Corentin and Sylvie looked as if they had come into Paris from the suburbs for a day’s shopping. They stared, amused but perplexed, at the honking chaos in the Place de la Concorde.
Hundreds of people in yellow, high-visibility jackets blocked the traffic. The police had fled. Six open-top, tourist-buses were trapped. Chinese passengers took photographs with their mobile phones, as if convinced that this was a French cultural event staged just for them.
Corentin and Sylvie were in their early 60s and neatly dressed, except that they too wore the fluorescent, high-viz jackets, which are the symbol of France’s latest street revolution. The expression on their faces said: Are we really part of this. Us? Respectable people like us?
“We have never been on a demonstration before, never in our lives,” Corentin said. “Usually we are sitting at home in front of the television asking ‘who do these people out on the streets think they are? Why does the government allow it?’”
“But enough is enough. This is about petrol and diesel prices, yes, but it’s also about people like us, people not at the top nor at the bottom – people who are sick to the teeth of being punished and fleeced to pay for everyone else.”
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More than 280,000 people blocked streets and roads in 2,000 demonstrations against petrol pump prices across France on Saturday and Sunday. One protestor in Savoie, a woman in her 60’s, was killed when the driver of a blocked car, taking her child to the doctor, panicked and reversed into the crowd. Over 400 other demonstrators were hurt, 14 of them seriously. They were mostly knocked over by motorists who objected to being delayed.
The protesters range from the middle class suburban elderly to the rural poor. Most road-blocks were good-humoured and well-behaved, although there was a scattering of racist and homophobic attacks on drivers who refused to halt, including an incident near Lyon where demonstrators snatched away the head-scarf of a muslim woman.
The uniform of the revolt is the yellow hi-viz jacket, or gilet jaune, which French drivers must carry in their vehicles by law. The protest has no formal leaders or organisation and has refused help from political parties or trades unions. It is predominantly rural and outer suburban, anti-Metropolitan and anti-politician but cannot easily be dismissed as a populist trend of hard-Right or hard-Left.
It has spread like wild-fire from several, unconnected petitions and blogs first posted on social media late last month. Two of the petitions were posted by women – a 50-something hypnotherapist in rural Brittany called Jacline Mouraud and a 30-something commercial traveller in the outer Paris suburbs, called Priscillia Ludosky. Neither had any previous connection with politics.
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Ms Ludosky, 33, moved to the Paris suburbs from Martinique in the French West Indies as a child. She runs a business selling perfume and cosmetics. Her dreadlocks and fluent, confident voice have become familiar to French TV viewers in the last few weeks.
Intelligent, entrepreneurial, suburban and black, Ms Ludosky is an effective spokeswoman for the yellow jacket movement. She symbolises how hard the protest is to define and how difficult it will be for President Emmanuel Macron to contain or to appease.
“We are a non-political movement that is sick of politics and politicians,” Ms Ludosky said in an interview with UnHerd, just after Saturday’s nationwide protests:
“It started with anger about new taxes on petrol and diesel but it’s about a general, nationwide fury. New taxes and higher taxes in France always seem to land on the people in the middle or at the bottom – pensioners, small business-people, people on low salaries, people in the suburbs or the countryside who have to drive a long way to work.
“Emmanuel Macron promised to be a different kind of President but nothing has changed. We just want him to make an effort for us for once.”
The government hopes that, after letting off steam, the unstructured protest will subside.
No chance, Ms Ludovsky told UnHerd. If the government thinks that it has ridden out the storm, it is in for a surprise.
The movement’s informal ‘spokespeople’ are discussing a rolling series of actions this week, next weekend and into December, she said. There is talk of truck drivers joining the protest. There is a possibility of a mass intervention by farmers – veterans and victors of many a bloody-minded confrontation with government in the past.
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The protest follows a centuries old French tradition of apparently leaderless unprisings by the lower orders, or La France d’en bas. It has been compared to the Jacquerie, the peasant rebellion in the 14th century, or to the 1968 student uprising. The centre-Right newspaper Le Figaro speaks of a Digital Jacquerie, because the movement spread online. There have also been comparisons with the anti-tax, anti-state protests led by a small shop-keeper, Pierre Poujade, in the 1950s, which gave the world ‘poujadism‘.
The French sociologist Alexis Spire cautions that these parallels, as well as comparisons with protest movements in other countries, are misleading. Poujadism, like the Tea Party movement in the US, was an attack on the state and on public spending. The yellow jackets are anti-government-as-usual, but they are pro-state and pro-state-spending. They complain that Paris does not spend enough on rural and suburban roads, public transport or hospitals – while piling heavy, new taxes onto non-Metropolitan France.
