At the outbreak of the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement in France on November 17, 2018, many people didn’t see a cause for alarm.
“I didn’t think anything of it initially,” said AP French teacher Robin Oliver. “It was just like, ‘Oh, that’s the French being French’… The French are much more politically active than Americans are. They tend to be much more eager to protest and to jump up and down.”
But when images surfaced of graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe, burned cars, and shattered store windows, the protesters’ bright neon vests captured the eyes of the globe. As the demonstrations still reach no clear stopping point, protests continue to block the major roads like the Champs-Elysées and fuel depots. Since November, ten people have died in skirmishes, in addition to thousands of arrests and 3,000 injuries.
Named after the high-vis jackets that every vehicle must carry by French law, the movement rose through social media in protest of an increase in fuel prices scheduled to take effect in January – twelve cents per gallon on gasoline, 24 cents for diesel.
In an effort to discourage fossil fuel emissions, the French government initiated a long-term fuel tax increase plan in 2014. Although their effects are far-reaching, these gas taxes would have hit lower- and middle-income individuals the hardest, many of whom live away from urban areas and rely on private vehicles to go to work. Instead of targeting individuals’ fuel consumption, said junior Emre Duvenci, the government should improve public transportation systems and raise emissions taxes on factories that burn fossil fuels.
“Gas won’t really affect the rich because they have the money, but the poor don’t really have the money to pay extra,” said Duvenci. “I’m one to believe that the environment is very important but that people come before the environment.”
Nevertheless, outcry over the increase is only a symptom of a deeper frustration with the government. Over the course of two months, the reasons driving people take to the streets have expanded to other grievances, including unrest over the elevated cost of living under president Emmanuel Macron, who made campaign promises of tackling the unemployment rate and labor laws.
“The [French] family that I’m friends with, they were saying there’s a lot of frustration, especially with the EU, there’s lack of transparency,” said AP French teacher Dr. Elizabeth Hanson. “They say it’s for gasoline, but a lot of people don’t believe [it]. Is it really for gasoline? Where is it really going?”
According to Duvenci, the outrage of the protesters is warranted, and even necessary for substantive change. “I feel like violent protest is very, very important sometimes, because government cares about infrastructure and damage to infrastructure,” said Duvenci. “I don’t believe in people getting hurt necessarily, but I believe in property getting hurt, because property can be replaced – if it’s government property, they have the money to replace it.”
Although protests have destroyed police cars, toll booths, and emergency vehicles, not all property damaged has been government property. Some protesters have looted and smashed shops, including small businesses. The blockades have prevented suppliers from transporting groceries and merchandise to stores.
“There comes a point where complete and utter outcry becomes something that is going to slow down political change,” said Sams. “Rather than acting as a catalyst for political change, it just creates more barriers and division between people and politicians that might have taken your side had you slowed down a little bit.”
At any rate, the protests have inspired a few concessions. On December 4, Prime Minister Éduoard Philippe and the president announced a six-month suspension of the fuel tax plan. Six days later, Macron offered the gilets jaunes several new measures for low-income workers, including a €100 increase on the minimum wage for certain families and tax relief for retired individuals. The package would cost the government €10 billion in total. On January 15, Macron invited citizens to participate in forums around the country as part of a democratic “national debate.” In an open letter to the people, he suggested discussion questions for the town hall meetings, including “Which taxes should be lowered first?”
Nevertheless, many are skeptical of his willingness to implement these concessions as a genuine effort to reconnect with the populace.
“[The government’s] hand was forced in this case,” said Duvenci. “Just the fact that he waited that long for the protest to grow that big shows that he’s not really responding to the people and more to the fear of what the people can do.”
For Duvenci, these concessions demonstrate the power of disruptive unrest to enact lasting political change. Sams, however, is concerned that the violent protests have made Macron less keen to agree to future concessions. “Macron had to take action, but I don’t think it was willing action,” said Sams. “Action at all is something, but it might have slowed down something in the future that could have happened… That’s one of our political downfalls – alienating those we might have to work with in the future.”
While Macron claimed partial responsibility for causing resentment and offered to prioritize the people’s interests, the French president also refused to reconsider his pro-business campaign reforms, destroying the gilets jaunes’ hopes for a raised tax on wealth. “When taxes are too high, our economy is starved of the resources that could be usefully invested in companies, creating jobs and growth,” Macron wrote. “We will not undo the measures we have introduced to put this right, encourage investment and ensure that work pays more.”
In fact, many believe that some protesters joined the movement for the sake of countering Macron. Former French presidential candidate Marine LePen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, expressed support for the Yellow Vests and appealed to them to call for Macron’s resignation during the May 2019 European Parliament elections. The absence of a leader, said Oliver, also makes the movement susceptible to people only interested in destruction.
