Sunday, February 10, 2019



As the weekly Saturday demonstrations of the Gilets Jaunes continue in France, this Yellow Vest movement has spawned a number of other color-coded protest groups. The Foulards Rouges (Red Scarves) have been demonstrating against the violence of the Yellow Vest protests and in defense of the country's governmental institutions; the Gilets Verts (Green Vests) marched against the government's lack of action on climate change and filed a petition in court signed by 1.8 million citizens; and the Gilets Roses (Pink Vests) of licensed childminders have been out protesting against a proposed cut in their unemployment coverage. It's colorful and largely peaceful, except for the Gilets Jaunes (GJ) demonstrations that continue to be plagued by thugs who cause material damage and chaos wherever they go.

Of this colorful palette of protesters, the Yellow Vests remain the most visible and prominent. Although their initial demand for fuel-tax relief was granted, they now want nothing less than a Citizens' Referendum and the resignation of President Macron. On February 2nd, 58,600 GJ demonstrated throughout France (down from 64,000 the week before), denouncing police violence and carrying photos of fellow protesters who had suffered serious injuries, many of them caused by the controversial "flashball" gun. These injuries included at least fourteen cases of an eye lost due to a flashball shot. Just days earlier, the Conseil d'Etat had ruled the continued use of the flashball gun legal because it is the police's best defensive weapon in the face of molotov cocktails or home-made explosives. Crowd-dispersing methods such as tear gas and water cannons have proved inadequate against the armed thugs who inevitably infiltrate these protest marches and are extremely mobile, having at times managed to encircle the police.

French symbol Marianne in yellow vest
While Paris remains the focus of the GJ protests, their Saturday marches have been taking place throughout France and occasionally centered on particular provincial towns, such as Bourges and, most recently, Valence. Given the seemingly inevitable clashes and damage these protests engender, the mayor of Valence called for a lockdown of the city center during the GJ march, asking shops, bars and restaurants on the protest route to stay closed another loss for these businesses on their busiest day of the week after a poor Christmas season due to road blocks and riots which kept visitors away. It is clear that the right to demonstrate for some can outweigh the right to safety for others.

In response to the GJ crisis and the accusation that he is out of touch with the people, President Macron initiated a nationwide Grand Débat on January 15th, where once a week until mid-March he will meet in different regions with some 60 mayors of small towns to discuss their local problems and grievances in open debate. These town-hall meetings regularly run up to six or seven hours and, even though they can be raucous, they have gained Macron four points in a late-January interactive Harris poll since his all-time low in December if not for actual improvements then for courage and stamina. Even Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a less gifted speaker than Macron, has been pressed into service in a show of government outreach and communication where none existed before.
Nevertheless, another recent Elabe poll indicated that two thirds of the French still support the GJ movement and a little over half want their protests to continue during this Grand Débât. Carried by their early success and the people's support, their Facebook orders are "Don't stop now."

On February 5th the Parliament passed a watered-down version of the proposed Loi anticasseurs, which gives the police wider powers to stop thugs (casseurs) from breaking into peaceful demonstrations. No longer will face coverings be allowed and those who break the rules will be registered and banned from future demonstrations. It was a contentious issue, and among those who voted against it (communists and socialists called it "liberticide") were 50 members of Macron's own party.

Macron's party En Marche brought to a halt
At the same time, the CGT, one of France's largest trade unions, called for a nationwide general strike on February 5th to demand fiscal justice and higher wages, and to express their support for the Gilets Jaunes movement. Between 14,000 and 18,000 strikers (depending on sources) marched in Paris and vowed to do the same in different cities every Tuesday the "Mardis d'Urgence Sociale." Even if this is unlikely to succeed, it points to a convergence of grievances from laborers, employees, self-employed, retirees, and small business owners about over-taxation, loss of purchasing power, and increasing inequality. The resentment is growing despite Macron's weekly Grand Débât meetings against a distant government of technocrats obsessed with numbers and budgets who fail to see the results of increased taxation on the lower and middle classes. 

The Cour des Comptes (Court of Auditors) has just issued a warning concerning the growing public deficit as a result of the reduced taxes and increased expenses announced in December, including €10 billion worth of concessions to GJ demands. Consequently, the shortfall for 2019 will amount to 3.2% of GDP instead of the projected 2.8%, and exceed the limit of 3% set by the European Commission.

Considering that France spends a record amount of 56.5% of its budget on public expenses and that no amount of cutting social benefits or public programs will suffice to cover the multi-billion-euro shortfall, there appears to be no other solution than raising taxes elsewhere, including the reinstatement of the hot-potato ISF wealth tax that just won't go away and has now come back as a demand by unions, politicians of the left, and in the weekly town-hall meetings. Even though this tax would only bring in about €5 billion, its psychological value is incalculable. With all his efforts in the weekly grand debates to repair the damage done by his perceived arrogance and favoritism of the rich, Macron will have to carefully weigh whether to reinstate the wealth tax ("give in to the street") or hold firm and risk continued social unrest.


Luigi Di Maio (red tie) with French Gilets Jaunes
While his government is feverishly looking for sources of revenues (such as taxing the American tech giants GAFA on income earned in France but declared in low-tax countries where they have their headquarters; seeking ways to eliminate tax fraud and corruption; etc.), the Italian deputy vice presidents Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio capitalized on the social unrest in France by inciting the Gilets Jaunes to oppose Macron's government. Di Maio, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star movement, even met recently with leaders of the GJs near Paris to offer them his support and the use of his party's web platform, and to invite them to Italy and connect with their counterparts there. Later that day, he declared that "A new Europe is being born with the Yellow Vests" and "The wind of change has crossed the Alps." For Emmanuel Macron this direct political interference on French soil was not only an "outrage against our country" but it was one provocation too many, and he recalled his ambassador to Italy for consultations in Paris.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right anti-immigrant League party always jockeying for first place with his co-vice president Di Maio had said earlier in a Facebook video: "I hope that the French will rid themselves of a terrible president and will not back his party in the European Parliament elections in May." He is closely allied with Marine Le Pen, French far-right leader who shares Salvini's euroscepticism and anti-immigrant stance, and is Macron's biggest rival at the European elections. 
Savini vs. Macron
Relations between Italy and France had been strained for a while but have now turned toxic, with Di Maio and Salvini surpassing each other in insults and provocative statements about the arrogance of France that "has never stopped colonizing countries in Africa" which they called one of the reasons for the flood of African migrants to Europe. When Macron called their hostile remarks "insignificant", it only heightened the tension and hardened Italy's resolve to whip up the anti-Macron vote in the upcoming European elections. Obviously, the Italian bad boys are trying to score points at home, but their main goal is not to humiliate Macron, but rather to enlarge the populist base and score big at the European Parliament elections.

European Parliament in Strasbourg
With the ongoing Brexit uncertainty, the growing nationalism and europhobia across Europe, and a weakened Germany as pro-European ally, Macron is fragilized indeed and needs all the help he can get to keep the 27-member EU together. He won't get it from neighboring Italy, co-founder of the original European Union but today a disenchanted member, nor from a number of his own fellow countrymen who are hearing the nationalistic siren song of Marine Le Pen and her Italian fellow populists. The stakes are high, and we are looking at the May elections with some trepidation.

At the best of times the French can be an unruly lot, but the Gilets Jaunes movement may have set off something that feels more lasting than the usual street protests that come and go and are soon forgotten (yesterday was Act XIII of their people-supported weekly marches throughout France, with a planned demonstration in front of the National Assembly in Paris). This Facebook-spawned rebellion has found imitators abroad, and in our borderless new Europe might coalesce into a new political force.

Could this happen? Trump happened.