Saturday, December 15, 2018



Armored vehicles on the Champs Elysées
"This is Not a Government" read a newspaper headline (with a wink to Magritte). It featured a picture of last week's violent clashes in Paris between riot police backed up by armored vehicles and demonstrators wearing the yellow safety vests (gilets jaunes) required in every car. Front page news at home and abroad, this yellow-vest protest against a fuel tax hike was deteriorating into urban warfare.

Street protests and strikes are as French as the baguette and part of daily life here. They are organized by trade unions, student groups, or professional associations who usually demand wage increases or object to some government decision or other. But this Gilets Jaunes protest against the sharp increase in fuel taxes next year has no apparent leader, is not affiliated with any political party or trade union, and was sparked on social networks where it set fire to the combustible cloud of discontent voiced by a disparate population of indeterminate age and background that grew to unexpected proportions in record time. Laborers, farmers, employees, small business owners, retirees on fixed incomes they all reject the 23% increase in the price of gas which, being the latest in a string of price increases this year, would significantly affect their purchasing power. Particularly those outside the big cities who need to use their car to get to work, would find it harder to make ends meet. Even if they approve of the government's intended goal of fighting pollution by reducing the number of cars on the road as part of its Ecological Transition Plan, they feel strongly that it is always their group, the middle class, that is asked to pay, and not the rich who got tax breaks or the poor who are exempt. No More Taxes, they cried, Enough is Enough!


One of the first acts of newly elected president Macron in 2017 was to scrap the wealth tax, the ISF (Impôt Sur la Fortune), in order to stimulate growth. This, more than anything else, has earned him the reputation of president of the rich, even though economists generally supported the measure. In France, like elsewhere, the rich are getting richer and the gap between rich and poor is growing wider. Over time, the resentment against the growing cost of living and the government's deaf ear finally led to the current explosion of anger that is about to enter its fifth week of demonstrations.

The unrest started in mid-November, when to everyone's surprise a strong response to the call on Facebook caused thousands of people to take to the streets, wearing high-visibility yellow vests, to protest against the planned fuel tax. They handed out pamphlets, occupied roundabouts, built roadblocks, blocked toll stations and oil refineries. As usual, the public supported the protesters and soon the Gilets Jaunes took their cause to Paris where the following Saturday they organized a demonstration on the Champs Elysées. This time, their manif, as these protests are called, was infiltrated by outside hooligans and looters (casseurs) in yellow vests who attacked the police with paving stones, threw up barricades, smashed windows, set fires, outshouted the protesters and disrupted their demonstration.

Subsequently, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe invited the Gilets Jaunes to meet him at his Matignon office to discuss their grievances, but of the six elected representatives only two showed up and one left after a few minutes. This was a grassroots movement, an amorphous group without leadership or spokesperson, leaving the government at a loss of how to respond or who to talk to. These demonstrators were not the oft-forgotten poor, but working people from the extreme left and right who found common ground in feeling that they were over-taxed and losing purchasing power.

Clean-up at the Arc de Triomphe
As frustration began building and the tone hardened, another march on the Champs Elysées was called on Saturday, December 1st, but this time the authorities had blocked all side roads to the Champs Elysées in an effort to keep out the casseurs and prevent further incidents. Unfortunately, access to the Champs Elysées was still open via the Place de l'Etoile and this is where a large number of hooligans and anarchists managed to mingle with the demonstrators and started defacing the Arc de Triomphe, spray-painting slogans on the façade and breaking into the monument itself, where they wrecked furniture, destroyed a souvenir shop, and smashed the face of a sculpted Marianne, the very symbol of the French Republic. In an extremely violent confrontation with police that caused injuries on both sides, they rampaged down the Champs Elysées where they set cars on fire, smashed storefront windows and bus stops, looted a supermarket, wrenched benches and iron gates from their moorings to throw at police, and left a trail of ruin. Meanwhile, other troublemakers had managed to reach the Boulevard Haussmann, dense with shoppers at the famous department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, where security personnel quickly shepherded shoppers to safety and closed the doors. Lafayette, with its giant Christmas tree under the beautiful glass dome, and its Holiday windows with automated fairytale displays that draw big crowds every year, was a sad sight when those windows were boarded up and the festive lights turned off.

Marianne defaced
The demonstrations had turned ugly and dangerous, affecting not only the retail sector in its busiest season, but also hotels and restaurants, tourism, nightlife, and of course the Christmas markets. Minister of the Interior Christophe Castaner had to admit that the security measures had been inadequate and promised that next Saturday, December 8th, the police presence would be doubled (89,000 police nationwide, with 8,000 in Paris alone) and that this time the riot police would be supported by armored vehicles, capable of removing whatever burning barricades the protesters might throw up and provide essential protection to the police who had been badly tested for weeks already and sustained many injuries. Football matches were cancelled, both opera houses and some theaters closed, as were the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, while businesses were asked to stay closed that day and board up their windows.

