Who are France’s ‘yellow vest’ protesters? The story so far, and why it’s not over yet

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Who are France’s ‘yellow vest’ protesters? The story so far, and why it’s not over yet

Wire services and Globe staff

The Globe and Mail

The latest

  • France’s government backtracked Tuesday on a planned fuel-tax hike that has triggered nationwide protests since November, including large-scale rioting in Paris last weekend.
  • The planned increases, which were set to be introduced in January, are now being postponed until the summer, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced in a live televised address. “No tax is worth putting the nation’s unity in danger,” he said, just three weeks after insisting that the government wouldn’t change course.
  • Protesters wearing their signature fluorescent yellow vests kept blocking several fuel depots Tuesday and many insisted their fight wasn’t over.

Where the ‘yellow vests’ came from

A yellow-vested protester blocks the road leating to the Frontignan oil depot in the south of France on Dec. 3, 2018. On the vest is written “Macron traitor, the people are hungry.’

PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images

How it started: The current wave of unrest began on Nov. 17 with demonstrations over a planned hike in fuel taxes to go into effect in January. In the first day of demonstrations, one protester was killed and 227 others injured. Larger demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands continued over the weeks that followed, reaching their height over the Dec. 1-2 weekend, with widespread vandalism, fires and looting.

What they want: Over time, the movement has grown to encompass a range of complaints from both left- and right-wing working class demonstrators, who claim that President Emmanuel Macron’s government is doing too little to ease their cost of living and doesn’t care about the problems of ordinary people. There is no official leader, membership or fixed list of demands, but 10 representatives wrote an opinion piece in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper calling for negotiations with the government. These representatives called for an immediate freeze on fuel taxes, cancelling new and more rigorous vehicle-inspection rules and an electoral system of proportional representation, which would benefit smaller parties, including those on the far left and right.

Why yellow? In France, drivers are required by law to carry high-visibility safety vests to wear by the roadside in case of emergency. For the working-class protesters, these gilets jaunes are both an accessory of convenience and a symbol of their concern for motorists.

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Dec. 1: Protesters stand up in front of a police water canon at the Place de l’Etoile near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Protesters walk by burning cars during clashes with riot police on the sideline of a yellow-vest protest in Paris.

ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images

The government’s response

On Dec. 4, the French government moved to appease the protest movement by suspending the fuel-tax hikes for six months. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a public address the protesters’ message of anger came through clearly:

This anger, you’d have to be deaf or blind not to see it or hear it. The French who have donned yellow vests want taxes to drop, and work to pay. That’s also what we want. If I didn’t manage to explain it, if the ruling majority didn’t manage to convince the French, then something must change.

After a Dec. 2 meeting with members of his government, Mr. Macron – who returned early from a G20 summit in Argentina to deal with the unrest in France – also asked his interior minister to prepare security forces for future protests, the French presidency said in a statement.

The environmental backstory

Dec. 11, 2015: The Eiffel Tower displays the message “No plan B” during the COP21 conference, a historic UN summit on climate change in which countries promised to curb their greenhouse gas emissions.

PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP

Three years ago in Paris, world leaders – including Mr. Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande – hammered out ambitious targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and avert the most disastrous effects of climate change. The climate accord was on shakier ground when Mr. Macron came to office in 2017, and the recently elected Trump administration pulled the United States out of the agreement.

On the international stage, Mr. Macron has spoken passionately about doing more to curb emissions and get reluctant nations like the U.S. to do their part. But domestically, Mr. Macron has backtracked on several of the climate and environmental initiatives he promised. In August, his environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, resigned in frustration, saying Mr. Macron wasn’t acting fast enough on renewable energy and a pledge to draw less of France’s electricity from nuclear power by 2025.

The fuel-tax increases announced this fall were intended to entice French citizens and businesses to lower their carbon footprints. But the yellow vest protesters have denounced the tax as a sign Mr. Macron is a “president of the rich” who is making working-class people pay for environmental change instead of big business. The standoff illustrates a conundrum: How do political leaders’ introduce policies that will do long-term good for the environment without inflicting extra costs on voters that may damage their chances of re-election?

The economic backstory

May 7, 2017: French president-elect Emmanuel Macron celebrates on the stage at his election victory rally near the Louvre in Paris.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters

While the protests were initially against the fuel-tax hikes, they have also mined a vein of deep dissatisfaction felt toward Mr. Macron’s liberal reforms, which many voters feel favor the wealthy and big business.

In exchange for large government spending on social programs, French workers are among the most heavily taxed in Europe. One way to visualize this is the tax wedge, which measures the ratio between the total tax workers pay on their income and the labour costs their employers pay. The average tax wedge is a rough measurement of whether income taxes discourage employment: When a tax wedge is high, workers take home less income compared with what their companies invest in them, and the less incentive there is for new jobs. In 2017, France’s was the fourth highest tax wedge in the OECD. And in terms of taxation on goods and services, France pays the most as a percentage of GDP than any G7 country except Italy.

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The centrist Mr. Macron promised to trim down France’s public service, reduce corporate taxes, streamline labour regulations and stimulate job creation and growth. Soon after his election, investors began gravitating toward France amid uncertainty about Britain’s post-Brexit future and other uncertainty in Europe. The yellow vest protesters, however, argue that Mr. Macron’s reforms have benefited the wealthy at their expense.

What happens next?

The anti-establishment anger spurring the yellow vests on could spell trouble for Mr. Macron in next year’s European elections. These are traditionally fertile ground for the far-right, led by Marine Le Pen, which already leads surveys of voting intentions.

It’s unlikely the fuel-tax suspension will put an end to the road blockades and demonstrations, with more possible protests this weekend in Paris. On Tuesday, protesters kept blocking several fuel depots and many insisted their fight was not over. “It’s a first step, but we will not settle for a crumb,” said Benjamin Cauchy, one of the leaders of the protests.

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask makes the victory sign near a burning barricade in Paris on Dec. 1.

ABDULMONAM EASSA/AFP/Getty Images

Reuters, Associated Press and Globe staff

Compiled by Globe staff

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