Yellow Vests Protests in France significantly reduce current government’s popularity
19 April 2019. PenzaNews. Around 31,000 people took part in the 22nd consecutive Saturday of Yellow Vests demonstrations in France, April 13. A lot of clashes broke out in Toulouse, a city that the informal organizers of the action declared the “capital of protests” that day.
Photo: Olivier Ortelpa, Flickr.com
It is noteworthy that the unrest unfolded amid the President’s signing of the so-called “anti-rioters” bill, which, among other things, imposes a 15,000 euros fine for protesters wearing masks or covering their faces during demonstrations, and also allows the police to search the demonstrators’ bags.
Commenting on these events, the president of the French Republicans party (LR) Laurent Wauquiez said that these measures “were taken too late” and that was why the government could not take control of the situation.
“Just yesterday, we saw the 22nd Saturday of Yellow Vests demonstrations, and again there were hooligans, demonstrators who burnt cars and attacked police officers. We saw that this law did not work, because some of its provisions were censored by the Constitutional Council. The President of the Republic himself weakened this law, sending it to the Constitutional Council,” he told BFM TV Channel.
Analyzing the difficult situation in the country, Alexander Tevdoy-Burmuli, Associate Professor at the Department of Integration Processes, MGIMO, called the atmosphere in France “quite tense.”
“It was also tense before the Yellow Vests protests, which became the result of the negative attitude of a significant part of French society to objectively ongoing processes of globalization, reduction of social guarantees and increased social stratification. The elections of recent years have demonstrated the public demand for a new policy and new politicians. Yellow Vests just exacerbated the existing instability. Ordinary citizens perceive the protest rather positively, although a significant part of the conservative-minded people can condemn acts of vandalism and have a negative attitude towards the participation of migrants in riots. From this point of view, Yellow Vests actions can actualize not only the grassroots request for social justice, but also the request for a strong hand capable of restoring order,” said Alexander Tevda-Burmuli told PenzaNews.
In his opinion, the Yellow Vests protests could pose a certain threat to the president and the French political system.
“Their demands look extremely eclectic, so it is difficult to implement them. In addition, the movement is decentralized – the authorities do not know who to negotiate with, and whether the agreements reached will be obligatory for the vests in general. Considering that the protest is directed against objectively ongoing trends that are difficult to influence, a quick solution to the problem simply does not exist and the popularity of the authorities and the establishment, therefore, will decline further,” the expert said.
From his point of view, the French leader chose an “integrated approach” to solve the problem.
“He is trying to identify the leaders of the movement, who it is possible to come to an agreement with, he is already engaged in a dialogue with institutionalized representatives of civil society and severely suppresses street riots. It is difficult to understand now if this approach is effective. Those measures, which Macron announced at the end of last year, were met with skepticism. But if he succeeds in suppressing street riots with minimal damage to his reputation, his rating as a strong politician can partly compensate for the lethargy of social and political reforms,” Alexander Tevda-Burmuli said.
“Nevertheless, Macron still cannot become a fully acceptable figure for the right-wing due to his pro-European orientation – these people are rather Euroskeptics. In the medium term, there will hardly be any serious perturbations, but due to the unresolved problems, the general instability will gradually increase,” the analyst added.
In turn, John Laughland, director of studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in France, noted that in connection with the fire in the Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Yellow Vests faded into the background.
“Emmanuel Macron launched Great National Debate as a result of the Yellow Vest Movement, which as far as I know is going to continue. The president was expected to make a speech with the results of his Great National Debate on Monday. But it was delayed because of the fire at Notre Dame. So, because of this fire the issue of Yellow Vest Protests is not in the news now,” the analyst said.
He also reminded that Catholic Easter will be celebrated the following weekend. So it is unclear, whether there will be new demonstrations on Saturday, he said.
“We do not know what Emmanuel Macron’s response is going to be. When he makes his response then we’ll be able to judge whether or not the protests are going to continue. But I expect that people will start talking of something else soon: after Easter the European election campaign starts. So my feeling is that the whole issue will be buried under the topic of the elections,” John Laughland suggested.
