France’s political ecosystem has been fraught with protests from the Yellow Vests, who don the neon garb required to be in vehicles by the government and take to the streets. Despite that there have been months (25 weekends straight to be exact) of them creating traffic blockades and having bouts with police, the coverage, at least in the US, has been sparse and I would make a bet that most outside of Europe have little knowledge on them. This movement should not be ignored, for its another signal of where citizen/government relationships have been heading for the last decade.
Taxes were the fire that sparked the Yellow Vests, beginning in protest to a 7 euro cent tax increase on fuel, which had increased in price over the last year by 23%, that they felt would disproportionally hurt the working class. This inspired months of protests with the highest attendance being over 280,000 last November where protestors were calling for President Emmanuel Macron to resign and lighting cars on fire.
Though it is easy to sympathize with the Yellow Vests anti-tax sentiments, some of their other demands leave much to be desired. Macron has since repealed the gas tax hike and entered into town halls to discuss the ideas of the protestors which seem to be all over the political spectrum. It’s clear that this movement is not necessarily a left-wing or right-wing revolt, but an anti-establishment one.
This movement trusts nothing mainstream, even rejecting the attempts of Marine LePen, Macron’s far-right opponent in the presidential election, and far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, famous for proposing a 100% income tax on any citizen making over €400,000, to court the movement to their parties. According to NPR “The inability of these two parties, which usually do well with groups who feel marginalized, signals that the yellow vest protesters are fed up with all figures of the political establishment.”
Political elites aren’t the only source of disdain, as the Yellow Vests also reject the mainstream media in favor of sites like RT and Brut. “When the first protests started, […], the media portrayed only one version of things,” explained a protestor to the New York Times continuing “they showed people who were a bit fascist, or that it was hijacked by the extreme right, but now it’s become a movement where different struggles have converged.”
Convergence is a perfect word to describe the Vests demands, for they are a mixed bag of ideas and policies that are meant to enact change for the sake of change. Like many citizens worldwide, they have a sense that something is wrong, and that the institutions once trusted are no longer the solutions they claim to be.
Seeming to contradict the movement’s origins, Yellow Vest protestors have demanded that the minimum wage be raised, and that the previously slashed wealth tax be reinstated. In October of 2017, Macron was deemed “the president of the rich” for eliminating this tax, and replacing it with a levy targeting real estate, which the President responded “It’s all well and good to want to spread wealth, but you first need to produce, to create wealth before redistributing, that’s how it works.”
On the other hand, these town halls have led Macron to consider holding a citizen’s initiative that would decrease the number of members in the National Assembly, the lower house of France’s parliament. Protestors have also suggested reducing the country’s value-added tax, which citizens pay when making purchases, and allowing the option of a blank ballot in elections when no candidate satisfies a voter. The last proposal would certainly make some members of the Libertarian Party giddy with glee.
In an effort to appease the Yellow Vests, Macron announced in late April that he would be slashing the government’s Ecole Nationale d’Administration, a sort of Ivy-league type institution for aspiring politicians, and cutting income taxes through removing corporate tax breaks, decreasing public spending and creating incentives for citizens to work more. Currently, France only allows a 35-hour work-week before overtime comes into effect, and are guaranteed 30-days of paid vacation. French citizens work an average of 1,500 hours a year, or a little over 28 hours a week, which Macron feels is a dearth of working in the country.
The movement definitely has some flaws and could use a more coherent direction, but overall, I think their message of returning power to the citizens and allowing people to retain more of their income is commendable. It is encouraging to see so many coming to the conclusion that they are taxed too much and that their government may be too big. If they could be convinced that the wealthy don’t need to be punished for this decrease in their state, it would be even better.
While many would disagree with the damage to property committed by a minority of the movement, one cannot deny that they have been one of the few protests in recent memory to successfully pressure their government to give back their taxed wages and make it spend less. The Yellow Vests will surely spark other movements across the globe as more people realize that their governments have too much authority and that citizens should have more control over their lives. The world should pay close attention while these protests continue, and takes notes to launch their own revolutions to take back their lives and their livelihoods.