Unless you live in a cave, you are probably aware of the yellow vests movement that has been shaking France for the last three months. Protesters identify themselves as the « yellow vests », from the high-visibility jacket French drivers are required to carry in their vehicles. What was supposed to be a one-day rally is turning into the most significant social protest of the decade. How has the country of human rights come to this?
The context of the 2017 presidential election
The 2017 French presidential election was somewhat chaotic. The first stage of the election saw centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron get 24% of the votes before proceeding to the second stage, when he got 44% of the votes and became president. People who didn’t vote for him either voted for his opponent, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, or cast a blank vote, or abstained from voting. Whichever way you look at it, the majority of voters did not want him as their president. Though Emmanuel Macron was elected according to the French direct ballot system, many people question his legitimacy.
Evil Robin Hood
Since his election, Emmanuel Macron has abolished the wealth tax, reformed the labour laws and increased taxes on pensions to offer businesses tax breaks in an effort to boost employment. He is taking from the needy to give to the wealthy, like an evil Robin Hood. While most foreign medias have been praising his style and his reforms, Emmanuel Macron has reached the status of most unpopular president in the history of the country.
The yellow vests movement started following the government’s decision to increase fuel taxes, and diesel in particular. The increase was supposed to finance environment-friendly initiatives. The first problem is that it was the government itself that encouraged people to buy diesel cars in the early 2000’s. At the time, diesel vehicles were thought to be better for the environment. The second problem is that due to unaffordable housing prices, many people moved to the outskirts of the big cities or to the countryside and rely on their cars to go to work.
The tipping point
This was the last straw. With the fuel tax, Emmanuel Macron opened Pandora’s box and let out the repressed anger from decades of political and economic reforms that have pushed the working class, pensioners and students closer to poverty. The word spread out on social media for weeks before the first protest on November 17th. There was a second weekend of protests, and a third. It has now been twelve weeks since the first yellow vests took to the streets.
Citizens' initiated referendums
The demands of the protesters moved from the fuel tax repeal to an all-out anti-government protest over wages and a call for direct democracy in the decision-making process, as opposed to representative democracy. One idea broadly supported by the yellow vests is the citizens’ initiated referendum. Upon gathering enough signatures or supporters, citizens of a country can submit or repeal a law proposal, modify the constitution or remove any politician from office. Citizens’ initiated referendums are already used in the United States, Italy or Switzerland.
Among the protesters’ demands are the increase of the minimum wage, the indexation of wages on the rate of inflation, the inclusion of the citizens’ initiated referendum in the constitution, the control of housing prices, a fairer tax system, a minimum pension, retirement at sixty, the end of privileges for politicians, a ban on the sale of national assets to foreign countries or the human treatment of asylum seekers.
V for Violence
The yellow vests protests have been a display of unprecedented police brutality. To this day, eleven protesters have died, two-thousand have been reported injured and sixty of them have suffered crippling injuries such as the loss of fingers, an eye or a hand. There have been scenes of extreme violence from some protesters too. Still, the government's choice to resort exclusively to force over any attempts at a dialogue has been greatly criticised. Amnesty International and the European Commission for Human Rights have expressed their concerns and have urged the French government to explore peaceful avenues in an effort to prevent further casualties.
We need a resolution
After one month of protests, Emmanuel Macron announced the repeal of the fuel tax and an 8% increase of the minimum wage, in a vain effort to put an end to the protests. His refusal to reinstate the wealth tax, one of the symbols of the protesters' anger, highlights the rift between the people and their representatives. Emmanuel Macron and his government are hoping to see the movement lose momentum and eventually die. The yellow vests already have a foot in the door, but they need more support if they hope to achieve anything significant.
The yellow vests movement is now expanding beyond France's borders, as far as Australia. However, in some countries the only similarity with the French movement is the colour of the protesters' vests, not the ideas or the message behind them. The yellow vests movement is a crisis of democracy, or lack thereof. Giving people what they want, to be heard, would cost the French president his term, as would maintaining his political agenda. Emmanuel Macron can leave with his head up or risk losing it altogether.