Protests continue to plague French government

Will Sheehy

Protests over the French government’s taxes on gasoline in the final weeks of the year have left parts of Paris and its surroundings in a state comparable to anarchy. Empty shells of cars are burning, storefronts are being looted, windows being shattered and the Arc de Triomphe has been vandalized as over tens of thousands of “yellow vest” protesters march in the French capital.

The hike in fuel prices from the gas tax originally inspired people to take the streets, donning the yellow vests that are required in French cars in case of emergency. The spontaneous demonstrations caught police off-guard in mid-November when 280,000 demonstrators were active across the nation.

Since then, many more have joined for reasons other than the environmentally motivated fuel tax. Thousands of the 72 percent of the French population supporting the protests have begun marching with anti-Macron posters, expressing their discontent. Grafitti on the iconic monument at the Champs-Élysées reads, “Macron demission,” or Macron resign. According to French newspaper Le Monde, the protest has embraced sayings such as “We cut off heads for less than this” and “May 1968. December 2018,” in reference to civil unrest and protests in the mid-twentieth century that led to widespread general strikes and an economic recession. This self-proclaimed ‘revolution’ has expanded from a fuel tax protest, into a middle and lower class uprising in favor of more representation and equality.

The first march was organized in direct response to the increase in French gas prices, which were already at $7.06 per gallon (compared to $3.00 per gallon in the United States). Unrest has grown exponentially since and Nov. 30 became a pivotal moment in this crisis when France’s Interior Ministry deployed 37,000 police officers, 30,000 gendarmes, and 30,000 firefighters. Those numbers have since grown to 89,000 gendarmes and police, and 75,000 security and emergency officers.

Despite its peaceful origins, the protests have become violent. In the southern port city of Marseille, an eighty-year-old woman was killed after a protester threw a canister of tear gas into her apartment. Over the course of the demonstrations, hundreds of stores have been robbed, and Paris businesses report a 25-50 percent drop in income. Three other citizens have died as well, and hundreds have been hospitalized with severe injuries, according to French police.

France’s Interior Minister Christophe Castane said he expects “radical elements” to continue, as reported by British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Security services are also probing for Russian interference, citing the roughly 600 pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts that have turned their emphasis towards the yellow vest uprising, among other reasons.

Bret Shafer, a social media analyst for the probes, stated, “That’s a pretty strong indication that there is interest in amplifying the conflict,” according to Bloomberg News

In response to the crisis, French President Emmanuel Macron met with “yellow vest” leaders the morning of Dec. 4, as documented by the New York Times. Most details of the meeting were not made available to the public, but the French government agreed to a moratorium on the rise in gas prices for the present.

This compromise was too little and too late. Forty more demands were issued to the government, applying more pressure on Macron. Headlining these were a decrease in the retirement age, a minimum pension, and an extensive revamp of the tax system. These reforms, supported by much of the middle and lower class, hope to solve the wide economic disparity that plagues parts of France. Macron said that a “malaise” of “neighborhoods where public services have been diminishing, where living conditions that have deteriorated” have existed for the past forty years, as published in BBC.

France has a 9.1 percent unemployment rate in a population of 67 million, and 4.2 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. The President delivered on many of the 40 demands on Dec. 10, saying that he had “fought to shake up the system we had in place.” The minimum wage will be raised by 100 euros a month, pension policies for retirees will be altered and taxes will be removed from overtime pay.

Despite Macron’s intentions, these concessions have been dubbed a “short-term solution” by right-wing politician Eric Woerth and “half-measures” by protester Benjamin Cauchy, both of which were broadcasted on BFM TV. Moving forward, expect continued protests and the effects of President Macron’s decisions to possibly amplify or alter the trajectory of these demonstrations.