For the third Saturday in a row, on December 1st, there were protests throughout France.
The protests began on November 17th, hundreds of thousands French citizens took to the streets all around the country, initially protesting sharp fuel hikes on fuel and diesel levied to reduce emissions and push people toward more environmentally friendly vehicles.
A tax, which was approved in 2017 raised the fuel price by 7.6 cents per liter on diesel and 3.9 per liter on fuel. In addition to another increase in October 2018, citizens’ finances were hit hard. There is also another increase planned to take place on January 1st, 2019 – a further 6.5 cents per liter of diesel and 2.9 cents per liter of fuel.
The protests were mostly organized on social media. A petition that began circulating online in May to lower fuel prices generated over 300,000 signatures by mid-October. However, the French government gave no signal that it would walk back on its policy.
Truckers created a Facebook event in October to block roads to Paris on November 17th and nearly 200,000 people replied they were interested.
Protesters blocked roads and highways, fuel depots, shopping centers, and some factories as an estimated 300,000 people took part in the first protest across the nation. The demonstrations left two dead and more than 600 injured.
The symbol of the current movement is the yellow vest. Motorists in France have been required since 2008 to keep the reflective, high-visibility vests — “les gilets jaunes” in French — in their vehicles.
On the following Saturday, November 24th, protesters once more took to the streets. This time there were less people nationwide. According to French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, 106,000 people had taken part in protests across France, and 130 had been arrested, 42 of them in Paris. The Paris police prefecture said there were 19 injured, among them four gendarmes.
Protesters were reportedly infiltrated by “far-right extremists”, as well as rioters and hooligans tore up paving stones and hurled them and other missiles at police before building barricades that they set alight. The police in turn used teargas, pepper spray, water cannon and bulldozers to clear the road.
The demonstrators had been told to stay at the official protest site designated by the French authorities – the Champ de Mars by the Eiffel Tower – and to keep away from a number of sensitive sites in the city, including the Champs Élysées and Place de la Concorde near the Elysée palace.
In the second week of protests there was an apparent shift – people were not simply protesting over fuel prices, they were protesting because they were having difficulties making ends meet and were blaming French President Emmanuel Macron’s government for that. France’s centrist government blamed the far right, who along with other politicians blamed Macron.
On November 24th, public opinion of Macro was down to 26%, on December 2nd it was estimated at 20%.
Macron condemned the protests on Twitter, following the second weekly demonstration: “Shame on those who attacked (police). Shame on those who were violent against other citizens … No place for this violence in the Republic.”
However, it appeared that there was in fact more place for violence in the Republic.
The protests on December 1st saw clashes between around 8,000 protesters and 5,000 police officers in Paris. Authorities fired tear gas and water cannons, and they used stun grenades, this resulted in one death, at least 133 injuries and over 400 arrests. In total, around 136,000 people attended the protests nationwide, according to the Interior Ministry.
The Champs-Elysees was overrun by protesters, many of them looting storefronts and burning cars and debris. Perhaps the best expression of the anger and frustration in the country could be seen at the Arc de Triomphe, which was defaced with graffiti reading messages including “Macron resign”, “Overthrow the bourgeoisie!” and “Yellow Vests will triumph.”
Demonstrations outside of Paris on all three occasions were much more peaceful. However, many called them the worst in over a decade and there are even speculations of the unrest leading to a civil war.
Once more, the focus was on fuel prices, however it had also evolved in a general dissatisfaction of the French government’s policy. Many citizens believed that the fuel taxes, aimed at slowing down climate change are putting undue strain on the people, especially on the middle class.
Those who do not live in cities are reliant on cars to get around and say the new policies, set by the political elite, unfairly target and harm those outside of the country’s urban conclaves. At the same time, city residents are concerned about rising taxes and costs forcing them to the suburbs, where they’ll face the same problem.
“We are talking about cost of living and [French President Emmanuel] Macron is talking ecology,” protester Joffre Denis was cited by Bloomberg.
Famke Krumbmuller, a political consultant based in Paris, explained who was angry in an interview with NBC News.
“The white middle class, the forgotten middle class in France,” he said.
Many of them believed the taxes they pay were high, but little was given in return in terms of social benefits that are largely designed to aid the poor, and that they are being left behind by Mr Macron’s policies. The President was pegged as “President for the rich” by protesters after slashing the country’s wealth tax last year.
Recent polls have showed that between 70 and 80% of French people support the protests.
“I’ve worked on monuments around Paris for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this at the Arc de Triomphe. It was carnage,” a Paris City Hall official said while overseeing the Arc de Triomphe’s clean-up. French authorities and namely Castaner, are claiming that extremists on the right and left, as well as “suburban thugs” infiltrated and hijacked the protests leading to violence.
Macron, who was in Argentina for the G-20 summit, during a press conference in Buenos Aires said that he would never accept violence. “No cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc de Triomphe is defiled.”
On December 2nd he returned to Paris to view the Arc de Triomphe and hold emergency meetings with French Ministers. Macron claimed that he would keep the course.
“What I’ve taken from these last few days is that we shouldn’t change course because it is the right one and necessary,” he said. French authorities are also reportedly considering declaring a state of emergency.
Macron did make one concession – he would try to introduce action to adjust tax hikes when oil prices spiked, to ease the strain on French pockets.
He claimed that he was in charge and he would make decisions in the following months. But he said he would “pursue with force” his reforms “without giving up ambitions” or “giving in to demagoguery.”
“It will be up to me to make additional decisions in the weeks and months to come, but they will never be retreats but rather, for this moment, more intense,” he said.
Opposition politicians condemned the violence but also criticized the government’s response. “The government is not entitled to a third black Saturday,” said Senate President Gerard Larcher, amid warnings that protests could resume in Paris next weekend.
Far-right and far-left leaders Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Melenchon called for new parliamentary elections.
It is also complicated to negotiate with the protesters, since they have no clear leadership. Delegates from France’s ‘Yellow Vest’ protesters turned down a planned meeting with Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on November 30th, because it wouldn’t be filmed. “I have repeatedly asked that this interview be filmed and broadcast live on television. This was refused,” said Jason Herbert, one of eight members of the delegation
Emmanuel Macron is not up for re-election until 2020, however, even if the protests stop, the anger will continue simmering. It is up to speculation what will happen next. Some Macron critics even speculate that a resignation is not completely out of the question if the escalation continues.