- - Monday, October 14, 2019

PARIS — After a quiet summer, France’s yellow vest protesters were hoping for a busy fall. So when Amandine Cantournet saw a call last month touting a “historic” 45th gathering on the Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris, she was willing and ready to make the five-hour drive from her home near the Swiss border to Paris.

She arrived upon a scene of confusion.

“I think I saw more security forces on the street than protesters,” said Ms. Cantournet. She said the police made it nearly impossible for her and other yellow vest demonstrators to organize effectively.

The event last month ended in more than 150 arrests, a disastrous attempt to join forces with a simultaneous youth climate protest and, above all, a failure for members of the leaderless movement to organize once again in one place.

Originally billed as a possible “comeback” for the yellow vests, the chaos and disorganization of that Saturday left a number of pundits questioning the movement’s shot at a revival — almost exactly a year after the amorphous protest movement first emerged with a string of sometimes violent confrontations that threatened to shake the foundations of the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

Much of that early energy has dissipated. Crowds have dwindled at yellow vest events, and public support has plummeted.

Still, some analysts insist the yellow vests’ continued presence, no matter how small, is meaningful in itself. It is far too early, they say, to write off the movement.

“We have a bizarre situation where [the movement] is still there,” said Bruno Cautres, a political science researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as Science Po. He noted that the yellow vests still have managed to stage public protests on 47 consecutive Saturdays.

“Even if you have fewer people demonstrating … we have never seen that before in France,” he said.

Even as the Paris protest failed to meet expectations, police in the southwestern city of Toulouse battled with nearly 1,000 yellow vest demonstrators with tear gas and water cannons, and another 300 yellow vest activists clashed with police in Montpellier.


The yellow vest protests — named for the bright jackets that French drivers are required to have in case of an emergency breakdown — began last November in response to a hike in fuel taxes that demonstrators said would fall disproportionately on rural residents and those in the provinces who lack access to public transportation.

The protests quickly grew into a wider anti-establishment movement demanding lower taxes on the poor, higher taxes on the rich and better public services. After a November protest sent hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets, approval ratings for the flat-footed Mr. Macron fell to just 25%.

Violent clashes with police in the heart of Paris and other cities became routine, and yellow vest protesters blocked roads and bridges and organized work stoppages. At least 10 deaths were linked to yellow vest demonstrations.

Mr. Macron introduced a sweeping series of reforms in response to the protests in April, and the yellow vests’ resolute refusal to organize or name a coherent leadership cost the movement momentum.

Yellow vest activists insist their protest is alive and well and reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

“Our anger is stronger than ever before. It’s been accumulating over the last year,” said Francois Boulo, a spokesman and organizer for the yellow vest chapter in the western city of Rouen. “We’ve just been waiting for the right moment to express that anger.”

That “moment,” Mr. Boulo said, is likely to be on Nov. 17, when yellow vests will officially mark the movement’s one-year anniversary. Mr. Boulo said he expects turnout to be similar to what it was during the height of the movement, when more than 280,000 across the country participated.

He acknowledges that “physical and mental fatigue” has resulted in lower participation in recent months.

“We’re tired and afraid of the violence coming from the security forces,” Mr. Boulo said. “Six people have lost a hand at these protests. People are afraid, and that’s extremely worrying for us.”

Indeed, violent clashes between demonstrators and police have been regular at the protests. Statistics from the independent French site Mediapart show hundreds of serious injuries, including head wounds and losses of eyes or hands. Two people have been killed, including an elderly woman when a grenade flew into her apartment during a protest in Marseille.

Public backing for the protesters, strong in the early days, has dropped.

According to a recent poll from the behavioral marketing group BVA, support for the yellow vest movement hovers at around 40%, a far cry from nearly 75% last November.

Mr. Macron’s current approval rating, at 37%, is at its highest level in more than a year.

“In a certain way, the [yellow vests] were very good for me,” Macron told Time magazine in late September, “because it reminded me who I should be.”

A ‘great’ debate

In response to the movement, Mr. Macron embarked on a monthslong “Great National Debate” this year. He attended hundreds of town hall meetings across the country and debated with people as they aired their grievances to the man so many had billed as an “elitist” and “president of the rich.”

When he unveiled the 2020 budget plans late last month, Mr. Macron pledged nearly $10 billion in tax cuts to households and another $1.2 billion in cuts to businesses. That is in addition to $5.5 billion in tax cuts already promised to some 12 million households earlier this year.

The spending has pushed France’s public debt to nearly 100% of gross domestic product. To make up the lost revenue, Mr. Macron wants to revamp the state-funded pension system, which takes up 14% of public spending. This, too, has been met with fierce resistance from unions across the country’s transportation and health care sectors. More than 40% oppose the reform.

Those numbers should be considered a warning, Mr. Cautres said.

“Macron cannot afford a second crisis …,” the researcher said. “You can only get one crisis in your mandate.”

Even so, the French unemployment rate stands at around 8.5%, its lowest in over a decade and down from 9.5% when Mr. Macron took office in May 2017.

Looking ahead, yellow vest advocates say they want more official civic engagement.

The movement ran candidates in European Parliament elections in May. Despite winning less than 0.6% of the vote, some yellow vest backers hope to do better in the upcoming municipal elections in March.

The collective “yellow vest citizens” last month presented a list of candidates for the municipal elections in Paris, led by Thierry Paul Valette, one of the movement’s best-known figures.

“The movement has always said it needs to be structured to be effective,” said Mr. Valette, adding that the municipal elections could be a chance to organize.

“We must show the country that we are engaged,” he said. “So many of our grievances come from being shut out of local politics for too long. We need to turn that discourse around. And what better way to do that than to show up on the political stage?”

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