The wave of ‘yellow vests protests' started in mid-November, as people took to the streets to protests against a planned increase in diesel taxes. Although the government has scrapped the hike, the demonstrations evolved into a broader movement against other policies and rising living costs.
Sputnik discussed the protests in France with Nick Hewlett, Professor of French Studies at the University of Warwick.
Sputnik: What is your take on the response of the French government to the protests? Is it sufficient enough?
Nick Hewlett: The response on the part of the government and indeed the President has been two-pronged, of course. On the one hand, they have made major concessions, as you've already said; they have thereby recognized or acknowledged that the Gilets Jaunes do have the angels on their side to some extent. On the other hand, they have of course, as you've also said, introduced measures or are planning to introduce measures which are more draconian, which would allow them to fine protesters as they do with football hooligans and so on. And it should also be said that the government has mobilized unprecedented numbers of police; it has brought all sorts of different measures in terms of riot control: armoured cars on the streets of Paris for the first time for a very long time, for example. And it's planning to carry on with what some see, certainly, as repression, and what the government sees as legitimate force in response to the Gilets Jaunes' force.
Sputnik: Would you say that the French government was taken unaware as to the scale, the scope and the persistence, really, of the protest? Because it does seem that way.
Sputnik: Does it surprise you at all that the Yellow Vests have no formal leadership structure?
Nick Hewlett: Slightly, yes. If we look to other countries, parallels have been made quite frequently with, for example, the Brexit movement, if we can call it a movement, to the extent that there are large numbers of people at the grass roots, ordinary working or unemployed people who appear to have just had enough with what they see as the metropolitan elites, with people making decisions on their behalf which are not popular decisions, and which seem to, frankly, pass them by. Although this is an unstructured movement in France, there are parallels in other countries. As I say, people are told to have a wave of support for Trump as well, of course there was the leadership in the Republican Party and so on and so forth.
But again, the support for Trump is something which is not organised as I understand it, in the way a political party or a trade union is organised. And certainly it is very interesting to see the way in which the Gilets Jaunes have shunned political organisation. Although some of them are now talking about offering a slate in the May 2019 European election. So, it's possible that they will become a little more organised. I mean, it is a very diffuse movement; some wings of it support, for example, getting rid of the newly-introduced speed limits, while other wings of the movement are very much against that. It should be said that it's, I'm sure, a very small minority of Gilets Jaunes who are intent on being very violent. All of the violence has got a lot of publicity of course and, indeed, it has had a lot of effect.
Sputnik: It being, as you say, a very diffuse movement with no formal leadership structure, that would make it even more difficult for Macron and the government to elicit some sort of a unified response to the concessions they are offering.
Nick Hewlett: That is, indeed, exactly part of the problem. There is no one that they can negotiate with who will speak on behalf of the Gilets Jaunes as a whole. There is nobody who is saying "I have been elected by the Gilets Jaunes; I represent the southeast of France and somebody else represents the southwest. We can get together and talk to the Prime Minister." There isn't anyone or there isn't a small group of people who can do that.
So, this is, indeed, quite a problem for the government; and they are hoping that with various measures including the increase of the minimum wage and getting rid of the proposed extra diesel tax and so on, this will dissipate the movement somewhat. But also the very large numbers of police against the demonstrators will also help dissipate the movement together with the accusation or the impression given by government and often by media that this is an almost exclusively violent movement. But it's a real headache for the government, certainly. And one can only wonder how this will eventually translate into results of the elections, for example. The European elections will be very interesting, indeed, in France in May this year.
The views and opinions expressed by the speaker do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.