Yellow Jacket protesters in France got a boost this week when some trade unionists announced their decision to join the movement. The “gilets jaunes” have been in the streets of France, clashing with police for six months. Protests started after the government of Emmanuel Macron moved to cut pensions and raise gas prices, but this was more of a last straw, members of the movement say.
The group’s name come from the road safety vests that early marchers donned when they started blocking roads in rural areas.
Gas costs more than $6 a gallon in France, and Macron says further hikes will help France move away from Fossil fuels. Middle class and low income citizens do not place climate issues on the same level as their immediate need to provide for their families. The gas tax hikes, which Macron refuses to reconsider, became a catalyst for widespread discontent among France’s middle class about the cost of living, wages and the distribution of wealth.
Over time the movement has grown. Originally made up mostly of white suburban and rural citizens, marches in major cities now include poor minorities and unemployed youth.
Yellow Jacket rallies feature violence as certain elements within the group attempt to provoke clashes with the police. Sometimes this is because marchers are heading towards wealthier areas. Bricks and object are thrown, the police deliver beat downs, tear gas and water canons. Both protesters and cops have been seriously injured.
Marches are organized in France using social media, a 21st Century phenomenon that originally fueled revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (Ukraine, The Arab Spring, etc.) At the time, western leadership praised this development.
However, as those same tools have led to “springs” in their own countries (MAGA, Bernie Sanders, Brexit, etc.), the reaction from western leaders has changed. Social media companies now face pressure, both internally and from government bodies, to curb these mass communication tools.
Macron’s decision to budge on pension cuts but not the fuel taxes indicates a prioritizing of the climate agenda. Lower income voters see this as symbolic of class differences. Elites throughout the western world are more and more seen as urban, disconnected and out of sync politically and culturally with the priorities and sentiments of working class voters.
The longevity of the Yellow Vest protests, remarkable even for France where protests are a part of the national culture, may indicate that significant change is coming.