Gilets Jaunes, also known as the yellow vests movement, marked its one year anniversary by going out to the streets of Paris in the past November 16th.
This movement had its beginning in mid-November of 2018 (in several regions of France) and it soon called the attention of the media all across Europe, that insisted on following up each minute of the strikes. The famous protesters wearing yellow vests attracted a large audience in 2018 for their violent and destructive behaviour. They were characterized as an atypical movement, having no designated leader nor belonging to any particular political party.
Gilets Jaunes had the power to encourage other countries, other than France, to adopt the same initiative, attaining a worldwide dimension.
In the second half of 2018, there was a general rise in crude oil world prices. France was also affected by this rise (making the pump prices go up) and simultaneously there was an increase in the fuel tax. As shown in the graph below, France is the fourth country in Europe with the highest diesel tax, the British being those who have the highest tax burden within the EU.
This measure was already expected to be implemented as part of the country’s long-term ecological plan and it was meant to move the country’s citizens away from fossil fuels, in particular, from diesel cars. This would then work as an incentive for people to opt for more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
However, in May, a young businesswoman, outraged at the rise in fuel taxes, decided to post an online petition demonstrating her discontent. Although this petition initially didn’t achieve much, it sparked what would become one of the most commented strikes of the last few decades.
Some months later in October, Eric Drouet, a lorry driver, saw this petition as an opportunity to confront the government with its most recent measure, deciding to contact the young woman and bolster her petition. He aspired to reach the highest possible number of citizens and for that, he shared and promoted the online petition. As the world oil prices were rising, petrol prices in France were constantly increasing and, meanwhile, the previously ignored online petition gained hundreds of thousands of signatures.
French people felt really wronged in relation to the tax imposed on fuel and more generally the high cost of living of the country. As a result, the resentment towards President Emmanuel Macron became more evident.
Additionally, another factor that contributed to the discontent among French citizens were the tax cuts on businesses, investors and wealth, which mainly benefited the richer families. Previous President Hollande had raised taxes for this upper class, which caused many investors to leave France forlower tax countries. Emmanuel Macron introduced this measure in an attempt to fix the previous situation and make the investors return to France. However, from the Gilets Jaunes’s point of view, since he first cut taxes for the rich and only then introduced the fuel tax, which mostly affected low-income families, they felt like there was an unbalanced distribution of wealth. This caused sentiments of social injustice, with opponents nicknaming Macron “the President of the rich”.
On November 17th the first protest occurred, mobilising approximately 285 thousand people all across France. Protesters were dressed with yellow jackets, that French motorists are obliged by law to have in their vehicles. Thus, being a common symbol for all French citizens, it made it easier for everyone interested to participate.
In mid-November, French citizens were far from knowing the dimension that this movement would conquer, which turned out to be the longest-running protest since the Second World War. It lasted 13 weeks, gathering people every Saturday.
The brutality of the yellow vests was undeniable: there were 11 deaths, around 4,400 injured (policemen and civilians) and 220 arrests.
The violence and chaos caused by these protests was particularly evident on December 1st: more than 100 cars were burned, several buildings were set on fire, Arc de Triomphe was vandalized, store upfronts were broken in the richest streets of Paris…
However, the brutality of this so called “Acte 3” was not fully supported by all the protesters. A poll conducted after this day of extremely aggressive action concluded that despite 72% of French people supporting the Gilets Jaunes, 85% of those supporters condemned such violent practices in Paris. This might explain the decline in the number of protesters from the third demonstration onwards.
Initially, the yellow vests’ goal was to revert the fuel tax imposed by the government. However, as the weeks went by, they realized the huge power they had and started demanding for more. They elaborated a list with 40 requests which they planned on presenting to the government. Among these demands, they urged more economic concessions such as lower VAT, higher minimum wage (from €1,149 to net €1,300 per month) and higher pension (no lower than €1,200/month). Regarding political matters, they demanded an alteration of the Constitution, replacing representative democracy with a more popular government. More concretely, they suggested that petitions that gathered more than 700,000 signatures would automatically turn into proposals of law. This wouldtransfer more power from the parliament and the President to “the people”.
In the final quarter of last year, the economic cost of the yellow-vest protests was estimated in 0.1% of national output (which amounts to 2 billion euros). Some businesses like cafes, restaurants and stores dropped their weekend revenues by 20 to 30 percent, since demonstrations took place every Saturday. There was a public cost for damaged property in the amount of 30 million euros, plus other unaccountedcosts concerning police overtime and traffic radars repair.
Regarding the political environment, statistics show that the President Emmanuel Macron’s disapproval rating increased significantly, by 25%, from the beginning of 2018 until the “Acte 3”, one of the most violent protests, in early December. At the moment of this event, there was a peak of the disapproval rate (73%) and from then on it has been slowly decreasing (currently at 64%).
Marine Le Pen, the President of the National Rally (NR), was one of the first politicians to show support for the yellow vest movement. She may have taken advantage of the instability lived in France, during the action days, to slightly increase the NR’s position concerning the voting intention for the 2022 presidential election.
In terms of political representation, the yellow vests failed in being heard. A couple of fully yellow-vests-composed lists applied as candidates to the last European elections in May, but they weren’t successful, winning a combined well below 1% of the votes.
In the end, this movement achieved its main goal: it made the government postpone the planned eco-tax rise on fuel.
On top of this, Macron agreed to a reduction on taxes for lower-income families in the 2020 budget and the protesters also managed to get a tax cut for most pensionists.
Since the President, by imposing the fuel tax, had in sight the reduction of carbon emissions (aimed at a greener country), but, at the same time, knowing the tax would substantially harm the poorest, it is important to analyse this trade off: Is it better to improve France’s sustainability and thus contribute to a more conscious world or instead delay that matter and focus on the country’s internal social issues, such as wealth distribution?
Even though this movement is predominantly French, it also had a relative impact abroad. Inspired by the protests in the neighbouring country, Belgium also had a protest on December 8th 2018, that gathered 1000 protesters and resulted in clashes with the police. Even though this turnout had a much lower scale than the one in France, their causes for discontent were very similar: high tax burden (tax-to-GDP ratio was 47,3% in 2017), that affects mainly the middle-lower income class. Also, even though nominal average wages have increased, the purchasing power of low income earners has shrunk, reflected in a decrease in real wages.
Besides Belgium, many other countries joined the movement, although having different goals than the ones in French and Belgian protests. For instance, unlike the French non-partisan movement, which defended changes in economic policy, taxation and rising fueling, in Canada the movement was tightly linked to far-right and alt-right initiatives, mainly focusing on anti-immigration and white supremacist rhetoric. Thus, the impact of the yellow vest movement abroad varies from country to country. Portugal also attempted similar protests on the 21st of December 2018, but it gathered just a few number of citizens in the streets.
The Gilets Jaunes may have had good intentions at the beginning of the protests, when they claimed that the fuel tax would widen further the gap between rich and poor. But the strikes spinned out of control, especially upon the third action, when violence soared.
On the other hand, Macron implemented the tax for sustainability purposes and this measure was already scheduled according to the government’s plans. France’s President now needs to figure out how to impose ecological responsibility without being misinterpreted, that is, he must know how to state his political position and at the same time, raise awareness among French citizens for environmental concerns.
It’s good to reflect deeper on this topic and possible solutions to this problem: Is the fuel tax the only way to move consumers away from diesel to a more eco-friendly alternative? Shouldn’t Macron consider applying a subsidy on sustainable energies instead?
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