The weekly protest movement, whose symbol became the highly-visible safety jackets that French drivers are required to have in their cars, has recently marked its first anniversary with a loss of public support as it is gradually being replaced by another vast wave of protests against a government pension reform plan.
Beginning of the Movement, Demands of Protesters
The people from the poorer regions in eastern France began the protests by blocking roads and wearing the fluorescent yellow vests. Many of the French living there have jobs in neighbouring Luxembourg and must drive sometimes hundreds of kilometres every day to get to work, an already costly routine in terms of fuel.
The protests soon grew into a full-scale social uprising with people taking to the streets every Saturday across the whole of France. Almost 300,000 people across the country took part in the first wave of demonstrations.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said soon after the unrest began that the government would abandon its plans to raise the fuel tax but the protesters continued to hit the streets demanding fewer taxes, wage hikes and even the resignation of President Emmanuel Macron, whom the protesters have repeatedly dubbed as "the president of the rich."
One year on, the yellow vest movement is now seen by the French as a protest against all forms of social injustice.
"They express general exacerbation with the current political class, which proves to be incapable of resolving the everyday problems of the population. The yellow vest movement shows that Macron did not succeed in doing politics differently; they understood that they had nothing to wait for from this government", Alain Policar, a political analyst at the Center for Political Research of the Paris-based Sciences Po university, believes.
Daniel Boy, who is a senior researcher at the same centre, said that the French public, in general, supported the yellow vest protesters.
"In general, they [French nationals] approve of the yellow vest movement because it claims equality and the French are very attached to the notion of equality", Boy argued.
Seeing that abandoning the initiative to raise the fuel tax was no longer enough, Macron urged the French to take part in a nationwide debate as thousands of yellow vest protesters took to the streets across the country for the ninth consecutive weekend.
The president also wrote a letter to the French to mark the opening of the three-month debate, which focused on taxes, public spending and environmental reform.
"I hope as many of you as possible can take part in this great debate to make a useful contribution to our country’s future ... Your proposals will therefore allow us to build a new contract for the nation, to give structure to the action of the government and Parliament, and also France’s positions at European and international levels", Macron said in the letter, as quoted by the presidential administration.
However, the debate brought little results and finished without any compromise reached.
In September, Macron said that the yellow vest movement, called gilets jaunes in French, was beneficial for him, in a sense, and taught him ways to improve the remaining part of his presidential mandate.
"By the way, the gilets jaunes crisis was in a certain way very good for me. Because it reminded me who I should be", Macron said in an interview with Time magazine.
However, political analysts believe that Macron has not changed the way he governs at all.
"Was it useful for Macron? Maybe. Probably it will bring him down to Earth a bit, as he is criticised for not being close to people. So it reminded him that he cannot be a president from afar and that from time to time he had to get closer to the voters", Boy said.
Policar added that the yellow vest movement appealed to the conscience of the French regarding social difficulties, which are evident but also which the government refuses to see, such as, for example, the debate around pension reform.
Protests Turn Violent
The yellow vest movement started as a peaceful manifestation, but the protests subsequently became violent, regularly causing multiple injuries among all sides involved — police officers, demonstrators and even the press.
In the wake of the protests, the French government came up with a so-called "anti-riot" bill aimed at ensuring the security of public gatherings and manifestations. The legislation largely polarised French society, triggering waves of discussions. While interior minister Christophe Castaner hailed the "law for protection, for journalists, police, public, for the Republic and its institutions," the critics branded it as a tool for "liberticide," fearing that the legislation could severely curb civil liberties.
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is the right of local authorities to bar anyone who represents "a serious threat to public order" from joining the demonstrations. Those who have committed violent acts, injured people or damaged property during previous rallies may be banned from attending similar events in the future. Violations would result in a fine or six months in jail.
Michel Thooris, the secretary general of labour union France Police - Policiers en colere (Police in Anger), says that the law would bring nothing in terms of security, as it was merely "demagogy aimed to make the French believe that the government is doing something against the violent protesters, but in fact, nothing concrete is being done."
Eric Roman, the national secretary of the same labour union believes that the officers who were called to quell the demonstrations also suffered an immense load.
"Exhaustion, depression, suicide, administrative and criminal cases, nearly 2,500 [police officers] injured", Roman said, stressing that the government was also deaf to their calls.
According to Roman, the police officers initially shared the yellow vests’ views because the rallies raised the problems of the poor.
"But the violence on both sides created a huge chasm", he said.
The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) freedom of press advocacy organisation published a report stating that at least 54 journalists were injured during the first six months of the demonstrations throughout various cities in France. The organisation said that the injuries included burns, cuts and bruises received as a result of being hit by police batons and being shot at with rubber bullets. At least 12 journalists received serious injuries, including bone fractures.
The RSF is now calling for the police to be given clear instructions on dealing with media workers, including a directive ordering them to respect media activities during protests and observe the obligation to allow reporters to cover the demonstration.
