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Why the Yellow Vests are Protesting

France confronts one of its roughest periods in recent times which is a real challenge to the national institutions’ stability. According to opinion polls, the French Yellow Vests, the gilet jaunes, movement is firmly supported by public opinion (56% of French, it was 68% in December). The protest receives massive media coverage, despite the fact that their numbers and size remain fairly stable month to month, with only some exceptions.

How could an improvised and nonpartisan movement endanger the centrist-led presidency of Emmanuel Macron? How has anger against a fuel tax meant to fight climate change rapidly focus on other fiscal and social issues as well?

Since November 17th, the Yellow Vests have organized road blockages and sieged oil refineries everywhere in France. The protests have found strong support in rural and semi-urban areas, the most affected by the impact of the measure. Incited by social media, protesters spread throughout French cities. Citizens are now accustomed to the Yellow Vests marching in Paris and other major cities every Saturday.

Without any leader, the anger towards the political class is spread by a multitude of spokesmen and women. Most importantly, the movement is the social mosaic of middle and lower classes’ aspirations: blue and white collar, unemployed, small entrepreneurs, and farmers.

This complex social differentiation makes it really hard to understand the very existence of a common political ideology. They began proposing tax cuts to preserve the purchasing power of the middle and lower classes; then increases in welfare expenditure to maintain the public services; now they are focused on the institutional reforms to create a new and ambiguous bottom-up democracy based on recurrent referenda. Above all, they want Emmanuel Macron’s resignation.

President Macron has indeed become the target of the protesters. They blame his liberal policies for the rising inequalities (Macron has been labeled as the “president for the rich.”) Whether the statement is true or false, the movement seems to be the sum of the exasperations with globalization and the “elitist” French politics that has grown over thirty years.

The political transversality of the protests corresponds to the social complexity: according to polls. In the movement there is an over-representation of right-wing and nationalist politician Marine Le Pen’s voters (42%); followed by the voters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon (20%), the left wing populist leader. And, with the European Parliament elections approaching in May 2019, both left and right populism are fueling the political polarization.

The puzzling and odd nature of the movement partially explains why the French government was late in addressing the protest. In addition, the chaotic mobilization followed by violence by both protesters and police exacerbated the split between the Yellow Vests and the government.

As a matter of fact, in the beginning, the government was deeply hostile to acknowledging the movement. Still, when Prime Minister Eduard Philippe finally decided on a six-month moratorium on the announced increase in fuel taxes, it didn’t stop the movement. The Yellow Vests considered the measure insufficient and they continued to demonstrate. On December 10th, in a further attempt to placate the protesters, President Macron announced some urgent economic and social actions, from the rise in the minimum wage to other fiscal proposals. He opposed, however, the reinstatement of the solidarity tax on wealth (ISF), one of the Yellow Vests’ demands.

President Macron then launched a “great national debate” which must take place from mid-December 2018 to mid-March 2019 and should involve all citizens. This aims to focus on four major topics: ecological transition, taxation, public services, and democracy. As a result, it seems that President Macron has divided protest leaders over participation in this “great national debate.”

The only certainty at the moment appears to be that there will continue to be uncertainty for the simple reason that the movement’s participants are very different from other similar social and political actors in other European countries. It represents a change in the way this kind of protest is conducted in Europe: the mix of social media, blockages, conspiracy theories, “revolutionary” violence, an absence of leadership and the ideological eclecticism seem to be a new pattern of the French political landscape that won’t fade quickly. The consequences for politics, society, and economics could be substantial.