France: The Yellow Vests movement is gaining new momentum one year later. Students, Hospital Employees, Transportation Workers and more are also protesting. Much needed reforms are on hold. The economy staggers. Social cohesion is being torn at the seams. Could this be the beginning of a perfect storm?
Oh Boy, Here We Go Again
One year ago, France’s working poor, overwhelmingly White and ethnically French (click here), said they had had enough and devoted their Saturdays to stopping “the system.” The last straw was a new tax on diesel for their cars, which came on the heels of a five billion euro tax-break for the wealthiest 358,000.
The Yellow Vests are people forced by gentrification to leave the cities and live far from their jobs. They have been pushed to the periphery in rural areas because they can’t, or won’t, Iive in the troubled social housing of the projects or working class banlieues with their heavy immigrant, Muslim, African and Arab populations.
This is a social reality, (1) no matter what leftist activists try to say about the “cross cultural” nature of the movement. It is also true that the Yellow Vests still have the support of two out of three Frenchmen even if President Macron refers to the movement in the past tense.
The Yellow Vests, with no formal organization and no real leadership, stopped Macron’s reform program in its tracks. Worse, it forced the French President to spend money on bonuses, entitlements, welfare and tax-breaks, that he just doesn’t have in reserve: 15 billion euros for the Yellow Vests, plus five billion in lost revenue in the tax-break for the 1%: €20 billion in all for 2019. France’s debt is 100% of GDP and the deficit will go over the Maastricht three percent limit this year. Economists agree that France’s debt (click here) is a ticking time-bomb for the euro zone and the world economy. Reforms are urgently needed.
Leaderless, Spontaneous, Still Dangerous
The Yellow Vests are people who took to the streets for the first time in their lives (2) and, for the first time in their lives, faced the repression of the state. Eleven people died during the protests in different accidents, over 4,400 people were injured in confrontations with the police, 10,718 were detained (3) by the police and 2,000 sentenced in court (40% to prison time). (click here) Nearly 100 were seriously injured by flash-ball weapons and concussion grenades; dozens of hands and eyes were lost.
Of course, other elements, such as the Black Block and Identitarians, took advantage of the popular rage to carry out acts of violence and lead others to clash with police. But the movement, all agree, remains overwhelmingly pacifist, although the government did guilt trip the Yellow Vests ‘for providing the opportunity to uncontrolled elements to wreak havoc.‘
The protesters, with at most a few hundred thousand occupying streets, traffic circles and so on, were a bigger threat than their numbers imply. The country was on the verge of total chaos (click here). The government had to give in. But polls this week indicate that the public is still very angry. The latest survey (click here) shows 69% feel the movement was justified despite the violence and 58% say they benefitted from it. Fifty-six percent still support continuing the movement.
What do the Germans Say?
This first anniversary of a movement which won’t go away may be just a spring-board for bigger troubles to come for President Macron. (click here) The students are taking to the streets, hospital workers have been demonstrating and striking against cuts for months, and the country’s transport workers plan a major national strike on December 5 against retirement reforms in their sectors. Those demonstrations will be joined by many others with diverse complaints and a common target: the man they call “the President of the rich.”
This convergence of anger may yet become a perfect storm. The ruling En Marche Party, (which got about 22% of the vote in May)(4), mainly supported by the well-off urban professionals, learned they cannot just ignore the street. But what manoeuvring room do they really have? That answer may be found in Berlin. How much are the Germans willing to give Macron to buy social stability without reform?
- Statistics are impossible to come by as any ethnic census is illegal in France where the law only recognizes whether you are French or not. So, it is impossible to say how many Muslims, Blacks or other, there are. Sociologists have found themselves in legal trouble for conducting their own census in studies.
- For a report on the rising violence and its causes, this paper I wrote earlier this year (click here)
- Macron’s party forced through a law giving police and administrators sweeping powers that infringe on civil liberties which the French refer to as “La Loi Gilets Jaunes” (click here to see my paper)
- Macron and his Party only got 23% of the vote in the 2017 elections but due to the French two-round system, they hold over 70% of the seats in Parliament.