On November 17th, 2018, around 285,000 grass-roots citizens took to the French streets and marked the first mass protest by the “gilets jaunes” or yellow vests. The movement is named after the fluorescent yellow safety jackets, worn by the demonstrators, which every motorist in France is mandated to carry in their vehicles. The movement initially began against the hike in fuel prices and then mushroomed to address other grievances.
Although the French are reputed for their high political consciousness and the nation’s history is adorned with instances of massive revolutions (political, literary, or otherwise), the yellow vests movement is somewhat different from its predecessors.
The most significant factor at play here is the very nature of the movement’s leadership. It is truly a movement of the people in the sense that no particular leader, political party, or trade union is leading this movement. People from both the left and the right regimes and even beyond have come together to call out the corrupt government and its policies.
The movement was sparked by a video posted on Facebook by Jacline Mouraud on the 18th of October. In this video, addressed to President Emmanuel Macron, she listed the grievances of drivers caused by the fuel price hike. The video quickly went viral, leading to the setting up of online petitions and eventually, to the protests of November 17th.
Since then, demonstrations have been staged every Saturday on the streets of France. Although the protests have been mostly peaceful, there has been considerable violence, especially in Paris, on December 1st, the third Saturday of the protests. Out of around 130,000 protestors on the streets that day, some 3000 fought the police, smashed bank windows, burned cars and buildings. The police retaliated with tear gas and pepper sprays. As a matter of fact, many protestors have been taken into police custody.
Following the violence of December 1st, students demanding education reforms also joined the movement and called for demonstrations from December 3rd onwards.
Owing to the huge participation and the resilience shown by the common French citizens on the 4th of December, the government retreated by declaring a six-month suspension on the petrol and diesel price hike planned for January 1st, 2019. The rise in gas and electricity prices were also stalled for the winter.
These moves, however, seemed insignificant to the “yellow vests” and they planned a fourth protest on December 8th. Moreover, the government deployed 89,000 security forces, including 8000 in Paris, to tackle the December 8th demonstrations. Owing to the call for peace from different sections, the fourth day of demonstrations was eventually called off upon the advice of the yellow vests representatives. Yet another demonstration, however, has been staged on December 15th.
The essence of the gilets jaunes
So, the fuel price hike has been stalled and the citizens of France have won a major battle. However, the ordeals of the French people and most other people in the world are rooted much deeper than mere price hikes. Rather, they emanate from the very nature of the political framework, which rests powers in the hands of a few political elites. All over the world, people have been tormented by corrupt rulers and a top-down model of power sharing. As a result, the discourse of populism is becoming more significant, especially among the more politically conscious European people.
The yellow vest movement is one such populist movement which is not driven by a singular strong ‘ideology’. By rejecting both the left/right paradigms, populist movements appeal to a greater spectrum of people. Yet, they are quite rare and this rarity highlights the significance of the yellow vests.
According to Alexander Dugin, a populist movement is an ‘uprising of the periphery of society against its center’. In the present structure of governance, power is accumulated in the hands of a few – the political elites – who then impose laws and orders upon the common citizens. This, essentially, renders liberal democracy as a farcical entity since people are denied any real agency and are excluded from the governing process. Populism is a response to such a model.
Influence of the movement
Owing to the fact that these essential problems are not limited to France and its people, the yellow vests movement has inspired similar uprisings in other parts of Europe and, as a whole, is expected to spread even beyond Europe. Demonstrations have already been organized in Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands and the UK. Protests have also been staged in the United States.
The yellow vests have shown the world that it is now high time that the juggling of the common people by the political elites and their organisations be stopped. The significant and necessary demand at the core of such movements is that people be allowed to decide for their future. As long as they remain peaceful, these movements are of utmost importance if we are to resolve the crisis of the people.
Featured Image Credit: BBC.com