The ‘yellow vest’ movement explained

Here’s all you need to know about the French protest movement that has rocked Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

France yellow vests

Tear gas shrouded Paris’s famed Arc de Triomphe on Saturday soon after the first “yellow vest” demonstrators began to gather.

The police fired hundreds of gas canisters and used water cannon and stun grenades in an attempt to control crowds of protesters early in the morning – but to no avail.

The Champs Elysees, where the Arc de Triomphe stands, became a battleground as the day wore on, with protesters setting fire to makeshift barricades and hundreds of vehicles. Shops were looted and vandalised and hundreds were injured in the clashes.

“We are in a state of insurrection, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Jeanne d’Hauteserre, mayor of Paris’s 8th district, said.

The protests, which began on November 17 over planned hikes in diesel taxes, have widened into an uprising against President Emmanuel Macron‘s policies and become the biggest challenge to his presidency.

On Tuesday, the government finally backpedalled on its initial policy decision and announced plans to halt the proposed increases.

Here’s what you need to know about the “yellow vest” movement and what implications it has for France.

Who are the ‘yellow vests’?

The movement takes its name from the high-visibility jackets protesters have adopted as a symbol of their complaint. Protests sprang up spontaneously in November against hikes in car fuel taxes, with supporters donning the fluorescent safety vests that French law requires all motorists to carry.

Protesters are angry over record prices at the pump, with the cost of diesel increasing by about 20 percent in the past year to an average of 1.49 euros ($1.68) per litre.

Macron then announced further taxes on fuel, set to take effect on January 1, 2019, in a move he said was necessary combat climate change and protect the environment.

Initially backed by people in small towns and rural France where most get around by car, the protests snowballed into a wider movement against Macron’s perceived bias in favour of the elite and well-off city dwellers.

Analysts say most of those joining the ranks of the “yellow vests” are workers on lower middle incomes who say they barely scrape by and get scant public services in exchange for some of the highest tax bills in Europe.

On Monday, the discontent spread to include ambulance workers and some high schools, with students upset about education reforms.

The movement takes its name from the yellow safety vests French law requires all motorists to carry [File: Benoit Tessier/ Reuters]
The movement takes its name from the yellow safety vests French law requires all motorists to carry [File: Benoit Tessier/ Reuters]

What do they want? 

Supporters’ goals are amorphous. Some want to reverse tax cuts seen as favouring the rich while others want more measures to help the poorest.

Many have called on the business-friendly president, a former investment banker, to resign.

The fuel tax “was the spark”, said Thierry Paul Valette, a Paris protest coordinator.

“If it hadn’t been (that), it would have been something else,” he told the Associated Press news agency.

“People want fair fiscal justice. They want social justice,” he added, as well as improved purchasing power.

How big is the movement?

Motorists began blocking highways across the country on November 17, setting up barricades and deploying convoys of slow-moving trucks. Nearly 300,000 protested in the streets across the country that day. 

French paramedics, students join ‘yellow vest’ protests (2:04)

Less than half that number, about 106,000, took to the streets a week later, on November 24th, when a protest in Paris took a particularly violent turn.

Last Saturday, an estimated 75,000 demonstrators, were counted across the country in the afternoon, the interior ministry said.

Most protests across France were peaceful, but the one in Paris degenerated into the worst rioting the capital has seen in years.

What happened in Paris?

Shops were looted and cars torched in plush neighbourhoods around the famed Champs Elysees avenue, as protesters intent on causing as much damage as possible mixed in with the “yellow vests”. 

The Arc de Triomphe was besmirched with graffiti and vandalized inside. “The yellow vests will triumph,” one scrawled slogan said. More than 400 were arrested during the clashes. 

Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, said on Sunday: “Once we learn the costs of this destruction, I think everyone will be stunned at how huge it will be.”

Some organisers of the protests have denounced the violence, saying those behind it were attempting to “usurp” the “yellow vests”.

Meanwhile, Jason Herbert, a representative of the “yellow vests” who met briefly on Friday with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, said he and others had to bow out of talks with the government because of threats from fellow demonstrators. He said the movement was radicalising.

In all, four people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes or accidents stemming from the protests.

Protesters torched scores of vehicles in Paris on Saturday [File: Stephane Mahe/ Reuters]
Protesters torched scores of vehicles in Paris on Saturday [File: Stephane Mahe/ Reuters]

How have the protests affected the economy?

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters on Monday that three weeks of protests have hit the French economy hard, with trade in shops, hotels and restaurants falling significantly.

Some sectors saw their revenues hit by between 15 and 50 percent, he said, without providing a precise breakdown.

“The impact is severe and ongoing,” Le Maire said, emphasising that it was felt nationwide.

Saturday’s protest has “decimated” France’s image, Roland Heguy of the CAT tourism federation told AFP, warning that this Christmas season was “at risk, if not already lost”.

Meanwhile, Vinci Autoroute, France’s largest toll-road operator, has seen dozens of road blockades and forced openings of barriers since the protests erupted. Protesters have also damaged infrastructure, a spokesman said. 

French oil company Total has said 75 of its 2,200 petrol stations have run dry because “yellow vests” were blockading fuel depots.

Trucking federations said they had suffered operating losses of 400 million euros ($453m) due to protesters blocking highways and toll stations as well as fuel depots.

What is the government’s response?

Philippe, the prime minister, suspended the planned increases to fuel taxes for at least six months on Tuesday, saying no tax was “worth jeopardising” the country’s unity.

He also said that increases in the cost of gas and electricity, which were also set to take effect from January 1, 2019, would be suspended for three months during the winter.

The measures were the first major U-turn by Macron’s administration since he took office in 2016.

His approval rating has hit a new low in the wake of the crisis, according to an Ifop-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio published on Tuesday. Macron’s rating fell to 23 percent in the poll conducted late last week, down six points on the previous month.

It’s not clear if the concessions will appease protesters.

“It’s a first step, but we will not settle for a crumb,” said Benjamin Chaucy, one of the leaders of the protests.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies