The Faces and Voices of the “Yellow Vests” in France

The protest movement triggered by a planned fuel-tax increase in France is more diverse, politically and socially, than most accounts show.

The French protesters known as the “Yellow Vests,” for the safety jackets that have become the emblem of their movement against austerity, income inequality, and the government of President Emmanuel Macron, are hard to describe accurately on a left-right political spectrum.

That has not stopped politicians and activists of all stripes from attempting to claim the movement, but it is worth taking any opportunity to actually listen to the voices of the protesters themselves. So we can be grateful that video journalist Raul Gallego Abellan spent last Saturday in Paris asking a broad spectrum of protesters how they describe the movement themselves, and what they say to observers who want to focus only on the sporadic clashes with the police that broke out along the Champs-Élysées.

What was striking about the protesters Gallego Abellan met and spoke with, he said, was how much more diverse, politically and socially, they were than the largely white, rural members of the movement who took to the streets last month, when the protests were triggered by a planned fuel tax increase and joined by far-right activists.

Last weekend, Gallego Abellan said, more left-wing activists, students, ambulance drivers, truck drivers, and others joined the protest. There were also, for the first time, “people from the poor suburbs called the banlieues,” the filmmaker noted, “urban working-class, middle-class, second- and third-generation immigrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.”

On the streets of Paris on Saturday, the central message was that the poor, the working class, and the middle class were being taxed too much to support policies that rewarded the rich. People said they were tired of the political system that had forced them last year to vote for Macron, a former minister and investment banker, just to keep out the far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen.

Macron “misjudged the nature of his mandate when he won,” the British commentator David Runciman argued this week on his “Talking Politics” podcast. “The key election was the first round, not the second round, of the French presidential system, when he won 24 percent of the vote. That’s his support. Everything else has to be coalition-building, everything has to be compromise, and he has governed as the guy who won 66 percent of the vote in the second round.”

Protesters of all ages and races said that they were tired of being taken for granted. They also refused to let their movement be taken over by more violent elements — vandals known in French as “casseurs,” or “breakers” — but were also aware that until some parts of the wealthy French capital were smashed up in recent weeks, the government had all but ignored their demands.

“The police last weekend tried to seal off the center of Paris, but again did not succeed in stopping the demonstration or the violence or rioters,” Gallego Abellan explained. “Actually, the roadblocks and the attitude of the riot police this time created the violence. The start of the protest was totally peaceful, but the police were trying to intimidate and disperse the people, by passing into the middle of the protest with lines of officers in riot gear.”

There was, he noted, a lot of tear gas fired, as well as rubber bullets and stun grenades, but it was largely ineffective at actually dispersing the crowd of more than 8,000 protesters who persisted in gathering in the center. “Gas, if there is wind, leaves after few minutes,” Gallego Abellan noted, “and people lost their fear and even threw it back at the police constantly. They shot lots of rubber bullets, but when you have so many people, you’ll never have enough rubber bullets for everybody.”

The tear gas and rubber bullets, he said, seemed only to make people more angry and more inclined to clash with the police.

“The majority was peaceful, but there was a big group of people that joined in to make barricades and clash with the police. Then a smaller group started looting and breaking into shops and burning cars,” the filmmaker said. “There were also protesters trying to stop the violence, but the areas of the city where they were burning cars and looting were where rich people live, so lots of people seemed to feel, ‘I’m against this, but people are angry and anyway: Fuck the rich.'”

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