The Yellow Vests movement (Gilets jaunes) began in November 2018. Prior to the first occupations of roundabouts across France, a petition taking a stand against the rise of fuel prices was posted on line by a member of the public. Almost a million signed the text which was the springboard for the launch of the longest social movement in post-war France. (At the time of publishing the piece, the weekly demonstrations across France were still going on).
The government’s decision in 2017 to cut the speed limit on country roads from 90 to 80km per hour was another factor in the rise of the Yellow Vests. People sympathetic to the movement saw it as a failure on the part of the government to understand the needs of rural residents who are totally reliant on their cars.
The movement soon made further claims of a ‘progressive’ nature centred around the high cost of living. The Yellow Vests demanded the reintroduction of the tax on wealth (arguing that taxation is unfair as it falls on the working and middle classes), the increase of the minimum wage, or the implementation of the Citizen’s Initiative referenda. Protestors immediately got personal and called for the resignation of President Macron.
There is no alternative
Apart from abandoning the decision to rise taxes on fuel, Macron did nothing to answer the movements’ claims, nor to assuage public discontent. He basically reiterated that there was no alternative to his neoliberal economic policies, and gave licence to the police to handle demonstrators with extreme brutality.
The longest social movement in French history (but not at all the most numerous in terms of participants), is also a new sociological phenomenon. The Yellow Vests for the most part are newcomers to militancy. They are not members of a political party or of a trade union, most do not vote and they reject the entrenched left/right cleavage.
The Yellow Vests are in employment, but they struggle to make ends meet. They mostly are middle-aged, and living in rural or peri-urban areas. Women are quite well represented among protestors, but the movement is overwhelmingly white. The Yellow Vests is indeed a Franco-French story which has failed to attract the populations from an ethnic background who are essentially concentrated in urban areas.