“That’s where you have that fine balance as to, ‘Well, if there are enough people behind it, then maybe they’re prepared to make those sacrifices, but if the movement doesn’t have enough popularity, we’ll end up becoming self-destructive,’” said Oliver. “Rather like the Civil Rights movement, you need to have strong figureheads who can be seen as guiding the movement in the right direction and keeping it away from violent, ugly protest.”
Oliver is not the first to mention the American Civil Rights movement. With the success of the Montgomery bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins, some Americans turn to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s mode of nonviolent protest to question the more radical methods of the gilets jaunes. Additionally, recent movements in America – the March For Our Lives for gun safety, the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March, and the NFL kneelings – have also been nonviolent.
“I think movements like [Yellow Vests] have to be enacted with positivity and movement toward peaceful change,” said Sams. “I mean, even if we look at American history and the Civil Rights movement, obviously there were violent protests, but the primary drive for change in the country came from lots of peaceful protests… In the March for our Lives, obviously it was rooted in anger from the American population that we weren’t getting the safety that we need, but they framed it in such a way that it seemed to only to bring people closer together. It didn’t create any violence that might have deterred someone from joining the movement.”
Nevertheless, said Duvenci, nonviolent protests can only attract the necessary attention and action if supported by a large majority of the population. Whereas grassroots nonviolent demonstrations in America can enact change in smaller chunks through state governments, most of the power in France is concentrated at the federal level, which requires any movement in France to have either widespread support or the spectacle of disruptive protest in order to change policy.
“States’ rights [are] only seen in America, really, and I feel like it’s not really fair to compare the two because France doesn’t have that same state power that America does,” said Duvenci.
That’s not where the differences between the two countries end, either. Both Duvenci and Sams have participated in the Summer France Exchange program at Westminster. For two weeks, they stayed with a local host family in Strasbourg, France, and in return, their French correspondents in return stayed with them in Atlanta for two weeks in October.
“My family was very, very politically involved,” said Duvenci. “People in France actually know about the policies of their government… In France, they are more aligned with doing their own research. I know my host’s dad would read the newspaper and also look up the individual stories again… That’s what makes them more defensive in response to government because I’d say there’s less trust of the government there than there is here.”
Duvenci also observed the differences in France’s news coverage, media, and education, which he believes contribute to their political engagement. In addition, said Sams, media outlets in Europe tend to show an equal balance of international and domestic affairs. “The American media doesn’t really cover international news as well as international news covers American news,” said Sams.
The first time Sams heard about the gilets jaunes was in her AP French class from French news outlet France24. Oliver and Hanson decided to show videos of the demonstrations to introduce vocabulary and illustrate several upcoming AP units, including Science and Technology and the effects of social media, Contemporary Life, and Global Challenges.
“I think, as a French teacher, it would be wrong of me or the French department not mention the gilets jaunes,” said Oliver. “I think it has to be portrayed in, ‘This is what’s happening. These are the reasons why it’s happening.’ If people want to know my own personal opinion, that’s great, I will give my personal opinion, but I’m not going to start dictating anything else more than that.”
But outside of the course, said Sams, not many students at Westminster are aware of the protests. “International news covered March For Our Lives immediately and… here we are facing a massive political movement in one of our biggest allies and half of the Westminster population doesn’t know what it is,” said Sams. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but Westminster is supposed to be really informed… I think there should be a place where we could talk about it, because we’re watching history happen, and we don’t even know that it’s happening, which is scary.”
Along the lines of history, Sams also believes that history teachers could introduce current events into their curriculum to chart societal trends. But due to time constraints, she doesn’t know if it’s feasible.
Still, knowing the workings and outcomes of global protests can give important insight to our own state of affairs, according to Oliver. And although many often to refer to the Civil Rights movement while discussing American protests, he believes that political action in the US has since fizzled out.
“It’d be very interesting to see if we would get to any type of gilets jaunes in the United States,” said Oliver. “I think we have a history, starting in the 60’s, of making that kind of political statement of having civil disobedience. We’ve not really had it since then… I think we’re probably very hungry for that kind of thing, but we need to have a strong leader, someone who is prepared to stand up and face jail time and be arrested. And I’m not sure, in this day and age, whether we have that sort of person around.”
Nevertheless, said Sams, the Yellow Vests are only one example of a deep, global disconnect between our leaders and societies. As the gilets jaunes’ list of grievances expands, many have voiced dissatisfaction with taxes linked to the European Union, evoking Britain’s separation from the EU and inspiring one of the movement’s nicknames, “Frexit.” Plus, social media has allowed people in other countries, such as Iraq, Belgium, Spain, and Germany, to voice their frustrations. And despite the political apathy of some, Sams believes that we, as a global community, still are “hungry” for change.
“I definitely think it’s a global trend,” said Sams. “As a population, we feel very disconnected from the government, and I use the word ‘we’ there almost unintentionally, because I feel like, as a population, no matter what side you’re on, no matter which political party, you feel like your voice isn’t heard or isn’t taken with respect anymore, either by the people or the government.”