France’s ‘Yellow Vests’ Movement Reveals Country’s Growing Divisions

PARIS — As French authorities brace for a possible second weekend of violent protests, observers say the demonstrations that have seized the country for weeks shows a society fractured by economic class and urban-rural divides.

And while the movement may appear to echo political currents in other Western countries, people here say the protests represent a distinctly French expression of public frustration: anger that focuses solely on economic issues and abandons political ideology and matters driving dissension elsewhere, such as migration.

“It is in a way a French Brexit or a French tea party vote,” says Dominique Moïsi, a special adviser to the Institut Montaigne, a public policy think tank. “It’s part of a global crisis of democracy and capitalism, the French way.”

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Moïsi says the anger among many French people is especially directed at President Emmanuel Macron. “There’s a sense of humiliation at the way they feel treated by the elite, and probably a sense of nearly hatred at the president,” he says.

The Forgotten Classes

The protest movement, known as “gilets jaunes” in French, or Yellow Vests, is named after the safety jackets worn by construction workers operating near traffic. Protesters chose the jacket as a symbol of their growing economic despair.

Experts say a significant trigger for the movement were controversial changes in the Macron government’s 2018-2019 finance bill, which included abolishing wealth taxes on non-real estate earnings for the wealthiest citizens and swapping a progressive tax rate of up to 45 percent on financial income for a flat tax of 30 percent.

The changes were ill-timed, preceding any help to the poor by months, Moïsi says: “The middle and working classes felt (Macron) was first helping the rich and that he didn’t care about the poor.”

A study by France’s Institute of Public Policy found that the bill overwhelmingly benefited the top 1 percent and negatively impacted the bottom fifth of households.

“French people have access to a lot of social benefits. But (some) feel they aren’t benefiting from politics,” says Louis Maurin, director of the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies’ Observatory of Inequalities. “People have a feeling of not being poor enough to receive support from the government, but also not rich enough to benefit from new tax policies.”

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The Yellow Vest movement boiled over in November after the Senate approved a measure to increase fuel taxes up to about 25 cents per gallon in 2019 to offset carbon emissions, when a gallon of gas already costs upward of $7 in some parts of France.

Country Versus City

Before hitting Paris, the Yellow Vest movement was brewing in the countryside for weeks. A report by Jean-Jaurès Fondation found that as of mid-November, a high density of Yellow Vest gatherings were occurring in outlying rural areas. Among the 700 communities with at least one Yellow Vest assembly point, nearly half had populations of between 5,000 and 20,000 residents, with another third having fewer than 5,000. Additionally, a November survey of 1,000 French residents by Ifop-Fiducial found that rural communes were much more likely (75 percent) to support the Yellow Vests than Parisians (59 percent).

Since people living in cities have access to public transport, an increase in gas taxes can feel like a direct hit against those living in rural areas who rely on cars. Plus, there’s a visible concentration of wealth in the center of Paris, increasing rural anger against city dwellers, Maurin says.

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Adds Moïsi: “The movement is not only a cleavage between the rich and poor, but between the provinces and Paris, the countryside and cities. There’s a polarization of society based on geography and economic revenues.”

Alex, a 34-year-old Paris resident who did not want to give his full name, says he sees the public anger firsthand on the weekends, when he travels to the small southern town of Lansargues.

“You can clearly see how supportive people are of the Yellow Vests in Lansargues. One car out of five has a Yellow Vest displayed,” he says. “There is a very clear disconnect between people living in city centers and the rest of the population.”

Anger at Macron

A November opinion poll placed Macron’s popularity rating at 26 percent, while a Harris Interactive poll from early December found that nearly three-quarters of French people believe Macron is “arrogant” and “disconnected from the reality of French people.”

“The French react to their president as they reacted to monarchs. When they like him they love him, but when they dislike him they hate him, because he’s the incarnation of everything that goes wrong,” Moïsi says. Highly educated, young and viewed as a relative newcomer to French national politics, Macron is “the incarnation of the technocratic elite,” he adds.

Maurin says the hopes that Macron would help unify the public have faded. “We’ve found ourselves with someone who’s very divisive. He lives in a universe that’s very far from a lot of French people,” he says, pointing to when Macron told an unemployed gardener that finding work just required changing careers to construction.

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Aurelie Bonningue, a 47-year-old Parisian stay-at-home mom, says that while most protesters she saw last weekend were peaceful, “on social media, people are getting more violent.

“The government is mishandling the situation by discrediting it,” she says. “The president needs to speak with respect to the people in the movement.”

Under the threat of more violence, Macron has canceled the fuel tax for 2019. But backing down isn’t a good sign for the rest his presidency, Moïsi says.

In light of the protests, Maurin foresees the rise of the National Front, the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen, who faced off against Macron in 2017. “Some journalists live in an intellectual world and don’t see it coming. It’s the same as what happened in the U.S. with Trump,” he says. “People said Marine Le Pen failed at her debate during last year’s election, but she received 34 percent of the vote.”

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