Is France on Fire?

A Look at the Gilets Jaunes Protest Movement



War-like pictures depicting France set a light by violent clashes between police and the “Gilets Jaunes”, or “Yellow Vests” movement, circulated widely in the media this past month. Cars torched, protesters tear gassed, barricades ripped down, water cannons and rubber bullets fired, public monuments vandalized, windows smashed, and even Christmas trees set on fire. But for the large majority of the French, daily life continued and the protests only meant a longer commute in the metro or receiving messages to stay out of downtown areas. Could there be a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and what is shown in the media? Is France really on fire?


Mantle Image Yellow Vests Gilets Jaunes


The Gilets Jaunes are a French protest movement sourced from worsening economic conditions and a disillusionment with French politics, marked by the wearing of yellow vests, accessible to all motorists in France. Later becoming fragmented in its goals, the movement was originally started in mid-November by the lower middle-class in rural and suburban France who worried that Macron’s new eco-tax on diesel fuels discriminated and further marginalized them against the upper class in light of rising living costs. Feeling disappointed by a leader who had initially boasted economic and social changes for all, the group felt that protesting was the only way to have their voices heard.


After the fourth wave of protests, Dovey Wan, the founding partner of Primitive, a crypto investment company, and Managing Director of Danhua Capital, tweeted a comparison between two images of a fire in the streets of Paris with the title “perspective matters...” While she clarified that these were not pictures of the same fire, she aimed to convey an important message: the media can frame a picture to instill an emotion, and one that may be quite far off from reality.  


Protesters who were on the front lines getting tear-gassed will probably tell you a much more violent story than someone living in a quiet Parisian neighborhood. Those involved in politics might view the situation as an expression of voter discontent or the failure of a democratic system, while those with a strong sense of protest may see it as engrained in French political culture. Even I was relatively cut-off from the protests and carried out my Christmas shopping in Paris unaffected. Almost as wide as the movement itself in its goals, are the diverging views of the same situation. Understanding the reality of the Gilets Jaunes therefore requires looking deeper into into French political culture.


As a Canadian studying in France, I often heard the same rhetoric about the country. The French love to protest, go on strike, and see every challenge as a chance for revolution. Even in Canada, the French province of Quebec has a higher affinity for protest than the rest of Canada. Yet, the protests in Quebec remain in large part relatively friendly. While not present at any large-scale protests, I often heard from my fellow university students about the 2012 “maple spring” protests against Quebec tuition hikes, the most recent student walkouts over unpaid internships, and last year’s protests against sexual assault on college campuses. Moving to France, I had this same idea that protests were just the French way to express discontent, and that protests could easily turn violent given the French’s strong memory of the French Revolution and the May 1968 student protests.


Making it even harder to see beyond this media portrayal were the actions of some individuals who invoked a sense of revolution as a justification for violent actions. As I passed by the French post bank in Rouen on the weekend, I noticed a reference to the French Revolution (shown below). The Gilets Jaunes movement was the largest public protest in decades with 282,000 protesters at its height, and resulted in two deaths, hundreds of injuries, and more than 1,000 in police custody. It is not to be taken lightly.


Mantle Image Gilets Jaunes Yellow Vests
As protests spread beyond Paris, common slogans like the one above spray painted on a post office in Rouen emerged. Translating into “the people want bread” protesters are making a clear reference to the 1789 French Revolution in the hope for drastic political and economic changes.


As protests spread beyond Paris, common slogans like the one above spray painted on a post office in Rouen emerged. Translating into “the people want bread” protesters are making a clear reference to the 1789 French Revolution in the hope for drastic political and economic changes.


Yet, the Gilets Jaunes as a social movement are uniquely politically heterogeneous, and therefore it is interesting that the media continues to concentrate on the more violent protests. It was only later, when the movement began to spread to other issues and escalated to anti-immigration sentiments and fascist tendencies, that it began to take on this more violent character. Hence, what the media represented was this later period as the movement became hijacked by vandals (or “black hoods”) who used violence to promote radical views, and expressed their anger and frustration with democracy. As a result, the legitimate roots of these frustrations and the divergence of opinions within the movement were lost to media consumers.


When looked at closer, France has deep social and economic issues which its citizens have been shouldering for a while. Yet, much of this was covered up by the public’s sentiments during the 2017 election that Macron, in contrast to Marine le Pen, would represent a new direction for France. As it became apparent that Macron’s changes showed more similarities to previous governments, the Gilets Jaunes motivated by these unaddressed grievances, chose to  become visible, and aimed to occupy these previously excluded spaces.


Moreover, lacking clear leadership and goals made it even harder for political leaders to negotiate and gave the movement its chaotic nature. A leader like Macron, who was already unpopular, and responded only minimally by lifting the carbon tax, instilling a monthly €100 bonus for minimum wage earners, ending pension, tax and social charges, only temporarily calmed the fire.


So which photo correctly depicts the situation? In my opinion, it is both. The Gilets Jaunes protests do display a violent nature, yet are not entirely made up of vandals. Taking part are peaceful individuals as well. Common to all, was this frustration with an increasingly economically and socially divided society and a disillusionment with democracy to provide effective means for voicing their frustrations.


The photos of Paris up in flames remind us of the potential for violence which French protest culture can encourage, especially in a highly frustrated society. Yet, focusing solely on an image of France burning covers up these much more complex issues. If looked at more critically, the Gilets Jaunes can actually foster understanding for the country’s continuing need to bridge its socio-economic gap and to make its citizens feel heard.


All of France may not be on fire; it may rather be a multitude of small fires which have been smoldering for too long. Any leader should know that the only way to put out these flames is to address them individually and distinctively, understand what fuels them, and learn to prevent them in the first place. Only then can France hope to finally address its long standing grievances and paint a more balanced picture in the media.


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