La Rentrée of the Gilets Jaunes

School children, students and workers were not the only ones to go back to ‘normality’ in France this Rentrée period. On Saturday 12th September, the Gilets Jaunes took to the streets once again in cities across the country to demand better of the government.

Illustration Credit: Maimoonah Abbas

The French are known for their partiality to protests and strikes. The French Revolution and the civil unrest of May 1968 are globally known examples of citizens taking democracy into their own hands. The social movement of this generation was born in November 2018, when the streets of Paris were occupied by unmissable protestors kitted in yellow vests – Les Gilets Jaunes.

What was originally a protest over an increase in fuel tax became a nationwide social movement, with roundabouts in towns across France occupied every Saturday after the original spark was lit that day in the capital.

It was soon obvious that this was not a single issue protest. It quickly became a social movement concerning much more, expanding to social inequality more generally. What makes those who dawn the yellow vests so unique is the spectrum of political views from which they come. It is not seen as either a left or right movement, nor is it affiliated to a particular party. Simply, it unites ‘ordinary people’ unhappy with the government.

With the Gilets Jaunes refusing to go away, President Emmanuel Macron made significant efforts to show he was listening. The fuel tax was scrapped, and the president went further, touring town halls across France to debate with citizens as though he was at the height of an election campaign.

Almost two years on, the President has yet to get rid of his demons. I am at the first post-lockdown Gilets Jaunes demonstration in Nice. Those on the streets here have a lot to say about Mr Macron, none of which is very complimentary.

The messages scribed on the placards amidst the haze of the illuminous vests do not hold back. Most allude to the general sentiment of the movement – of social inequality, the yellow vested workers against the elites. Statements like ‘Long live public services!’ and ‘power to the people’ are proudly hoisted in the air. The cost of living is another hot topic. One sign complains, or at least points at suggestively, that Macron can afford to buy his five a day. Not all his fellow citizens can say the same.

Dotted around the mob are some more radical ideas. ‘Frexit’ comes up a few times. Macron is labelled a ‘minion’ of the EU. Despite rising Covid-19 cases in the Côte d’Azur region and mask wearing being mandatory in Nice, there were some anti-mask messages, a few of the holders on which were themselves sans masque. ‘The government is trying to control us’, they say.

Despite the grand return of this group who once had such high support from their fellow ‘people’ and the strength to force themselves onto the governments agenda, the atmosphere today does not feel as powerful a moment as that of November 2018. I certainly do not feel as though I am amidst a révolution. There is not an amazing number of people, most of whom look the same – the majority male, almost all white and middle aged. The sentiment is more of frustration than of hope for radical change.

One man rhymes off to me the classic complaints against the elites which feature across every country’s wave of populism. The media, he says, are trying to instil fear in us over coronavirus, and the police too in order to deter us from protesting. He talks of power being concentrated in an oligarchy, and even goes as far as labelling Macron a ‘dictator’.

The tone changes however from one of frustration to despair when he tells me that he is a teacher, and sees hungry kids from struggling families every day, a hidden reality in the glitzy French Riviera, playground of the rich. Admitting he does not feel that the initial explosion of the Gilets Jaunes movement changed much, despite the President’s efforts to portray the opposite, it feels more like clinging onto that sense of hope from two years ago, and thinking of what might have been rather than what could be.

It is doubtful how much life has changed between November 2018 and now for both the protestors and Macron himself. Though not as bad as the dismal 27% he was polling at the start of the movement, the President’s September 2020 average has been around 38%. Few people would describe Macron as a popular leader, despite how convincingly he won his position in 2017.

The government has tried to supress as far as possible the inevitable economic disaster which locking down the country has brought, with a stimulus package worth 100 billion euros. The second wave is here, which will bring political implications along with the health ones.

Whatever Macron does, the Gilets Jaunes who have haunted his presidency and criticised him of favouring the rich are likely to keep pressing him. One can assume that every French citizen wants to see their country fulfil its vision of liberté, egalité, fraternité, but the Gilets Jaunes on the streets and Macron in the Élysée are clearly at odds on what this looks like. How much momentum the yellow vests can gather before the next election – remains to be seen.