Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Will France’s Yellow Vests come back to haunt Macron on election day?

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The most potent protest movement in recent French history, the Yellow Vest uprising looked at one point like it might bring a premature end to Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. More than three years after it was smothered, its politicised remnants are counting on their ballots to finish the job.

France’s upcoming presidential election has been described as the least suspenseful in decades, a lopsided contest in which Macron is widely expected to prevail over a motley crew of challengers rejected by a majority of voters.

It’s a prospect 56-year-old Jérôme Batret finds hard to stomach, more than three years after the farmer from rural Auvergne first donned a “yellow vest” in protest at Macron’s government – joining an unconventional insurgency that caught Paris elites napping, rattling the government, baffling commentators, and eventually inspiring copy-cat protests around the world.

Named after the now-famous fluorescent waistcoats that are mandatory in French cars, the Gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests) staged more than 60 consecutive weeks of protests against economic hardship, mounting inequality and a discredited political establishment. They manned roundabouts across the country night and day, took to the streets of towns and cities on every Saturday, and at their peak in December 2018 even stormed the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris, amid scenes of chaos not witnessed since May 1968.

A Yellow Vest protest on the Champs-Elysées in Paris on December 8, 2018. © Christian Hartmann, Reuters

On the day a sea of yellow swarmed the Champs-Elysées, protesters in Batret’s usually tranquil hometown of Le Puy-en-Velay set fire to the local police prefecture with a molotov cocktail. When the French president paid a secretive visit days later to offer shaken officers his support, his vehicle was chased away by angry protesters shouting “Tous pourris” (You’re all corrupt) and “Macron resign”.

Batret was among the very first Gilets jaunes, manning a nearby roundabout non-stop for three weeks. During those heady days, it felt like Macron’s fall was “only a matter of days”, he recalls in an interview with FRANCE 24. Little did he expect the young president would see off the challenge and come back stronger three years later, poised for another mandate.

“He didn’t respect the people back then and he doesn’t respect them now,” says Batret, citing Macron’s pledge last year to “emmerde” (piss off) those who reject Covid-19 vaccines. “We have a president who wants to piss off his own people – and yet he’ll win again.”

‘Politicians in Paris don’t give a shit about us’Like other rural and suburban workers who formed the backbone of the Yellow Vest insurgency, Batret says his spending power has plummeted during Macron’s five years in office – a turbulent term marked by the coronavirus pandemic and now the fallout from the war in Ukraine. Surging energy prices mean most of his earnings are now swallowed up by the fuel he needs to run his car and tractor, and heat his house.

“People in Paris tell me it’s not so bad for them, but out here in the countryside we’ve got no choice,” he says. “My sons work 35 kilometres from home. That’s 400 euros per month in petrol just to get to work.”

The trigger for the Yellow Vest uprising was an unpopular fuel tax, ostensibly designed to finance France’s transition to a green economy – though it soon became apparent that its proceeds would mostly be used to plug a budget deficit widened by the government’s tax cuts for businesses. The levy infuriated motorists in rural and suburban areas starved of public transport and other services, where households are heavily reliant on their cars. 

This original association with motor vehicles, cemented by the symbol of the high-visibility vests, allowed some commentators in well-connected cities to dismiss the protesters as recalcitrant, selfish motorists unconcerned by climate change – an image that has largely stuck. 

“Politicians in Paris don’t give a shit about us,” says Batret. “They make empty promises come election time and then leave us to rot. They have no respect for the people.”

A longtime conservative voter, the organic farmer says he will no longer vote for career politicians “who’ve never done anything real in their lives”. On April 10 he will cast his ballot in favour of Jean Lassalle, the Occitan-speaking son of Pyrenean shepherds who was fined 1,500 euros in 2018 for wearing a gilet jaune in France’s National Assembly. 

Jean Lassalle sports a yellow vest at the National Assembly on November 21, 2018. © AFP handout

“I know lots of people who never voted before but are now interested in the ‘small candidates’, like Lassalle, [trotskyist Philippe] Poutou, and others who never get mentioned in the media,” says Batret. “I also know people who’ll back extremists like [far-right polemicist] Eric Zemmour, but that says more about their state of despair than their true beliefs.”

When voters head back to the polls two weeks later for the second-round run-off, polls suggest they are likely to face a repeat of the 2017 duel between Macron and veteran far-right candidate Marine Le Pen – a prospect Batret is not relishing.

“On April 24 they’ll be telling us to back Macron as the lesser evil, but I don’t think he is,” he says. “If it’s Macron versus Le Pen again, I’ll vote Le Pen. And if it’s Zemmour, I’ll leave the country.”

‘The Gilets jaunes didn’t just evaporate’Within months of the rioting witnessed on the Champs Elysée in late 2018, the number of Yellow Vests out on the streets had starkly diminished, and Macron could claim to have largely seen off the most formidable challenge to his presidency. 

In terms of its material objectives, the movement was only partially successful. It forced the government into a series of crisis measures to prop up purchasing power, for instance by raising minimum pensions, which helped sap support for the movement. So did Macron’s “Great National Debate”, called in response to the protests, which the ubiquitous president soon turned into a town-hall road-show offering him unrivalled media coverage – while the Yellow Vests were kept at bay. 

Still, the movement left an indelible mark on France, sending a clear warning to the country’s self-styled “Jupiterian” president and putting neglected swathes of the country back on the map.

“The Gilets jaunes didn’t just evaporate after taking off their vests,” says Magali Della Sudda, a researcher at Sciences-Po in Bordeaux, who has studied the uprising from its inception and continues to monitor its resurgences. 

While the Yellow Vests are now a scattered and diminished force, Della Sudda identifies successive “waves of mobilisation”, some coinciding with policies or statements that galvanised protesters, like the introduction of a Covid-19 health pass restricting people’s freedom of movement or Macron’s pledge to “emmerde” anti-vaxxers.

“There are signs the movement is picking up again, focusing once again on its original themes of purchasing power and social justice,” she says, pointing to the tentative return of Yellow Vests on roundabouts across the country. 

“Of course history never repeats itself quite the same way, but we can expect the movement to gain traction again, in one form or another, in the coming months – for instance if Macron puts his pension reform back on the table,” she adds, referring to an unpopular pension overhaul which the government forced through parliament without a vote and then suspended amid the pandemic.

Della Sudda says this year’s presidential campaign has done very little to address the grievances voiced by the Yellow Vests and their supporters, further fuelling popular resentment of politicians. Having pored over some of the tens of thousands of cahiers de doléances (complaint books) drawn up as part of Macron’s national debate, she points to a glaring gap between the country’s dominant political discourse and ordinary people’s real concerns.

“There is a huge discrepancy between the complaints voiced by the Gilets jaunes and by the broader public and the way political parties and the media fail to address these topics,” she says. “It took a war in Ukraine for candidates and the media to start talking about purchasing power – but the problem of energy and food prices did not start with the war.”

Surveys have consistently placed the cost of living at the top of voters’ concerns, followed by health and the environment – largely mirroring the priorities listed by French citizens in the cahiers de doléances, particularly those from rural areas where hospitals and other public services have shut over the years. And yet prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the presidential campaign was dominated by talk of immigration and Islam, driven by the unrivalled media exposure enjoyed by the likes of Zemmour.

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