In the face of the unceasing and surging Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests in France, the French government has been forced to roll back its decision of hiking taxes on fuel. On Tuesday, December 4, French prime minister Édouard Philippe announced that the hike would be suspended.
This is a significant retreat for president Emmanuel Macron and the French government, which since the beginning of the protests, has been adamant about not giving in to the protesters’ demands. The government had termed the tax hike a measure for combating climate change, but protesters have called this as a poor excuse for a measure that targets the working and the lower middle classes.
In France, almost 17 million people work outside the municipality limits every day. Of these, 80% use their own vehicles to get to work. It is in this context that the hike in tax on fuel, especially diesel, became a burning issue. The crisis was felt both in the Greater Paris region and the smaller towns and rural areas of France, which are already facing the brunt of neoliberal labor reforms and pension rules, and where transport systems are not so efficient. Many of the protesters were from this region.
The government may have suspended the hike but the step may be too little, too late. The movement has gone much beyond the initial anger against the fuel tax, and cascaded into anger against the president himself and his anti-poor policies.
Since he came into power, Macron has passed a series of reforms which have reduced taxes for the rich and targeted the poor. The estimated amount of tax reductions for the rich amount to around 3 billion USD.
Marie Lemoine, a 62-year-old school teacher, was quoted as saying, “We are being targeted instead of the airlines, the shipping lines, those companies who pollute more but pay no tax… Macron is our Louis XVI, and we know what happened to him.”
Thierry Paul Valette, a writer and artist, expressing the general sentiments of the protesters, told TIME that “There is an atmosphere of civil war. Macron has a big responsibility now. He can either calm the situation, or inflame it.” Referring to the president’s visit to the G20 summit, he added “The president might be in Argentina. But he is not in exile…He does not discuss, he does not debate. He is authoritarian”. Valette added that it would take a miracle for Macron to win the 2022 elections.
The movement itself has led to unprecedented levels of mobilization in French society. The hundreds and thousands of participants are largely from the working and poor middle classes, who are engaged in all kinds of work, from the IT sector to factories. These are the people who have faced the brunt of the rising costs of living and the depreciating quality and availability of public services. There is no recognizable leadership or political organization guiding the Yellow Vests. The participants have termed themselves as apolitical.
As the movement has gotten broader, it is witnessing participation from other sections of the society as well, particularly students.
Both university and high school students are using this opportunity to discuss and voice their demands. A 16-year old high school student, Nathan, said, “We want to profit from the chaos to make ourselves heard. People are fed up, it’s the time for all the struggles to converge. If we stay inactive, looking at the situation right now, we haven’t understood anything and we’ll get nothing. We know we have a way to put pressure on the government.”
However, the lack of organization and leadership in the movement has left a lot to chance.
The movement has seen support from across the political spectrum, from the far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the left wing Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Due to its vague nature, its opposition to environmental regulations, as well as sympathy and support extended by extreme right elements, the yellow vests have not been strongly backed by radical and left forces in the country. But many have recognized that this could result in right wing forces channeling the movement for their gains. Many feel that this necessitates an intervention by the left, or at least the presenting of leftist alternatives as solution to the issues highlighted by this movement.
Certain trade unions, including France’s largest trade union, CGT, have begun expressing some amount of support and solidarity to the movement.
The establishment has tried its best to point to the incidents of violence and looting and portray the entire protest as a eruption of lawlessness although that is far from the truth. At the same time, it remains to be seen whether the current ambiguous situation will lead to a push to achieve a more equitable society, or a rightward turn, or degenerate entirely without having accomplished anything concrete.