What Do the Yellow Vests Want?

The most important movement that you’ve never heard of

Over the past few weeks, France has fallen into turmoil. Protests have shut down the city of Paris and taken over roads and infrastructure across the country. Four people have died, dozens have been injured, and hundreds have been arrested as the biggest demonstration France has seen in fifty years has shut down the country.

The people at the center of this movement are known as the Yellow Vests, or Gilets Jaunes in French. The name comes from the distinctive neon yellow vests that motorists in France are required to store in their cars. That is no coincidence. While the coverage of these protests is most concentrated in Paris, most of the people participating are not from the city, where most people get around through a combination of walking and public transportation. They are from the countryside, where people are required to drive long distances to make a living. Consequentially, the catalyst that began this whole movement was a proposed gas tax. But the problems that brought about the astonishing scale of the protests run much deeper.

France is Struggling

From the New York Times

It is no secret that in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, there are large swaths of the population that never recovered. This is even more true in Europe, where the crisis was worse in many places than in America. While America pushed for a stimulus packet, the EU insisted on a policy of austerity, cutting pensions and services for many of the people who needed them most.

As was the case in America, many of the places hit hardest were not necessarily urban areas, but were less noticed, more rural, working class areas in the countryside. This New York Times profile from last week gives a thoughtful look at the types of people who felt most compelled to join in these protests.

One of the biggest things that makes life difficult for people in rural France is the cost of transportation. Gas prices in the country are around 1.44 Euros per liter, the equivalent of over 6 dollars per gallon. This is almost triple what gas prices are in America, which makes things hard for people who are already struggling to simply put food on the table. So when Macron proposed a gas tax that would’ve added up to another 25 cents per gallon to fuel prices, that was the final straw. Residents organized across social media and began to take actions across the countryside. They initially started by taking over roads and other infrastructure. However, they eventually realized that to truly get attention, they would have to go to Paris. That brings us to the movement as it exists today.

The Main Target is Macron

When Macron was elected over Marine Le Pen in 2017, he was seen as a new savior of the Europe: a man who could hold back the far-right and bring prosperity to France in a way that was able to hold the European Union together. Few in France believe that today. His approval rating has fallen as low as 18% in some polls, reaching the levels of unpopularity that caused François Hollande, the previous president, to not even run for re-election.

He has reached this point mainly by doing what he promised to do during the campaign: implementing neoliberal reforms. This is not neoliberal in the sense that is is disliked by the left. He drastically changed labor laws, making it easier for employers to fire employees and weakening the power of unions. He then slashed the country’s wealth tax, a move with similar goals to the Republican tax bill in America. After implementing all of these reforms that were widely seen as predominately benefitting the rich, the first step of Macron’s climate plan was the gas tax, a reform seen as predominately hurting the poor.

As a result, while many of the yellow vest protesters might be split on certain issues, they are united in their hatred for Macron. Perhaps the most prominent demand of the movement is for him to resign. Since Macron is so disliked, the Yellow Vest protests have massive support from the French people, even after the protests became violent last week. It is hard to get across how bad this is for Macron. If over half of the country is willing to back violent protests against his presidency, then he is in a dangerous place for the president of one of the largest countries in Europe.

This is a Class Movement, not a Conservative One

In the initial wake of the unrest, conservatives around the world were quick to claim this as a victory of conservative anti-tax and anti-climate change movements. Nothing could be further from the truth. Early on Saturday, when the “March For the Climate” was scheduled in Paris at the same time as the Yellow Vests’ demonstration, the two groups actually came together, joining in solidarity against climate injustice. Additionally, instead of marching for smaller government and lower taxes, the streets were full of anti-capitalist chants and the list of demands include calls to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations (English version here).

However, it is not explicitly a left-wing protest either. While the movement hasn’t fully accepted the support of right-wing Marine Le Pen, it hasn’t fully accepted the support of left-wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon either. There are also certain aspects of nationalism that many of the left would most likely not appreciate. The flags being waved are not the red flags being waved in the 1968 protests, but the French flag.

This is, first and foremost, a class movement. The people protesting are predominately working class, and the people that they are protesting are predominately wealthy elites. While there has been a lot of talk in America about how the working class has turned to the conservative Republicans, the working class in France has always been more prone to left-wing economic ideas and forms of protesting. To put this in a clean anti-tax, anti-climate, or anti-government category would be to reduce the scope of what these protests entail. While the immigration crisis of 2015 may have given a right-wing tint on European populism, there is plenty of real economic anxiety stored up, and it is just waiting to come out.

Conclusion

It is hard to say how long these protests will go on, or how much they will accomplish. They have already had one large victory, as Macron promised to delay the implementation of the gas tax and consider a wealth tax in its place. But the changes that the Yellow Vest protesters want are much more extensive than getting rid of one tax. The tax is representative of a larger turn towards neoliberal, pro-austerity politics that has taken over much of Europe and America. When we have faced these problems in the past, the movements against them have have had results ranging from the New Deal to outright fascism. The protests are very important. Anti-austerity politics is the future, and the Yellow Vests could determine what that future looks like.