by Ethan Azad
Recent news about the “gilets jaunes” riots in France attributes the political movement to public dissatisfaction with President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to increase fuel taxes in an effort to push the country towards a greener economy. While it’s true that the increased eco-tax caused widespread outrage, it is only a small reason for why nearly 300,000 French protesters from all parts of France decided to let their festering grievances be heard in mid-November 2018. The “gilets jaunes”, or “yellow vests” for the safety vests worn by protestors, have not held their tongues when condemning Macron’s policies that seem to favor the rich while taxing the poor.
The movement includes people from all walks of life, from high school students to professional rabble-rousers to police officers (albeit in more subtle ways). However, most of the gilets jaunes are working class adults with varying political views who simply seek to address social inequality. Protests are organized via Facebook by informal leaders and while the vast majority of participants are seeking more equitable social governance, both left and right-wing extremists have often managed to infiltrate the protests to further their own agendas. While most protests have been peaceful, they have also, at times, been overzealous. Protestors have set up roadblocks, set vehicles on fire, destroyed and vandalized public property and actively fought with law enforcement. Over 70% of the French population agrees with the agenda of the gilet jaunes, but an even greater percentage does not condone the violence that a handful of individuals have taken part in.
I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in Paris before and during the sixth week of protests and decided to ask gilets jaunes participants and non-participants alike what aspects of Macron’s presidency provoked such anger. Reoccurring responses included, “Macron is zero!” and “He is like Mr. Krabs, always taking.” The gilets jaunes are not only speaking out against increasing fuel taxes–which weighs most heavily on the working class–but also corporate tax cuts, increasing withholding taxes, the rising cost of living and Macron’s “Jupiterian attitude.” Because the gilets jaunes movement lacks a formal leader, their demands range across a spectrum of social grievances but essentially address inequality, lack of government attention along the periphery of France and difficulties faced by the working class.
Sound familiar? That’s because America faces very similar issues. Americans would be wise to pay attention to the gilets jaunes as the U.S. Gini coefficient – which measures a country’s wealth inequality – is 41.5. Comparatively, in France this number is 32.7, meaning a greater percentage of the population shares the country’s wealth. So why don’t we Americans have a colorful vest movement of our own? The answer likely has to do with our relative dividedness. Even if our disgruntled interest groups managed to reach an agreement, the United States is so widely dispersed geographically that meaningful national protests are much more difficult to organize than they were in France. At the very least, Americans should applaud the gilets jaunes movement for being able to put aside petty differences in the name of addressing long-lasting socioeconomic injustices.
Conflicting with the priorities of protestors, Macron’s policies seek to make France one of the leading actors in the fight against climate change, while also attracting foreign investment by decreasing the costs associated with doing business in France. His 23% approval rating has little to do with these admirable ambitions, but everything to do with his approach. Periphery France and the working class in Paris have no particular attraction to fossil fuels, nor do they necessarily hold anti-corporate values. They instead find fault with policies conflicting with their ability to make ends meet at the end of the month. Taxing the working class, disincentivizing saving and catering to the wealthy have not helped Macron’s case. Worse yet, he is perceived as pompous and out of touch with ordinary French citizens.
The gilets jaunes is a people’s movement. Its participants prefer no single leader because they believe their strength comes from their solidarity as a group. Although this certainly makes it difficult to negotiate with them, it shows how upset French citizens are with their government’s perceived lack of effort in creating an equal and just country. Meanwhile, current American politics are rather divisive and both citizens and policymakers can benefit from taking a look at French solidarity in the face of socioeconomic challenges. Many protestors told me, “This is about humanity.” Race and political views are irrelevant to them. What is relevant is the need to hold policymakers accountable for their duties to their people. Until governments prioritize their citizens, there will always be gilets jaunes movements. Though the movements may be represented under different uniforms, people will continue to fill the streets when their backs are against the wall.