Meanwhile, Paul Smith, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies at School of Cultures, Language and Area Studies, University of Nottingham, stressed that Yellow Vests movement has not gone away.
“More than 200 delegations from across France took part in a conference at St Nazaire. But the movement is deeply divided, so while Eric Drouet, Maxime Nicolle, Priscillia Ludosky and company steal the limelight, others are trying to pull together their response to the government. Neither side really knows what will happen next,” Paul Smith said.
However, in his opinion, Macron's Great National Debate was a success.
“The numbers of local debates, interactions and so forth show that. Macron persuaded the French that the 'offer' was a genuine one. But it wasn't without its risks and I found it revealing that Pascal Perrineau, one of the panel of experts appointed to oversee the process, commented that Macron had been too involved and, to some extent, blurred the issues. Now, Macron has to turn the demands that have emerged from the debate: as expected, fiscal reform, health care provision, the environmental challenge are paramount, while the future of the EU and immigration controls are less obvious. If he doesn't, he will find that, while the weekly demonstrations might have reduced in, there will be resurgence,” the analyst said.
At the same time, the expert stressed that while many ordinary Yellow Vests deplore the violence that we have seen in Paris and in other major cities, most people's encounter with the movement is at peaceful demonstrations in provincial France, where many people are aware of the day-to-day problems that confront ordinary folk struggle to make ends meet.
“The government still has a public order problem. The coalition of the black blocs with the hardline Yellow Vests has not gone away and has, indeed, taken a rather unpleasant, nihilist turn. Moderate France will want to see that the government has taken back control of the streets soon,” Paul Smith added
William Keylor, Professor of International Relations and History Emeritus, the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University, shared the opinion of deep inequality in modern French society.
“The so-called Yellow Vest protests reflect a growing sense among average French people that the country is dominated by a small elite of very wealthy families and individuals, while the major of French people are struggling to make ends meet. The contrast between the wealthy few and the struggling many has caused significant conflict within the country. President Macron is seen as a defender of the wealthy elite,” the expert said.
However, in his opinion, this continuing protest will hardly threaten the position of President Macron who has a large majority in the French parliament.
“On the other hand, the polls demonstrate that public opinion has turned decisively against him. He was elected with a huge majority and enjoyed strong support from the population, according to the polling at the time,” William Keylor said.
“Despite this unrest, France is a prosperous country, despite a relatively high unemployment rate. I suspect that eventually the Yellow Vest protests will decline, and the political and social system will recover from this challenge,” the analyst added.
In turn, Professor Emeritus Edouard Bustin, Political Science Department, Boston University, stressed that a sense of discontent is not unusual in France.
“But it has taken a new shape since Macron's election. It involves – unlike the May 1968 protests – a high degree of disaffection in rural as well as urban areas, i.e. in those parts of the country that feel ignored, or underserved by a Paris-based ‘technocratic’ elite, of which Macron is the symbol and the incarnation,” the expert said.
From his point of view, the protests are undoubtedly an expression of popular anger, and are indirectly related to the breakdown of France's traditional party system.
“In part, it is the result of Macron's ability to capitalize on the perceived irrelevance of existing formations such as PS or LR. Radical alternatives – Mélenchon's ‘France Insoumise’ or Marine LePen's National Front (FN) – failed to fill the gap,” Edouard Bustin reminded.
The risk for Macron is serious – if not in the short run – but it may affect his chances to win a second term, he said.
“Macron is still searching for a way to regain credibility. The Great National Debate he launched in response won him some qualified support from local ‘notables’ but not from the hard-core protesters. Unlike Charles De Gaulle in 1968, he is unlikely to call a ‘snap election,’ but he can and probably will wait for protests to subside – summer, by which time, the French are on vacations, is usually a ‘grace period’ for strikes or protests. Whether or not this will hold true this year remains to be seen. His chances of winning a second term are in doubt,” the analyst concluded.