Arooj Sultan, BA Economics & Politics
The Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vest) anti-austerity and anti-government protestors marched for the 10th consecutive weekend, on the 19th of January. An estimated 84,000 people demonstrated against the government. Government buildings were vandalised, rioting broke out at the tomb of Napoleon, and protestors hurled bottles and stones at police. The police responded in kind with more force by deploying tear gas, water cannons and non-lethal rubber bullet guns. French police have been heavily criticised for their use of rubber bullets that left several protestors with serious injuries.
“The driving force the movement is centred around is the feeling— especially among low-paid workers— that the economic divide in France is worsening and President Macron’s government, with its liberal economic policies, is blind to the needs of the working class.”
The Yellow Vest Protestors are called so in reference to the yellow hi-visibility vests that all french drivers are required, by law, to carry in their vehicles. This grassroots, social media based movement first started in November 2018, as a reaction against rising fuel taxes. However, since then it has grown to become a wider protest against economic inequality and rising living costs. The driving force the movement is centred around is the feeling— especially among low-paid workers— that the economic divide in France is worsening and President Macron’s government, with its liberal economic policies, is blind to the needs of the working class. The general perception of the protestors is that the current government is favouring the urban elite at the expense of the rural poor.
In an effort to quell the protests, the president already announced government concessions worth £8.9 billion. The concessions include raising the national minimum wage, tax cuts for the less well off and repealing green taxes on fuel. Yet, the protests continue to persist.
These protests have tapped into the heart of citizen’s discontent with the system. Poverty and inequality in France, without tax breaks and welfare payouts, would be among the highest in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to OECD data. As per the OECD data, the vast french welfare system has kept poverty in check at 14 percent, well below the 18 percent average for OECD countries. However, this comes at a cost, as generous welfare practices when combined with a rather progressive taxation system have led to french tax payers having the highest burden among the OECD countries. Tax cuts on financial and wealth related assets given by the Macron government have added to the ire low and middle-class taxpayers, as they seem to feel put upon and snubbed in favour of the wealthy. OECD data further suggests that upwards mobility for the french poor is increasingly limited, despite an expansive welfare system, as it would take six generations for an individual from a low income family to reach an average income compared to two generations in Denmark.
President Macron has launched his Grand Debate hoping to use it to address the discontent evidenced by the protests. The, three months long, Grand debate is supposed to be a mass consultation of sorts, for all french people to join in, and the conclusions of which will be used by the government to rework its future policies and agenda. The debates will take place online and in person (to be mediated by town mayors). The recommendations of people from each region will then be collated and passed up to the government. The debate is to be around four themes: tax and public spending, democracy and citizenship, ecological transition, and organisation of the state and public services.
Reaction to the Grand debate has been somewhat lukewarm. Maxime Nicolle, a key leader of the Yellow Vest protestors commented to the BBC that the President has ignored their key demands and ‘All he’s doing is giving us a lesson in how to behave as if we’re children and he’s the daddy’. But, based on polls across France 40-50% of French people would like to take part in the debate.
Image Credit: Creative Commons