Why are France's yellow vest protests so white?

Few minorities attend rallies demanding change from President Macron, which have seen outbursts of racism.

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    A protester in Paris wearing a yellow vest (gilet jaune) waves the French national flag during a demonstration against rising costs of living blamed on high taxes [File: Valery Hache/AFP]
    A protester in Paris wearing a yellow vest (gilet jaune) waves the French national flag during a demonstration against rising costs of living blamed on high taxes [File: Valery Hache/AFP]

    Paris, France - Youcef Brakni was preparing to hit the send button on his Facebook post when he took a moment to reconsider.

    Finally, his organisation, the Adama Committee, an anti-racism and anti-police-violence group, had decided to join the yellow vest movement. But Brakni wasn't sure his voice would be heard.

    "We're always associated with violence," he said later. "Whether you stay out of protests or get involved, you're associated with violence."

    Finally, he decided to push the button and join the protests.

    Critical of French President Emmanuel Macron's socioeconomic policies and worried about unemployment and rising poverty in his neighbourhood, he found common ground with the yellow vest protesters.

    Yet his group stands out.

    Despite suffering from high living costs and difficult access to benefits, minorities have been reluctant to join the yellow vest movement, with few seen in demonstrations.

    Their absence noticed by newspapers and TV stations across France.

    It's a white movement. The question of minorities and their specific concerns are not central to yellow vests.

    Rafik Chekkat, law expert and editor of website Etat d'Exception

    "Banlieues are hesitant to join yellow vests" read a Le Monde article, referring to the impoverished dwellings outside urban centres, which are overwhelmingly represented by minorities.

    "There's been an underrepresentation of immigrants, people from North Africa or the rest of Africa," said Dominique Sopo, president of SOS Racisme, an anti-racism organisation.

    With immigrants and minorities suffering from disproportionate rates of unemployment and poverty, similarities with yellow vests when it comes to pay and work are obvious.

    "It's the France that's forgotten, the France that's left behind," said Brakni.

    Youcef Brakni is one of the few minorities who has attended yellow vest protests [Courtesy: Comite Adama]

    Yet a study by sociologist Herve Le Bras suggested that yellow vest protesters are overwhelmingly from rural areas, where there are few minority groups.

    "It's a white movement," said Rafik Chekkat, a law expert and editor of the website Etat d'Exception.

    "The question of minorities and their specific concerns are not central to yellow vests."

    The protests, which began late last year, have gathered momentum on issues of the erosion of people's purchasing power, the widening of the wealth gap and a proposed tax on cars' fuel consumption.

    They are not focused on racism nor have they embraced minorities, said Chekkat.

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    "If you look at the [2017] presidential elections, racial questions were never discussed," said Chekkat. 

    Because minorities were left out of politics, they have not been accommodated space in demonstrations either, said Chekkat.

    "There's nothing new in the fact that people of colour stay out of protests."

    Another deterrent is how the media describes minorities, specifically in how they come from the banlieues, Chekkat said.

    The term is at times meant pejoratively and brings back memories of the 2005 uprising when young people in these neighbourhoods burned cars to protest police brutality and inequality under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy - who in return described them as "racaille", or scum.

    "There's something almost racist in using that term [banlieues] to talk about race as if people of colour were one homogenous group," said Chekkat.

    Banlieues were, in other cases, accused of starting the yellow vest movement; minorities are seen as troublemakers, rioters and thugs, said Chekkat.

    Referring to the rise of far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, who made it to the second and final round of the 2017 vote, SOS Racisme's Sopo added: "France has not been immune to the rise of populism in Europe."

    To him, the question of racism has become unpopular across the political spectrum and has been replaced with discussions on identity and nationalism.

    Racist outbursts

    The yellow vest movement, meanwhile, has witnessed outbursts of racism.

    In one instance, white yellow vest protesters forced a black woman out of her car and insulted her in front of her children, telling her to "go back to [her] country."

    "It's white France that's suffering," said Jean-Yves Le Gallou, a self-proclaimed yellow vest member and far-right politician. 

    "Bourgeois France duped us, telling us migrants are poor," added Eric Zemmour, a right-wing writer. 

    Minorities have been reluctant to join a movement that might very well turn against them, said Sopo.

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    "When you're of foreign descent, you know that populism can easily turn against you," he said. "A movement with anger at its roots can easily turn it on migrants and their kids."

    Some minorities in urban areas have found the rallying call around tax on car oil irrelevant to them. 

    Others were worried that joining protests would cast a negative light on a population already marginalised and attacked by state institutions.

    "Justice in France is not colour blind," said Chekkat, who explained that a friend of his of Arab descent was sentenced to days in prison for participating in yellow vest protests in Marseille.

    Minorities face tougher sentences, with immigrants comprising 30 percent of France's prison population despite accounting for less than six percent of the overall population, according to a 2015 study.

    Brakni decided to join the movement to use the momentum of the yellow vests to shed light on his organisation's specific concerns.

    The Adama Committee was created to stop police violence against minorities. It was launched after the death of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old man of Malian descent, who died in 2016 in police custody.

    "There's systemic racism, at the highest level of the state," said Brakni. "Police target people from former colonies. They marginalise us. They hit us, sometimes to death."

    With police responding violently to protests after Macron promised a crackdown, police brutality has come in the spotlight.

    "People see things differently now," said Brakni.

    Yet, while the yellow vest demonstrators have made progress with Macron walking back some of his policies, including the tax on car oil consumption, neither the movement nor the government have addressed systemic racism or discriminatory police violence.

    Looking at Macron's letter to start a national debate earlier this month, the focus was put on identity and immigration, not on racism.

    "Regarding these issues," said Brakni on systemic racism, "we'll see. It's too soon to tell."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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