"The gilets jaunes looks like a busted flush — a hand of cards that is actually not as strong as it thought it was. And Macron’s Grand Debat [big debate] must take some credit for channeling that anger. I am not sure it has gone away, but the violence of the Black Blocs [left-wing aggressive protesters who wear black clothing and face-covering masks] really has not helped the movement", according to Dr. Paul Smith, an associate professor in French and Francophone Studies at the UK University of Nottingham.
Speculations of Foreign Involvement
In December 2018, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that the French authorities were looking into media reports about Russia's alleged involvement in the rallies. Moscow, in turn, said that the yellow vest protests were France's internal affair, calling the claims slander.
However, experts believe that these speculations can be classified as conspiracy theories and an attempt to place the blame for the French society’s internal problems on someone else.
Patrick Kamenka, a member of the French National Union of Journalists (SNJ-CGT), said that the allegations against Russia were far from reality and were being used to promote the use of the controversial "fake news" law.
"I think it is a real flop ... I believe these accusations are completely out of [touch with] reality in France. This situation is social, people are asking for a better life because of the social difficulties they have ... The real problem is what would be the answer of the [French] government and President Macron to the demands of the people ... I think that if you go and ask people who are demonstrating or fighting for their rights, they will be surprised [to hear] these rumours", Kamenka said.
In late November, the French National Assembly passed a law envisaging measures to fight against the manipulation of information and empowering French judges to order the removal of "fake news" from websites during election campaigns. Before being adopted by the lower house of the French parliament, the law was rejected twice by the upper house.
"We as a union declared recently that this law is very much against the freedom of expression and can be used against any media or any journalist ... In this case, they are playing games accusing either Russia or the US of trying to push this social [yellow vest] movement forward ... I think it will help those who introduced that law to the French parliament", Kamenka underlined.
Kamenka pointed to the fact that no proof of Russia's involvement in the protest movement had been found so far.
"There has not been any proof of the allegations that Russia has been playing games with this yellow vest movement. It is far from the reality of the [French] society, the real situation ... Until now we have seen no evidence that Russia has been ... helping this movement to expand further", Kamenka pointed out.
Boy agreed with the journalist union's member.
"I am not a supporter of conspiracy theories. As there is no formal proof, I do not believe in it. It is a thing of French society. It does not need to be organised from abroad. I think we have to stick to the real facts", the analyst said.
Future of the Movement
A year of continuous protests has resulted not only in a decline in the numbers of participants but also in a decrease in the level of support for the movement. According to opinion polls from December 2018, the yellow vests had the support of 70 percent of French citizens. However, in February 2019, more than half of the respondents — 56 percent — voiced support for the demonstrations to end.
May and June saw the lowest number of participants. The 29th action of the yellow vests on 1 June was the least attended since the movement's launch in November 2018, gathering around 9,500 people, according to the French Interior Ministry.
With some 282,000 people joining the marches a year ago, only 28,000 people gathered for the demonstrations on the one-year anniversary of the movement.
Experts suggest that the protesters, who have paralyzed traffic and disrupted the work of shops and enterprises every weekend for more than a year, have faced fatigue. Moreover, the experts do not believe that the movement will last any longer.
"There has been enough of the weekly protests causing a lot of traffic, the closure of shops and enterprises. They had enough of it. But apart from public evaluation — it will be hard for it to last, like for any movement that rejects clear organisation. They reject it in the name of 'perfect democracy.' They have no capacity to be represented at the elections so I think it will be hard for the movement to last longer", Boy said.
The analysts point to the lack of organisation within the movement, which makes things difficult both for the authorities and for the protesters, as the latter cannot put forward a harmonised agenda and act as one negotiating body.
"I do not believe that any real political power will emerge out of this movement. This movement is not homogenous. There is an enormous amount of trends within it. There is no clear leader. They do not have any local organisations that could represent them in the upcoming municipal elections in March 2020. I do not believe in their political future as a party as well", Policar said, adding that the yellow vests lacked unity.
In addition to the lack of support already being realised, the year-long yellow vest movement is also likely to be overshadowed by the vast protest against the pension reform plan.
"Have they been overtaken instead by a trade union movement that has itself found a new purpose with pension reform? ... According to some opinion polls, two-thirds of the public support the strike movement [against the pension reform]. But it means that discontent will be fitting back into the ‘old’ framework of contesting power. The government proposes reform, negotiates with unions, unions call a strike and so it goes. A year ago, the unions looked worn out and left behind. … But at least the unions give the government something to negotiate with", Dr Smith argued.
On 5 December, a nationwide strike in response to the government's plans to replace 42 different pension schemes with a universal, points-based system paralysed France. The decision has angered train workers, teachers, police and other public service employees.
The Interior Ministry put the nationwide turnout at 615,000, while the GTF trade union tweeted that over 1.8 million people took part in more than 250 demonstrations across the country.