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Protests in Paris

  • On November 17, about 3 lakh people from small towns and rural France descended on Paris, led by drivers wearing vests, to protest the rise in fuel prices caused by a new tax
  • These are being called gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests
  • The political violence in France follows well-worn patterns that have their roots in the country’s revolutionary past
  • This means that the mere erection of a barricade can turn a tedious protest march into a pseudo-revolutionary action with powerful political ramifications

How did the violence erupt?

  • It is significant that the catalyst for the protests was rising fuel prices
  • Those most reliant on their cars are those who live farthest from urban areas and do not have access to regular public transport
  • In addition, there has been a complete policy reversal on diesel fuel
  • After almost half a century of subsidies, the French state has been taking away financial incentives on diesel since the early 2000s
  • This is a heavy blow for the 61% of French people whose cars run on diesel, and for the truckers and farmers who were used to getting their fuel on the cheap
  • While fuel prices were clearly the catalyst and continue to be at the core of the leaderless, social media-organised movement’s core, issues of declining welfare services and unemployment allowance have also come to the fore

Uniqueness of the movement

  • Some of the techniques used in the recent protests in France mirror those used by trade unions
  • Shutdowns and blockades have been the stock-in-trade of the French labour movement for more than 150 years
  • After the collapse of the French empire in the 1950s and 1960s, the French police did bring their peculiarly violent methods of control and interrogation back to metropolitan France, with sometimes devastating consequences
  • None of these clichés really gets to the heart of the so-called gilets jaunes (yellow vest) protests that have rocked France for the past three weeks
  • This is because the protests do not fit the usual historic parallels
  • The movement is not led by any union or political party
  • No one can say that it is a structured ‘movement’
  • It also seems to combine elements of the right and left — and especially elements of the far-right and far-left — that make an ideological interpretation of the protests awkward
  • The protesters’ demands are not clearly articulated: some want tax cuts (on fuel), some want tax rises (for the rich), some want more public services, some want more generous state benefits, some want to smash up symbols of capitalism, some want a stronger President, some think the current President is too strong, and some want all of these things at once
  • Given this extraordinary dispersion of demands, it is hard to give a fixed reading of what the gilets jaunes represent

Double-bind of the French state

Obsessive focus on the French state

  • From the beginning, the gilets jaunes have targeted the French state as both villain and saviour
  • They have organised groups to protest outside government offices all over the country, especially in smaller provincial towns
  • This has frequently been accompanied by violence and vandalism
  • Almost all of the protesters agree that the state is not doing enough and has neglected their needs
  • Yet, despite their ire, the gilets jaunes also demand redress from the very same state they abhor
  • The state is held as sole responsible and sole guarantor

Wide geographical dispersion

  • The focus on Paris has been misleading
  • Recent events are spread out across metropolitan France and even overseas
  • In the overseas territory of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, the entire island has been brought to a standstill by targeted traffic blockades
  • This geographical reach reflects another long-standing structural pathology of the French economy, namely the sharp division between centre and periphery
  • While urban areas in France have tended to develop better infrastructure and more integrated community structures, the withdrawal of state aid has had the opposite effect in peri-urban and rural areas, and in the highly unequal overseas territories

Way forward

The most likely scenario is that the protests will peter out due to fatigue, demobilisation and a lack of leadership. The protests also point to a deeper cleavage within French society that is likely to resurface unless the fundamental issues around models of development, the welfare state and national identity are addressed

The people of France clearly need a deeper dialogue to address their sense of alienation. The most urgent task facing France’s elite is to elaborate a more inclusive political project that will begin to reduce the country’s well-documented inequalities.

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