Vive le Gilet!

Ryan Zhang ‘20

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A few weeks ago, thousands of people donned their gilets jaunes (yellow vests worn commonly by construction workers) and marched through the streets of France. But this was not the newest fashion statement in the country of “chic”: it was a protest. In early January, President Macron proposed a new tax increase on gas (four euro cents on the liter for unleaded gas and seven euro cents for diesel) and the people were infuriated. The new tax would force people to pay almost 1.59 euros per gallon (which converts to about six U.S. dollars) [1]. Macron cited these taxes as a step forward towards curbing greenhouse emissions, but the French people saw it in a different light.


For many households, particularly in rural and suburban areas that are not serviced by public transportation, the added expense would be brutal. Alice Wu ‘20 adds, “The tax is a shame because these people have to travel to the city for work every day, and with Macron’s new tax they might not be able to support themselves as well.” This recent tax has also inflamed deep social resentment in the sense that the working class believes the ruling classes and their wealthy urban supporters take the rest of the country for fools by gradually increasing their own prosperity at the expense of the people’s. This pent-up anger towards the elite slowly culminated to a climax, when the gilets jaunes took to the streets in November.

There is much speculation as to who started the movement because there is neither a clear leader, nor has anyone stepped up. Many have credited social media as the spark to this firestorm of protest, as social media is one of the most powerful platforms in spreading messages and movements. In the Arab Spring Uprisings, social media was a crucial factor in ousting the dictatorial President and his eventual successor because of its ability to connect so many people and bring the issue to their attention [3]. The same thing happened for the gilets jaunes because, with the help of social media, the people’s grievances were able to spread from France all the way to its African island colony, La Réunion.


The marches started out solely as the drivers’ protest against the gas tax. In a 2008 law, the French government required all automobile owners to place a yellow security jacket in each of their cars in case of an accident [2]. The drivers wore these jackets in defiance and walked out in a large group. Initially, the group only blocked traffic in roads and roundabouts, but the movement has begun gaining more traction. In fact, it is becoming more volatile and more spread out than before.


The gilets jaunes has slowly evolved into more of an anti-government protest. The people are unhappy with the way Macron governs because he seems out of touch with them. They see Macron’s pro-business stance and support for the wealthy as a social injustice against them. Over the two weeks this protest has occurred, cars have been torched, shops have been looted, and fighting has been initiated, yet Macron has not budged on his position. In La Réunion, Macron has actually been forced to send troops to the island in an effort to stop violent assemblies.

Throughout this conflict, Macron has attempted to maintain a tough image and stay stubborn on his course. In the spring, Macron defused a railroad workers’ strike and quickly passed reforms, establishing himself as an adamant and directive leader. However, after weeks of violence in the streets, Macron finally realized that he could no longer sit out the highly divisive conflict plaguing his country. Macron ceded to the protestors on December 10 and addressed their demands. He promised to increase the minimum wage by 100 euros per month for next year and froze the eco-tax for six months [4].


Unfortunately, the people did not accept his concession and continue to protest in the streets. Ty Ebeling ‘20 sympathizes with them, saying that “the movement has shifted from where it began. Now the people want more equality in society rather than just a frozen eco-tax. They want a president who treats his people equally and with respect.” Macron has also agreed to cut taxes on pensions, but he did not change his position on his business policies, the most infuriating aspect of his political stance [5]. The gilets jaunes have demanded a wealth tax, but Macron stood by his pro-business policies and refused. This constant neglect for the majority of the population’s wants is what fuels the anger of the protests.


While some gilets jaunes believe that this moment may be a good time for open discussion with Macron, others believe he will not compromise. The conflict seems to have no end, with Macron and the people constantly at odds with each other. Even though it began as a small eco-tax protest, it changed into a much larger anti-government protest — the largest one in Macron’s presidency. Whether Macron is able to successfully defuse this ticking time-bomb of gilets jaunes or not, the fallout will leave a glaring mark on his presidency.







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