Protestors in yellow vests have taken to the streets in France, challenging a planned increase in France’s fuel tax. Some say the protests are symbolic of a wave of discontent among citizens who feel “invisible” or abandoned by the government and wealthy elites.
We discussed the status of the protests with Sophie Meunier, a senior research scholar and lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Meunier is the author of “The French Challenge: Adapting to Globalization,” winner of the 2002 France-Ameriques book award. She was made Chevalier des Palmes Academiques by the French government. Her current work investigates the politics of foreign direct investment in Europe, notably investments made by the Chinese.
Q. Who are the yellow vest protestors in France, and what are they protesting?
Meunier: The Yellow Vests, who emerged spontaneously as a grassroots protest movement this fall thanks to social media mobilization, come from the invisible places in France: small towns, distant suburbs, rural regions. They feel the State has forgotten them; they symbolically wear yellow safety vests to become visible. Their protest was sparked initially by a planned new carbon tax on diesel and gasoline designed to fight climate change — the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Unlike urban residents in big cities, who enjoy a vast network of public transportation and will not be affected by the fuel tax, Yellow Vest protestors depend on cars for work, school and shopping. They are people who are slipping out of the middle class, have trouble making ends meet and feel anxious the tax will precipitate their social decline.
Since the initial protests in early November, the Yellow Vests have broadened their demands beyond the abolition of the carbon tax to increase their purchasing power and disposable income. They are also demanding a rise in the minimum wage, more public services and the reestablishment of a wealth tax that had been abolished by President Emmanuel Macron’s government.
Q. As you noted, President Macron is reconsidering a wealth tax to appease parts of the movement. What do you think of this approach? Does he have any other options?
Meunier: In response to the protests when they turned violent, the French government announced a six-month moratorium on the implementation of the carbon fuel tax, as well as a freeze on gas and electricity prices. Macron said that no tax, even if for a good ecological cause, was worth the violence and that the government had a duty to listen to citizens’ suffering. However, even if the government says, “We hear you,” and gives in to the protestors’ demands, things are likely to continue and even grow more violent. Other groups with different demands have planned to protest government policies in coming days, including farmers and high school and university students. Moreover, the tax moratorium will cost two billion euros, which complicates France’s budget deficit calculations within the eurozone and might lead to further cuts in public services. Add to this the growing number of anarchists and rioters who have tagged along this protest movement, and the stage is set for more violent protests, even if the government has given in, if only temporarily, to the initial demands.
Q. What do the protests signal for populist politics, especially in light of next year’s European elections?
Meunier: The Yellow Vest protest, while uniquely French in its particular features, is part of the broader fraying and recomposition of politics taking place all over the world in representative democracies — in at least three dimensions.
First, this is, above all, a protest against elites and their apparent contempt for the “little people” who are now demanding respect. Macron, the ultimate intellectual, educated in the best elite schools, does not convey empathy nor does he show that he feels these people’s pain. The planned carbon tax was interpreted as a contemptuous move by the Parisian elites, who do not understand the reliance on cars by French citizens who live outside of urban areas.
Second, the protest is symptomatic of the obsolescence of the left/right cleavage and its gradual replacement by an open/closed cleavage. The left/right opposition, which has structured French politics for so long, does not represent much anymore: The extremes on that spectrum have more in common than they do with the center. Instead, the second round of the French presidential election, where neither candidate of the traditional left nor of the traditional right were present, was articulated around a new “open versus closed” cleavage pitting the winners versus the losers of globalization. The Yellow Vests, like many Brexit or Trump voters, do not come from the poorest fringe of society, but feel their social status and purchasing power have been slipping as a result of the openness of France to the global economy — in their lifetime and between generations. This open/closed cleavage also maps a geographical cleavage between metropolitan cities and the periphery. Indeed, the protesters portray Macron as the president of the rich and the president of cities. The 2016 presidential election left traditional mainstream parties in shambles. Two years later, they have not recovered and no viable partisan alternative has emerged. The only vibrant parties left are the extremes, both on the left and on the right.
Finally, the Yellow Vest protest is symptomatic of a new brand of direct politics, without intermediation. The carbon tax protest is different from past protests against fuel price hikes, which were organized by professional trucking unions. This new protest emerged spontaneously through social media, without the help of political parties or traditional civil society organizations. It makes the protests more difficult to appease, because the government has no interlocutor who can come to the bargaining table, speak a consistent message and deliver for their constituents’ interests. Macron has argued this protest movement is not mere political opposition but opposition to the republic itself and its process of representative democracy, and he has asked other political parties and trade unions for help with restoring calm and sharing responsibility.
Q. It seems the protest is now expanding beyond France. What's your reaction to this?
Meunier: The Yellow Vest protest, while distinctly French, represents a distress call by a segment of society, which has also been expressed in many other advanced industrialized democracies, though in different incarnations. Just as in the United Kingdom with Brexit, in the U.S. with the election of Donald Trump, in Germany with the domestic challenges to Angela Merkel and in Italy with the election of a new populist government, many people feel their social and economic standing has slipped away, and they blame the out-of-touch, internationalist elites for abandoning them. In most of these countries, however, this swelling protest has been channeled through the electoral process, whereas in France it is being expressed on the street.
WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.