levels.
In France, fuel tax accounts for approximately 60% of fuel costs, similar to that in other European countries and is split into two components: the TICPE (the so-called ‘eco-tax’) and TVA (French VAT). In a TV interview on 5th November 2018, Bruno le Maire (French Minister for Finance) defended the rise in the TICPE, by saying it would allow the government to finance its new energy transition measures. However, the provision of TICPE tax is in fact precisely defined in French law, with most going to state and regional budgets. The Minister’s misleading suggestion opened the policy up to criticism and resulted in public mistrust; some journalists commented that the eco-tax was simply lining the pockets of the state.
A study conducted last year showed that fuel prices in France have more than tripled since 1980, but fuel purchasing power has remained stable and fuel efficiency has been steadily increasing. However, in the year before the ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests, diesel prices rose by 23% and petrol prices by 15%, primarily due to rising global oil prices. In September 2018, the French government announced that a further TICPE increase for January 2019 (see Figure 3) which would have meant that since 2015, the ’eco tax’ on diesel would have risen by €0,22/l and on petrol by €0,10/l. According to the Directorate-General for Energy and Climate, these TICPE increases will cost the average French household up to €300 per year.
Growing discontent in ‘Peripheral France’
Although the amount of TICPE is universal across the country, critics argue that its increase has a disproportionately negative effect on those living in suburban and rural areas. In these regions, there have been cuts to public transport and growing levels of urban/suburban sprawl. Without a car, those outside the big cities would struggle to work, take children to school or even buy food. According to Christophe Guilluy, a human geography researcher, “Economic growth happens in big globalised cities, but the working classes no longer live there. … They live in a ‘peripheral France’, characterised by weak economic growth, high unemployment and high anxiety.” This environmental ‘fuel-tax’ has thus become a symbol of the rift between the ‘rural poor’ and the ‘city elite’.
The feeling of inequality was further reinforced by the government’s actions at the beginning of the crisis. Initially, the Minister for Finance Bruno le Maire defended the ‘eco-tax’ rise by saying the government was offering financial incentives to move away from diesel cars and an ‘ecological bonus’ to buy and rent electric cars. However, opponents argued this was yet another move designed to help the ‘elite’ and of little help to families struggling to make ends meet at the end of the month.
Macron’s measures – attempts to solve an unfolding crisis
It was not until the 5th of December, after three weeks of protests, that the President made his first attempt to curb the movement. He announced the significant step that the ‘eco-tax’ would be scrapped, a quick policy change that reflected the President’s perception of the severity of the threat posed by the violent crowd. The fact that it was still viewed as ‘too little, too late’ by the ‘Gilets jaunes’ illustrates the deeper social issues at the root of the protests, which go beyond the ‘eco-tax’.
When a few days later, Macron announced a €100 increase in the minimum wage and tax-free overtime pay, the ‘Gilets jaunes’ were equally unconvinced by his message. They claimed that he was giving them ‘crumbs’, instead of the systemic changes they campaigned for. Notably, he ruled out reimposing a direct wealth tax on all those with assets over €1.3 million, known as the ISF. Ending the ISF had been a key pillar of his electoral campaign and its reintroduction was now at the core of the protesters’ demands.
Amid continuing protests and violent clashes between the police and the ‘Gilets jaunes’ each weekend, Macron, under pressure, launched a National Debate (‘grand débat’) on the 14th January 2019. During this two-month-long listening exercise, 10,000 forums were held across France to survey the public on the four main themes which had emerged from the protests: taxes and spending; democracy and citizenship; organisation of the state and public services; and finally ecological transformation. This strategy had proven reliable to the President during his presidential campaign; he had built his manifesto based on the ‘Grande Marche’, a mass door-to-door survey of the French electorate. However, this time, the dialogue was restricted to certain pre-selected topics, raising suspicions he would try to limit the scope of the debate to a preexisting reform agenda.
Nevertheless, in terms of generating engagement, the ‘Débat’ was a success. Apart from the forums, French citizens could make their opinions heard through a variety of channels, including online where the Debate’s website received 2 million submissions. While the high response rates could have been a promising sign, critics point out that the audience failed to represent the sociological traits of the ‘Gilets jaunes’. Notably, according to a study, 55% of the debate attendees claimed that they found it easy to make ends meet and 53% were either satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. This is in stark contrast with the protesters, who predominantly struggle to make a living in France.
