Why are France's 'yellow vest' protesters so angry?

PARIS (NYTIMES) – The broken glass and empty tear gas canisters have been swept away and the graffiti scrubbed off the major monuments, among them the Arc de Triomphe, after a weekend of violent protests in the capital by a grassroots movement that calls itself the Yellow Vests.

It was the third weekend of protests and confrontations with the police by the group, and by far the most damaging.

The cost of repairing just the Arc de Triomphe – apart from the graffiti, there was damage to artifacts kept inside – could reach €1 million (S$1.55 million), according to the Centre for National Monuments. On Monday (Dec 3), merchants and government officials were assessing the total property damage.

More than 260 people were wounded nationwide, and at least three died outside Paris on the margins of the protests over the last three weekends. More than 400 people were arrested in Paris.

The government kept an aloof stance towards the protests until late last week, hoping the movement would peter out. Now it is shifting its approach.

Q: Who are the Yellow Vests?

A: The movement originated in May when a woman named Priscillia Ludosky, who has an Internet cosmetics business and lives in the suburbs south-east of Paris, started an Internet petition calling for a drop in gas prices. She broke down the price into its components, noting that taxes made up more than half the cost in France. Per litre, lead-free gas was €1.41 on Sunday.

The petition went mostly unnoticed until October, when Mr Eric Drouet, a truck driver from the same area as Ms Ludosky, ran across it and circulated it among his Facebook friends. Newspapers began writing about the petition, and the number of signatures skyrocketed to 200,000 from an initial 700. Today, it has more than 1.15 million signatures and counting.

When Mr Drouet decided to hold a car rally cum protest on Nov 17 to demand lower gas prices, word spread on social media. Soon, autonomous groups formed in many French departments – subdivisions of the country’s 13 regions – and they decided to hold their own protests.

Early on, people who agreed with the petition were encouraged to show their support by displaying the high-visibility yellow vest every driver in France must by law carry, in case of roadside trouble. Supporters were asked to place the vests on their dashboard or back shelf.

Those who participated were predominantly men and women who rely on their cars to get to work and take care of their families. In the mix were small-business owners, independent contractors, farmers, home aides, nurses and truck drivers. They live and work primarily in rural towns and in the suburbs or exurbs of France’s big cities, many earning just enough to get by.

Q: How big is the movement?

A: No one knows for sure. By French standards, the demonstrations have been modest in size. But they are unusual in that they erupted spontaneously in multiple places around France, without any union or political party organising them. Their numbers have diminished since the first gatherings on Nov 17, when nearly 300,000 Yellow Vests protested nationwide; this past weekend, it was 166,000, according to the Interior Ministry.

Many people who have not participated in the protests say they support them or are sympathetic to those on the street. That suggests the protests may again grow in size, or continue for a long time. Despite the damage over the weekend in Paris and elsewhere, overall support for the movement remains high, according to several polls.

Q: Why are they so angry?

Many protesters say their purchasing power has dwindled so much over the years that today they have trouble making ends meet – let alone coming up with money for simple outings, vacations or even just to go out to dinner once in a while. Many are earning close to the median income, but costs have risen and pay has not.

The median earner in 2016 in France took home about €1,700 a month, but that means that half of the French took home less. The income has to cover rent, food, utilities and clothing, as well as the cost of fuel.

Some of the movement’s supporters say that if they were poorer, the government would help them with subsidies. But like the working poor in other Western countries, they are just above the poverty line, and unable to take advantage of government support.

The gas tax, which is slated to rise again in January by a few cents per litre, is often described by the French as “the drop of water that makes the vase overflow”. Since public transportation is limited in rural France and the suburbs, most of the Yellow Vests have no choice but to use their cars – and are especially sensitive to fuel tax hikes. And that tax comes on top of already high payroll taxes that help the government pay for the healthcare system, social security and unemployment insurance, among other things.

Q: What do the Yellow Vests want?

A: Their demands span a broad spectrum.

The movement has so many participants with different circumstances and politics that it is hard to imagine everyone agreeing on a single list of demands.

Self-described “moderate” Yellow Vests who wrote an opinion piece on Sunday in a French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, said a freeze on the planned gas tax increase was a precondition for negotiating with the government. Others have called for President Emmanuel Macron’s resignation, and some say Parliament should dissolve itself and hold new elections.

Q: What is the government’s response?

A: The government initially dug in its heels. Mr Macron said there would be no modification of the planned tax increase nor of other policies designed to reduce France’s carbon footprint and move to less polluting energy sources.

But after three weekends of protests, each more violent than the last, the government seems to be taking stock of its options. Although neither Mr Macron nor his Prime Minister, Mr Edouard Philippe, have suggested that they would consider a moratorium on the tax increases, many Members of Parliament are calling for a suspension of the tax.

Mr Macron, who was away this past weekend at a Group of 20 economic summit in Argentina, has yet to speak publicly about the situation. Many politicians on the left and the right, and some in his own party, say he needs to respond.

The President has postponed a trip to Serbia and cancelled some meetings. And he asked the Prime Minister to meet the leaders of French political parties and also the Yellow Vests’ representatives.

The meetings with the Yellow Vests have not yet been scheduled, in part because it is unclear who represents them.

Although several people have emerged and described themselves as representatives of the Yellow Vests, it appears they have little sway with others in the movement. On Sunday, the self-selected representatives said they could meet with Mr Philippe, but on Monday they backed away after threats and protests from other Yellow Vests.

Q: Are they a threat to the government?

A: No one knows, and the government itself appears unsure, vacillating between a more open approach and doubling down on the use of force to stop the unrest.

If Mr Macron goes through with the tax increase, there are political hazards. The decision could prompt many more people to join the protests, likely resulting in more violence and property damage.

But bowing to the protesters’ demands and seeming to cave in to the French street has political downsides as well. If the government cedes on the moratorium on the gas tax, it might satisfy some protesters. But others may then just escalate their demands.

Q: Are more protests expected?

A: Unless the government does much more to reach out to the working poor, small business owners, independent contractors and to all those who live outside the wealthy areas of Paris and other big cities, the unrest seems likely to spread.

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