It’s Saturday 5th January, and the “Gilets Jaunes” are hosting “Act VIII” of their protest, the first mobilisation of 2019 and probably not the last. While the movement has waned in numbers a little over the past two weeks of festivities and after Macron’s declarations in December, this week they’re hoping to give it a new lease of life.
According to Agence France Presse (and relayed by Le Monde, which I’m now relaying for you in English), around 500-600 “Gilets Jaunes” gathered on the Champs Elysées this morning to hold a “general assembly”. One of the group’s makeshift leaders claimed, via megaphone, that “we are going to protest here every Saturday, all through 2019”. Others start chanting, calling for Macron to resign. They want to take back control of France. They want more say in politics for ordinary people, including the creation of a “citizen-initiated referendum” which would allow citizens to force politicians to resign, to propose new legislation, and other things.
Elsewhere in France, the Gilets Jaunes have set up other means of protest – some marched towards Beauvais Airport near Paris (where they were not allowed to enter), while hundreds blocked roads in Avignon and Marseille in the South of France. Smaller or lesser-known cities all across France have also been effected by blocked roads and roundabouts. Near Nîmes, yesterday, hundreds of litres of oil were spilt across a major road by the protesters. As a result, all protests in the area have been banned all weekend.
At 2pm, however, the main protest in Paris is set to take place near the Hôtel de Ville. Keep your eyes peeled for their response to Macron’s New Year’s greetings.
What was in Macron’s New Year’s speech?
The speech centred around three themes: “truth, dignity, hope”. While the first theme can be interpreted in different ways – the concept of “truth” can sometimes be used to manipulate people, or in an intolerant manner towards people with different views – here Macron used it to try and stimulate conversation and dialogue, and to criticise fake news. This links to his planned “grand débat” (big debate) in which he has promised to communicate with the French population through a consultation with mayors, etc. The idea has received a mixed response, many believing it’s all talk and no real action, while others are pushing for stronger consultation measures.
The speech was an obvious attempt to re-establish trust and patience in the French population. His government has been seen as scrambling to hold onto control in recent weeks, and now – with another big reshuffling of his cabinet on the way – he is trying to show he’s recovered and he is strong. He reminded the French people that they have the chance to be heard when they vote in elections, and that reforms take time. He will push through changes which make things better. They just have to wait.
A preliminary survey by OpinionWay found that 60% of participants were unconvinced by Macron’s New year speech, while 40% were convinced (of which 14% were very convinced). 40% isn’t bad given his extremely low approval ratings… but right now he needs a much larger percentage to support him if he wants to re-establish peace and stability.
What has Macron already tried to do? Was it successful?
Before Christmas, Macron released a wave of new measures to try and appease the Gilets Jaunes:
- He very quickly cancelled his fuel tax – the tax which sparked the protests in the first place.
- He called on all businesses that can afford it to give employees a special end of year bonus, which would be tax free. This was a lovely idea to try and boost spending power for those who meet difficulties over the festive period… but he crucially forgot that, typically, companies who have the means to give out hefty Christmas bonuses are the companies who already pay pretty well. The less well-paid sectors, workers on minimum wage, probably don’t work for companies who can afford to spend money on bonuses at the request of the President…
- He announced he would roll back unpopular taxes on pensioners, which his government had introduced previously.
- He said he would remove taxes on overtime wages.
- He increased the minimum wage, leading to a €100 increase per month for workers, starting in 2019. He promised companies wouldn’t have to foot the bill for this measure, either.
Some protesters were satisfied with the measures, perhaps contributing to the fall in attendance at protests. Others, however, won’t be satisfied until bigger changes are seen.
You have to remember, too, that the Gilets Jaunes isn’t all about politics. In today’s world, where society is changing and so are our relationships with our increasingly anonymous communities… participating in the movement also provides a sense of community and involvement for a lot of people. Not all of them want violence or aggression. They want unity and to be understood by the elite who have power.
Macron plans on writing a “letter to the people of France”, a strategy which has become embedded in French politics over the last few decades. It’s not yet clear how it will be distributed or when; in any case, he must be careful to dodge criticisms abut spending state funding (for example, if he used government funds to send out letters to households), or not listening to the legitimate problems of the Gilets Jaunes.
Will the “gilets jaunes” movement die down?
The makeshift ‘leaders’ of the movement hope not. Given that this is the 8th weekend of protests and numbers are still in their hundreds, we’re definitely seeing the potential for the crisis to continue into the coming weeks if not months.
Even if the numbers begin to dwindle and the weekly protests slow down, don’t forget that the majority of the French population supported the movement and hold sympathy for the participants. We have to ask whether or not it’s really going to be accurate to say it’s “over” when that stronghold of support still exists and the underlying problems have not yet been resolved.
This much is clear: it’s not over yet. Stay tuned!
MINI POLITICS is a new series on my blog. Every week, I will be writing a short and simple explanation of a current political issue or event in Europe, designed to be accessible for people who don’t think they’re interested in politics as well as those who are interested in European politics but don’t want to trawl through pages of analysis, or who don’t speak the language of the country where the event is taking place. Mini summaries of big questions, made simple.