The day after the debate ended, Acte XVIII was accompanied by the worst rioting in Paris since December, resulting in buildings being vandalised and torched. Decrees were enacted across France to forbid protests which could become violent and anyone found in breach of these rules was fined. Even though these measures resulted in a drop in protester numbers, the remaining, defiant ‘Gilets jaunes’ criticised the policies as ‘dictatorial’.
On 25th April, Macron announced a further reform package including tax cuts for the middle class, education reforms, no school or hospital closures until the end of his term in 2022 and proportional elections for around 20% of seats in parliament. Although this was not enough to calm the core of the ‘Gilets jaunes’, who claimed that the president hadn’t listened to them, since then, the number of protesters – whilst still significant – has been decreasing as the movement continues to lose momentum. There has also been a considerable shift in the public’s attitude to the protests; according to pollsters Elabe, by April, 60% of French citizens wanted them to stop, in contrast to in November, when 75% of the public still supported them.
A fragmented movement
Although the series of protests started as a reaction to the introduction of the ‘eco tax’, the ‘Gilets jaunes’ cannot be defined as the anti-ecology movement the French government originally called them. In fact, Geneviève Legay, a symbolic figure of the ‘Gilet jaunes’, described herself as ‘an ecologist, feminist, anti-racist activist’. The movement quickly transformed into an anti-Macron revolt fuelled not by a resistance to climate action, but anger against increasing inequalities in a country led by a former banker (labelled the ‘president of the rich’). Arguably, the fight against capitalism creates a strong ideological link between the ecological movement and the ‘Gilets jaunes’. As François Boulot, a ‘Gilet jaune’ who spoke at a climate change protest put it, ‘we will not be able to operate the ecological transition without an equitable wealth redistribution’.
The diversity within the movement means that not all of its followers share this view. The right-wing populist sympathisers among its ranks tend not to see climate change as an issue. This lack of unity means that there have been clear challenges to turning the movement into a political party from early on. The political party ‘Les Emergents’, formed by ‘Gilets jaunes’ protesters, has struggled. Several of the founding members of ‘Les Emergents’ resigned in April, accusing the party leader Jacline Mouraud of ‘lack of transparency’. Despite their original plans, the party did not have any candidates in the European Parliament elections. It is also questionable how the French would react to a political movement rooted in the violent protests the majority of citizens are tired of and containing within it radical and anarchist groups like the ‘ultra-yellows’ and the Black bloc.
Long-term impact in France and the world
For Macron, the protests have shown the failure of his top-down policies implemented without consulting the public. He was forced to recognise his responsibility for the situation and promised a more human, less arrogant style of governance, started by the National Debate. However, despite certain concessions, he refused to change the overarching orientation of his presidency and stood by the measures that got him elected. Macron’s willingness to make gestures towards the ‘Gilets jaunes’ and the extreme violence which continues to be shown by the radical core of the movement has led to a rebound in his popularity (which has risen from 23 per cent at the start of the movement to just under 30 per cent in April). However, it remains to be seen whether he can win another election with these policies in 2022.
The ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests have shown that shifting to a low-carbon economy will not be a painless process and cannot be handled separately from issues of social equality. The outburst of popular anger against the political elite rightly scared the government and had grave consequences. Over the course of six months, 11 people died and more than 4200 were injured during the protests. The ‘Gilets jaunes’ impact was felt at an international level; protesters donned yellow vests in Serbia, Belgium and Spain, among other countries, using the symbol in their fight for a diverse range of causes. Regardless of whether they eventually succeed in entering party politics, in the past seven months, the ‘Gilets jaunes’ have made an impact on France and the world. The ‘Gilets jaunes’ protests foreshadow a future in which climate and energy struggles will play a key role in shaping the political landscape.
Mariana Clare – PhD student researching numerical fluid and sediment transport models at Imperial College London
Rozi Harsanyi – Graduate Management Trainee currently working in Communications and Public Affairs and the Registry at Imperial College London.