Thousands of protestors took to the streets of France once again on Saturday, adorning their conspicuous yellow vests or gilets jaunes, which have given the movement its name. It was the 27th consecutive week of demonstrations against the Macron-led government; half a year of civil unrest initially provoked by a planned fuel tax rise proposed by Macron in November 2018.
Calls from the French President to end the street protests have fallen on deaf ears and the concessions he proposed back in December 2018 – a minimum wage increase and tax breaks – have not had the desired effect. Moreover, what the government had hoped would greatly diffuse the situation, its much-promoted ‘Great Debate’ public consultation programme, which saw town halls or mairies from Normandy to Nice transform into debating chambers for citizens to air their views, has not stopped the Yellow Vests. For them, it has been too little, too late from the Macron government, and demands for the President to step down continue.
It’s difficult to ascertain the exact numbers which participated in Saturday’s protests. While the French authorities state it was as few as 1600 took to the streets of Paris, an independent research firm ‘Occurrence’ puts the figure at 5600. The numbers may have declined since the beginning of the movement, but given the pressure it has faced from the authorities – the official ban on protests in certain areas; the controversial ‘anti-thug’ law brought out in February this year which restricts the right to protest; increased police brutality and perhaps most significantly, the lack of media coverage – all reminds us that 6 months on, the fact that the Yellow Vests have continued to inspire people to demonstrate, is something of an achievement.
Furthermore, the movement, which spans the political spectrum to encompass both the left and right, has spread beyond France to least 24 other countries. This is no doubt due in part to its universal values of workers’ rights, calls for an end to austerity and an improved standard of living which have resonated with people the world over.
Social media has been at the fore of the Yellow Vest campaign, and has been hugely successful not just for organising gatherings and coordinating protestors, but more crucially, for the reporting on the demonstrations and instances of police violence which have occurred. For one of the most striking aspects of the Yellow Vest phenomenon is the almost complete media blackout.
While the mainstream corporate media has been sure to report on any minor scuffles involving Guaido supporters in Venezuela, the Yellow Vest movement has hardly been given a mention in the mainstream media in recent months. The silence of the media has even aroused speculation that a D-notice (an official request to news editors not to publish or broadcast items on specified subjects for reasons of national security) has been issued regarding the Yellow Vests. D-notice or not, the lack of mainstream coverage has evidently just spurred the movement on, and added support to claims that Macron is drifting towards an authoritarian regime.
It is rather an odd state of affairs, when the most significant protests since 1968 are taking place in France, that across the English channel, they have barely seen any acknowledgement at all. What ought to be a natural cause for the UK left - greater democratic and economic control, fighting against a neoliberal government which has put big business before people - has seen hardly a murmur of support. What is even more concerning has been the absence of coverage of police brutality.
Independent journalist David Dufresne has so far recorded 780 serious injuries caused by the French police. But the number of overall injuries goes into the thousands. With the use of controversial ‘flashballs’ - guns which shoot rubber bullets and which are no longer used for crowd control in the UK, Germany and Belgium because of their lethal nature – people have lost eyes, and even reportedly have had hands blown off by stun grenades.
Is this the bright, democratic, united ‘Europe’ which Macron has been so keen to promote? Is this the ‘renewal of public life’ which he spoke of in his first Presidential speech? What is clear is that Emmanuel Macron is a man determined to implement his economic reforms for France, perhaps at any cost.
And while the tide of populism may be sweeping across Europe, he is single-handedly doing everything he can to oppose it in order to maintain the current neoliberal order. However, with Euro-scepticism at a higher level than ever before across the European continent, it’s not clear whether Macron’s ambition to preserve the status quo will be realised. Nevertheless, he will likely remain defiant to the end. As he once said in a BBC interview: ‘If we get a few protests, it won’t be a show-stopper’.