The authorities prepared the Champs Elysées by removing all items that might be used to hurl at the police, including iron grates and manhole covers, and installed a number of checkpoints where items such as hammers, gas masks, boules, spray paint, and molotov cocktails were confiscated. This time security forces were able to keep control of the Champs Elysées and arrest a large number of troublemakers. Nothing, however, could stop the violence that broke out on and around the Place de la République, which suffered extensive damage. Other cities, notably the beautiful old center of Bordeaux, experienced similar violence and destruction, including the looting of an Apple store that was completely cleaned out. A shaken Mayor of Bordeaux and former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé called on President Macron to break his silence and respond in strong, concrete terms to the Gilets Jaunes' demands.

Hooligans at work
After four Saturdays of increasingly violent demonstrations that caused millions of euros of material damage and an estimated €1.1 billion of business losses so far, as well as 179 personal injuries, six deaths (mostly due to road accidents), nearly 2000 arrests nationwide, and with determined protesters vowing to continue until Christmas and beyond, the Gilets Jaunes protest has turned personal and cries for Macron's resignation have multiplied. They accuse him of arrogance and contempt for their class, and their ranks were soon joined by high school students, environmentalists, as well as union leaders, all with their own demands and all feeling they were "not being heard." This was no longer about tax relief, it was a groundswell of discontent and a cry for social justice that was ballooning into a crisis.

Prime Minister Philippe and Interior Minister Castaner had repeatedly called for calm, reached out to the protesters and given in on a number of demands (including the cancellation of the contested fuel tax). But it was too little too late and, perceiving a crack in the government's determination, they now wanted an increase in the minimum wage, lower taxes on the middle class, and the re-imposition of the ISF wealth tax.

President Macron addressing the nation
A somber-looking President Macron finally spoke on Monday, December 10, in a televised address that was short and sober. Starting off with a firm condemnation of the violence and the promise that the perpetrators would be dealt with severely, he sounded a more conciliatory tone towards the Gilets Jaunes who he said deserved to "live decently from their work." Having already dropped the fuel tax hike, he offered a €100 monthly pay increase to minimum-wage earners as of January, the elimination of the planned tax hike on retirees' pensions, and tax-exempt overtime pay for all employees. But he refused to reinstate the ISF tax on the rich which had so rankled the protesters and given rise to his reputation as president of the rich. The offer was costly (estimated at €8-10 billion) and a severe setback for Macron, but it fell short of expectations and the Gilets Jaunes were quick to announce their next demonstration on the Champs Elysées on Saturday, December 15, calling it Act V.

A closer look at the demonstrators' profile has revealed some interesting facts. The movement counts as many women as men; their average age at 45 is higher than usual; workers and retirees alike are mostly from the lower middle class; and many of them had never demonstrated before.

If this Gilets Jaunes movement proved anything, it is that social networks can quickly bring masses of people together to form a powerful force for or against a common cause, and that this can happen at any moment. A new challenge to those in government.


It is hard to predict where this new phenomenon of revolution by social networks will lead, but it is already clear that President Macron's presidency has been damaged. The man who said he would never back down was forced to do just that, at a high price in money and image. His Reforms agenda will surely be slowed down and may have to be curtailed, and the boy wonder who was elected president at age 39 with promises of long-needed reforms has lost much of his luster after 19 months in a presidency marked by some early successes but as many setbacks and missteps. His elite education and unquestioned intelligence have served him well in his rapid rise to the top, but he seems disconnected from ordinary people, the very people who now want to be heard about life in their world, the real world. The success of this Gilets Jaunes movement is only the latest example of this disconnect and what it can lead to.

Is Macron getting it? Not sure, but "the street" has won this first round and won't let him forget it.

Meanwhile in Strasbourg:

Earlier this week a terrorist shot four people to death and wounded 12 others as they strolled through the famous Christmas Market in Strasbourg. He got away but was quickly identified as 29-year-old Shérif Chekatt, a locally-born petty criminal with a long criminal record, and tracked down and killed by police when he was cornered in his own neighborhood 48 hours later. The incident put the police on high alert and the government made an appeal to the Gilets Jaunes to drop their planned Act V in Paris this Saturday to give the exhausted police a break. No response. The march will proceed as planned with the unspoken message to President Macron: You did not listen to us; we will not listen to you.

As I write this, police are investing the area of the Champs Elysées where groups of Gilets Jaunes are beginning to arrive, awaited by armored vehicles and water cannons, ready to do battle once again amid boarded-up façades while desperate shopkeepers look on and count their losses in this crucial holiday season. No sign here of Peace on Earth to Men of Goodwill.

PS:  This battle is not over, and I will keep you posted next week.
Will Christmas soften some hearts and bring protesters and government closer together? Will it open some eyes to the folly of war-like damage that will ultimately have to be paid by all? Will the government recognize that growing economic inequality is the root of all social unrest and find a workable solution?
Facing a less than joyous Christmas and a clean-slate New Year, all we can do is HOPE.   


  1. Isn't it terrifying that to get their point across, the hard pressed GJ's had to resort to violence and destruction?! And fomented by a non negotiating group.

  2. The right to strike or demonstrate is guaranteed by the French Constitution and is often accompanied by vandalism or forms of violence. It is a peculiarly French fact that employees need to take to the streets (and not the Board rooms) to get management's attention. Another "exception française".