In the Yellow Jackets’ heartland

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This article is from Politico, and is by John Lichfield. 

John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years. 

While journalists were being assaulted by gilets jaunes protesters all over France, I was visiting the local Yellow Jackets on a roundabout next to the supermarket.

They offered me a cup of coffee.

When I first went to see them in November, they were 100-strong. A dozen of them were out last weekend, and they had a story to tell.

“We have split,” one of them said. “The others have gone off with our money, over €500 which was given to us by motorists. They’re in the village down the road.”

The leader of the departed “breakaway” movement, it turned out, was José, a retired builder aged 61. He was the man who stepped forward confidently to explain the Yellow Jackets movement to me in late November.

“The truth is that the concessions we’ve won from Macron so far came because of the violence. Otherwise we’d have got nothing” — Florent, Yellow Jacket
“He wanted to take over, to control everything,” a woman at the roundabout protest said of José. “He thought that he was our leader but we don’t have leaders in the Yellow Jackets. We are the people. We are anti-political and anti-politics. He is a fraud, an opportunist.”

Here, in microcosm, on the outskirts of a small Normandy town, are the pretensions, the naiveties, the confusions, the strengths and the weaknesses of the Yellow Jackets movement as it enters its 10th consecutive week of protests. Although reduced in active numbers, my local Yellow Jackets insist that they have overwhelming passive, local support.

The movement is not a social protest, they say. It is a rising by the “people.” Representative, democratic institutions must be abolished. There must be direct, internet-based, popular democracy. The wealth confiscated by politicians living a “life of luxury” in Paris must be redistributed.

This was once the rhetoric of political extremes (Far right? Far left? Hard to say) but the current speakers are ordinary, provincial people — a warehouse worker, a home-carer, a well-heeled grandmother.

Across France last Saturday, by the government’s calculation, 84,000 people took part in protests, including 8,000 in Paris. This is a sharp increase on the numbers just before Christmas but well below the 280,000 who turned out in November.
Driving around France in recent days, it seems that the yellow tide is receding. The once widespread roundabout blockades are much diminished. The proportion of drivers displaying yellow high-vis vests on their dashboards — whether as an insurance policy or a symbol of support — has fallen dramatically.

In November and early December, one in three cars in my part of Calvados, a hotbed of the movement, wore a yellow badge of protest. My count in the last few days is one in 10 overall, with greater concentrations in the villages and on smaller roads.

There is also the beginning of a timid backlash against the movement. President Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating, which had been sinking for months, has leapt by five points to the dizzy heights of 28 percent. He sent a letter to the French people on Sunday night, urging them to take part in a “consultation” exercise on a “new contract for the nation.” A series of public debates will address the complaints by the Yellow Jackets about inequities in France’s economy, public services and byzantine tax system. Macron still insists that his partial abolition of an annual tax on capital wealth — one of the principal Yellow Jacket bugbears — is untouchable.

A march is planned in Paris on January 27 by “blue vests,” “red scarves” and a third countermovement that rejects violence and wishes to defend France’s democratic institutions. Support for the Yellow Jackets, once put by pollsters at 80 percent, has fallen to 30 percent “outright support” and 60 percent “sympathy.”

On the other hand, support for the Saturday demonstrations in towns and cities is growing again after collapsing just before Christmas. The mood of those taking part is as uncompromising as ever. Some are violent. Others stand apart from the violence but do not denounce it. A few disapprove of the attacks on journalists and try to intervene. Most do not. Yellow Jackets are convinced that French mainstream media presents a distorted picture of their movement. Immersed in their own social media, and the propaganda of ultra-right and ultra-left sites, they believe that systematic police violence is being covered up. It isn’t.

Eat the rich

The Yellow Jackets’ media sites vastly exaggerate the share of French taxes taken directly by politicians. Brigitte Macron is a favorite target. A far-right site popular with Yellow Jackets reports that her “salary” is being “raised” to €550,000 a year. But she receives nothing from the state.

I point out to my local Yellow Jackets on the Super U roundabout at Thury-Harcourt that the total cost of administering the French national government, including all salaries and expenses for politicians and civil servants, is 14 percent of the budget. Education takes over 50 percent; defense over 30 percent. They refuse to accept the figures. They say that politicians — and especially Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron — live the lives of gilded millionaires at their expense.

The local Yellow Jackets say they are “peaceful” and “against all violence.” None would condemn the violent assaults on journalists or the destructive behaviour of Yellow Jackets and their allies in urban militias of the ultra-left and the ultra-right.
Florent, an unemployed 48-year-old father of two, says: “The truth is that the concessions we’ve won from Macron so far came because of the violence. Otherwise we’d have got nothing.”

He is probably right about that.

So here we are, nine weeks into a protest like no other that I have covered in 22 years in France. Many abroad, and also in France, persist in seeing the Yellow Jackets as a standard protest movement, with specific social and economic demands that could be bought off by “concessions” from Macron.

Most protesters who thought that way have already deserted. Some, under one of the initiators of the movement, Jacline Mouraud, are trying to create a political party, Les Emergents, which hopes to run candidates in the European election in May. They are regarded by other Yellow Jackets as “splitters” and “frauds,” just like the local breakaways in Normandy.

The remaining Yellow Jackets, whether violent or not, see the movement as an insurrection against the status quo, an intermittent “putsch” that will happen every Saturday until the constitution of the Fifth Republic is overthrown. They have specific demands, including a steep increase in the minimum wage, social benefits and pensions, and a sharp cut in VAT and other taxes. But the core demand is the removal of Macron and all career politicians and their replacement with a new system of government through référendum d’initiative citoyenne, or popular votes.

Strength in numbers

The Yellow Jackets hugely overestimate their own strength. They do not have the numbers to bring down the Republic, whether by violent or peaceful protest. On the other hand, the state does not — despite some of the nonsense spread on social media — have any intention of destroying or discouraging the movement by violent repression.

The result is an impasse.

France is in a war of attrition that could go on for months, with calamitous results for the economy, especially for tourism and investment. As the specialized riot police and gendarmerie grow exhausted by week upon week of protest, the chances grow of a truly bloody incident.

“They have dominated the national conversation for too long” — Laurent Segnis, counterprotester against the Yellow Jackets
There is already talk on social media of a lurch toward outright terrorism, using guns and explosives. French police officials say, darkly, that the Yellow Jackets movement, whatever its origins, is no longer the disorganized, leaderless spontaneous protest of its early days.

Macron’s consultation exercise will probably change nothing. The only thing that might deflate the Yellow Jackets is a strong, popular rebuke to their pretension to represent “all the people.”

Laurent Segnis is a 36-year-old lawyer from the outer Paris suburbs who is helping to organize the counterdemonstration planned in Paris on January 27.

“They have confiscated the microphone,” he tells me. “They have dominated the national conversation for too long. They have legitimate grievances. Yes, there is real suffering in some parts of France. But nothing justifies their claim to represent the whole people or their desire to tear down the democratic institutions which may be imperfect but protect the weakest most of all.

“The movement has tapped real anger and distress in parts of France but it has turned — or has been turned — into something bizarre, cruel and grotesque. It is time for ordinary people to stand up and cry halt.”

It remains unclear whether “ordinary people” agree. Many, though exasperated with the Yellow Jackets, are enjoying the discomfiture of their brash, young president. They see January 27 as a pro-Macron march even though the organizers insist it is not.

Over 9,000 people have declared their intention to march from République to Bastille on January 27 in the “Marche Républicaine des Libertés.” This is more than the number of Yellow Jackets who marched in Paris last Saturday. A much bigger turnout will be needed to snatch the microphone from the Yellow Jackets.