Written by: Pietro Lepidi
The great revolt of the Gilets Jaunes that spread like wildfire throughout France seems to have cooled down. To some extent, this was a result of the massive police mobilisation and repression guided by the French ministry of the interior, Christophe Castaner. Likewise, the French president Emanuel Macron’s efforts to stamp out the protester’s flames by proposing policy reforms for low-income workers and measures for pensioners were an effective concession strategy. Macron also rolled backwards on some of his pro-business and environmental measures. Although the fire may be extinguished, its occasional burning embers are responsible for igniting weaker improvised manifestations in Paris and rural France. The impetus of this far-reaching movement might have quietened down, but the more deeply-rooted problems of the French society are still present, as evident in all post-industrial developed Western democracies.
The Gilets Jaunes movement began online, mostly on Facebook, on October 2018, and proliferated amongst the rampant rancour of rural France and its low skilled workers. The protesters contested the increased taxes on petrol and diesel which were proposed by Macron’s government as an initiative to combat climate change. For many citizens living in the peripheral areas of Paris, this change would increase the price of fuel, to an unaffordable level. In this way, the liberty of individuals has been threatened if they are ultimately unable to drive owing to the increased cost to consumers. The freedom and ability to drive, a privilege garnered in the post-war era and derived from the European economic boom, was endangered by a government that revealed itself as more interventionist and authoritarian than expected. The frustration and resentment which had built up amongst low-skilled workers over-time finally exploded in outrage in the aftermath of this new tax announcement. Starting from the 17th of November, massive protests broke out in numerous locations throughout France, blocking traffic circulation around cities and public transport within cities. The most visible of these protests was the weekly marches in the Champs-Elysées, initially accumulating the support of hundreds of thousands of people. Although the number of participants then fell weekly, by July 2019 the protests still counted for tens of thousands of people.
There are two main reasons that the protests have come to a halt. Macron implemented some reforms striving to tame the riots and their consequent violence which included an increased minimum wage, removing the tax increase for low-income pensioners, reintroducing overtime payments and tax-free end-of-year bonuses. Macron further set up the “great national debate” as a forum to listen to popular grievances and as a means to find beneficial solutions. Furthermore, in April 2019, re-indexation of lower pensions to the rate of inflation was introduced by the government as well as a drop in income taxes for low-wage earners. Even though these measures were welcomed by the Gilets Jaunes, many still believed they were not enough and advocated for the introduction of a wealth tax. This request was never accepted by Macron.
Those who were not convinced by Macron’s diplomacy, together with some extremist black bloc protesters, were violently repressed by the police. According to the figures reported by the French Ministry of the Interior, on 4th October this year, 2,495 protesters and 1,944 policemen (this number also partially includes firemen) were wounded in the clashes. These figures encompassed those who suffered from severe injuries, many of which were left handicapped after the brutal confrontations. A further 12,107 people were arrested, 2000 of which ended up in jail.
What is responsible for such a prolonged and sanguinary protest? Surely the French historical, political and social context is unique, with rural protests as an inherent characteristic dating back to the medieval Jacqueries. However, it would be reductive to say that the French lower-middle-class get involved in protests simply because that’s the way the French do politics. Instead, looking at how social classes are changing due to the integration of European and world economies, might provide a more enlightening insight. The effects of globalisation have changed the world of work, with groups of winners and losers emerging from such process.These groups are broadly reflected in the former categories in society: the upper-middle class, who typically reside in urban centres, and the lower, poorly-skilled middle class, encompassing peripheral areas.
In light of this textbook example of centre-periphery and class cleavages, French political parties seem myopic and unable to adequately adapt to the changing times. Parties have responded to globalisation in two ways. On the one hand, traditional conservative, liberal and socialist parties accept globalisation’s effects in toto. Having resigned the possibility of changing the effects and power of markets, these parties propose different measures to moderate its effect on the people without really addressing the increasing disparity issue between the rich and the poor. On the other hand, populist, sovereign and nationalist movements aim to dismantlethe globalised economy because only a privileged percentage of the population benefits from the system in place. Yet, the Gilets Jaunes are not demanding to destroy globalisation, they are asking to participate in it and share its benefits. This is analogously applicable to other popular grassroots movements such as Occupy in the USA, the Indignados in Spain and the recent Sardines movement in Italy. What is missing in Western European states, and perhaps in the USA, is a political party which advocates for fair globalisation, with a redistributive welfare mechanism that helps the lower-middle class and their children, while simultaneously maintaining a world economy.
As this article was written, new Gilets Jaunes protests have sparked in Nantes. During 2019, populist movements have dominated the political realm of England and Italy in the last elections, concurrently to the European Union being under threat of getting razed to the ground by Eurosceptic movements in the European May elections. All in all, 2019 has ended with no ground-breaking institutional reform in the Western world. The lack of reform in the European Union, and arguably also in the US, has meant that the lower-middle classes are still most affected and outraged by the detrimental impacts of globalisation. Protests, and all of the bloodshed they bring, will inevitably continue to manifest.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this opinion piece belong to the author and are independent of the Department of Political Economy and KCL Politics Society.