The spontaneous protest also reflects the collapse of the traditional French party-political structure. People, like Corentin and Sylvie, protesting in the Place de la Concorde, say they have lost faith in the centre-Right, the centre-Left and Macron’s new centre, to address their frustrations or anger. They also have no faith in the extremes of Right or Left, represented by Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon (both of whom have tried to muscle in on the protest and have been rebuffed).
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“We are here because we no longer believe that any kind of politicians will help us,” said Corentin, a retired trader in the Rungis wholesale food market south of Paris. “Whoever, we elect seems only to be interested in improving their own salaries and perks.”
Macron came to power 19 months ago riding this anti-party-political wave. He presented himself as a reforming rebel from outside the usual political “castes”. He is now dismissed in rural and much of suburban France as just “another politician” and worse, a technocratic, pointy-headed “president of the rich”. His approval rating sank this weekend to a new low of 25 per cent.
This pattern is not entirely new. In the last 25 years, Presidents Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande have suffered the same catastrophic collapse in popular support soon after their election. This can, in part, be explained by a characteristically French brand of perversity. The country cries out for “reform”, in the abstract, but opposes all “reforms”.
Something new is happening, however. The yellow jacket protests expose fault lines that stretch well beyond France: motorists v environmentalists; cities v the countryside and outer suburbs; the working class, the struggling middle, the middle-aged and the old v the Metropolitan and the enterprising young.
The immediate cause of the protest – a steep rise in petrol and diesel pump prices – was not wholly Macron’s ‘fault’. Most of the rise was due to a global spike in oil prices. This was compounded by a long-standing policy to drive up taxes on car fuel, and especially on diesel, for environmental reasons.
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Diesel has been undertaxed for decades in France, in the mistaken belief that it polluted less than petrol. As a result 60% cent of French cars are diesel-powered – a figure which rises to 70-80 % in some rural or outer-suburban areas.
Macron – backed by much of young, Metropolitan France – sees the petrol tax rises as a necessary move towards an oil-free future. The government has been bombarding Twitter in recent days with ads pointing out the health dangers of pollution from diesel fumes and the carbon-emission threat to global warming.
The yellow jackets say that the global warming arguments are being deployed hypocritically. Over 60% of the petrol and diesel pump price in France goes to the government, they complain. Only a small fraction of that goes to pay for better rural public transport or for other environmental projects to prepare France for an oil-free or oil-reduced future. Most goes to the general state budget.
But even before the petrol and diesel prices spiked, Macron was detested by ‘middle France’ for a series of tax reforms intended to make the country more competitive internationally. He abolished part of an annual “tax on fortunes”, to encourage capital investment. He increased a supplementary income tax and applied it to pensioners for the first time to bring the perennial French deficit within the Eurozone’s 3% of GDP limit. These changes may have been justified but they were poorly explained.
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Rural France was also incensed by Macron’s decision in July to reduce the maximum speed on two lane roads from 90 kph to 80 kph. Macron says that this is part of push to save lives in a country which has double the road mortality of the UK, with the same number of people and cars.
Rubbish, says rural and outer-suburban France. It is part of a push to increase the government’s Euros 1bn a year earnings from speeding fines. In their view, the ‘radar money’ goes directly to pay for ministerial limousines and rises in parliamentary salaries.
But there is also a deeper and older issue: a sense that tens of thousands of French people are being left behind, ignored or exploited by the thriving world of Metropolitan France, which includes not just Paris but Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Grenoble and many other cities. François de Rugy, France’s environment minister – or “minister for ecological transition” – sums up the issue well.
“I see above all the profound anxieties of a peri-urban France, imprisoned in an all-car world. There is an in-between France, which lives neither in the country nor in the town and whose homes are far from their place of work. “
“That France has the impression that they are invisible in the political debate. They have never been given a say in a policy which promotes urban sprawl while failing to address the question of poor rural and outer-urban public transport.”
Rugy is less persuasive when asked what the government can do to address these “anxieties” and appease the yellow jackets. The new petrol-pump taxes in January will not be scrapped, he says. Instead, the government will provide bigger grants for poorer people who swap an old car for fuel-efficient, less-polluting one. There will be tax-breaks for people who drive long distances to work and incentives for ride-sharing.
The French government is hoping that the strength of the yellow-jacket movement – its inexperience, its lack of traditional structure, its disparate demands – will be its downfall. It is also praying for a further downward drift in oil prices to calm tempers.
Priscillia Ludosky believes that the government is mistaken. “They are under-estimating how strongly people feel and how much our movement is growing every day,” she said. “They are judging us by the way that politics usually works in France. But we are not about politics as usual. That is what defines us. That is the whole point.”
To read more of John Lichfield’s reporting on the gilets jaunes, click here