IT all began on November 17 as a peaceful, country-wide protest against French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to impose, as of January 1 next year, a sizeable tax on diesel oil.
The organisers of the movement are not city dwellers but people who live in the countryside areas far from the main towns. They either work on farms using tractors and other agricultural devices or drive diesel vehicles to travel long distances to work and back home.
The movement was quickly named les Gilets Jaunes, as demonstrators symbolically put on yellow vests, a legal obligation that every driver has to keep in their vehicle and wear in case of an accident or a technical breakdown. When the government refused to budge, similar demonstrations were carried out the following Saturday and once again last Saturday. Things really turned violent this time!
Traffic was blocked in all major cities of France, police were often attacked and cars were burnt on the streets. There were three deaths and in the capital itself national monuments were covered with graffiti. The most shocking sight was the disfigured statue of Marianne, a much revered French icon representing Liberty.
While the Yellow Vests have called for another round of demonstrations, named Act IV this morning, the movement has taken an unexpected proportion that may turn into a revolution.
President Macron, a former banker, abolished a number of taxes on big business soon after his election last year. He was immediately named ‘President of the Rich’. His future plans include not only heavy taxation on fuels but on the consumption of gas and electricity as well.
Why has he remained stuck to these ideas instead of lending an ear to common people’s demands?
Loire Valley journalist Jean Leauvergeat says the answer is simple. The 40-year-old president is more interested in his image as an international star than in his popularity in his own country. He wants to save the planet from pollution and believes that these measures would enhance his status on global scale as an ecologist.
But things are emerging differently. In Paris alone, last Saturday police were involved in face-to-face battles with some 3,000 demonstrators. Over 100 cars were destroyed, banks were attacked and shop windows were smashed in the most posh areas of the capital.
Though the president remained unmoved, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in a gesture of compromise offered to put away the tax rises for six months and encounter a delegation of the protestors; they refused to see him.
One Yellow Vest activist nevertheless suggested an alternative: “I am willing to see the Prime Minister…”, he told journalists, “…but only for a few minutes. I’ll have his resignation with me and all he has to do is to sign it.”
Though the president eventually announced the decision to pull back his tax proposals, what began as a peaceful protest against the rise in fuel prices, has turned into a national revolt against Macron himself. The Yellow Vests talk no longer of a withdrawal of the diesel tax but are simply demanding resignation by the president and dissolution of parliament.
Though unseen surprises are possible, everything leads one to believe today’s events could eventually go wild. Authorities have employed nearly 100,000 policemen in major cities and all sensitive areas have been banned to the public. In Paris itself, the Eiffel Tower, the museums and historical monuments will remain inapproachable. Shops and stores on the main avenues have already announced they will not open.
What is most frightening is the fact that Act IV will no longer be an exclusive Yellow Vests operation as major labour unions as well as students’ groups have announced they will actively take part in the countrywide protests.
“All this may sound totally abracadabra to foreigners…” says Jean Leauvergeat, “…but everything falls into place if you study the events that led Emmanuel Macron to the Elysée Palace and if you go through the French history a bit.
“His success was not a result of popularity but simply of two unexpected coincidences. The first was the scoop in a weekly of a fictive job for which the wife of the leading candidate François Fillion was paid a high salary for three years by the parliament. That destroyed Fillion’s chances and brought Macron face-to-face with the National Front candidate Marine Le Pen.
“But during a live televised debate before the second round, her behaviour was ridiculous even from the point of view of a child. She broke into laughter every two minutes and often laid her head, for no obvious reason, on a heap of files that she had before her. She eventually lost.”
The President of the Rich always has the same solution for people’s protests: “Go for the better!” Once, in front of TV cameras, he told a young man who complained of being unemployed: “All you have to do is to cross the street and you’ll find a job!”
Jean Leauvergeat concludes: “Macron reminds one of Queen Marie-Antoinette who was unable to understand the French revolution and asked a courtier as to why the people were angry. When told they had no breads to eat, she famously said: “Then why don’t they eat cakes?””
The writer is a journalist based in Paris: ZafMasud@gmail.com
Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2018