France: What are the yellow vests protests about?

I would like to hear it from real people who either live there or who have close contacts. Here in the USA we are hearing conflicting stories. Both sides agree its about higher taxes but there is disagreement over what those taxes are paying for. One side says its to fight climate change/global warming while another says its to pay for social programs and the cost of caring for immigrants?

Either way I have to admire these protests. ordinary, middle class people and LOTS of them.

What is the truth?

My understanding is that different people have different grievances. It’s somewhat similar to asking why was Trump elected: we have discussed this exhaustively on Straight Dope–and it’s not just one reason.

There is political tension in France because the President Macron has a political program to reform the French economy. The French do not like change and those who benefit from the status quo are very vocal about resisting change and there is a tradition of noisy, sometime violent street protests in France.

The yellow vests represent ordinary drivers who have been hit by increases in the cost of fuel. The yellow vests relates to a law that requires car owners to carry one of these in their car. The idea is if the car breaks down and the driver gets out to fix it, other drivers can see clearly it is an emergency situation. Here is used as a symbol signifying that they represent ordinary car owners (rather than another group like farmers or truckers.) who are in crisis because they can’t afford to run their cars.

The protests are directly about an increase in fuel tax. But there seems to be no real leadership of the protests, which are organised using social media. Some far left/anarchist groups are responsible for the violence seen on the streets. Whenever a protest is loosely organised it will be vulnerable to being hijacked by such groups.

Macron is an interesting French President, he left one party, started his own, then ran for President. He managed to convince the French electorate that he was ‘new broom’ and promote a progressive reform of the economy. He is trying to do something like Thatcher did in the UK is the 1980s when she took on the Labour unions that had huge economic power at the time. That involved a LOT of strikes and riots and there remains a lot of painful memories, but it transformed the UK economy. France never went through that, so its economy is sluggish and held back by vested interests resistant to change.

France has rather a different political culture, they takes to the streets very quickly and the police have a reputation for being heavy handed. Macron has to do a balancing act and isolate and deal with the elements that are holding back the French economy. Whether he can maintain the political authority he needs is the big question. In this case, his administration seems to have mishandled the protests that have arisen from these tax rises. He has now had to make a strategic withdrawal, which may embolden others to protest in a similar way.

The French seem to have an almost visceral disdain for their political class in Paris. The noisiest are the French farmers who famously protective of their interests and their fondness for direct action on the streets.

Macron is going to face a lot of challenges and he needs to choose his battles very carefully. But this guy is not just going to ‘mind the shop’ like previous Presidents who try a few changes and fail, then try to stay popular by keeping the various factions happy. Macron sold himself as a reformer who wants to change the country. How much the French really want to change, that is another story. If he is going to get anything done, he has to be firm and decisive. But his party is new and mistakes will be made.

What started the protests is a fuel tax whose product would have been used to fight climate change. But it turned quickly into a protest against taxes in general, the government policies in general, and pretty much everything else people are unhappy about.

Tons of people are convinced that they pay huge amounts of taxes that are either wasted or benefit other, undeserving people, chief among them immigrants who benefit from lavish social programs and as a result stay in their sumptuous government provided housing eating delicacies and making state-sponsored babies to their multiple wives. That would explain what you’ve heard, many are voicing it. However, you shouldn’t assume that these are the only protesters. There are among them for instance people actually living on the dole and complaining that they don’t receive enough to live decently. It isn’t an unified movement.

There are plenty of people with legitimate concerns among the yellow jackets, but the general idea is that they’re people convinced that they’re crushed under taxes and impoverished, while others (who they think these others are vary, but almost certain to include the political elite) are fattening themselves at their expense. It’s a very popular but also populist movement, very diverse, without unified claims apart from “I want to pay less and receive more.”

I have little sympathy for them, generally speaking (even though, once again, very legitimate complaints are raised among others that I, at least, don’t find legitimate, and I share their general sentiment that Macron is a condescending elitist fucktard who has no understanding of, no respect for and little interest in the common people).

Macron didn’t convince many people. He was elected by default, as a result of both “main” candidates becoming essentially lost causes (on the right because of scandals, on the left because the primary voters chose an unexpected candidate that pretty much nobody in his own party wanted to support).

I voted myself for Macron for lack of any other sensible option. I seriously envisioned voting instead for a candidate mostly known for singing traditional regional songs in the parliament and voicing the issues of Pyrenean shepherds (but I’m fully convinced a very ethical individual, authentically concerned by the well being of the common people) and who didn’t even have a platform nor an organized campaign.

I believe Macron is part of these people who are convinced that a very small minority of people, in particular entrepreneurs and businessmen, are pulling all the weight while the rest of the population is mostly undeserving, bordering on the parasitic. All his reforms are intended to put an end to the unjustified privileges he thinks various social categories enjoy and prevent the deserving from enriching themselves as a just reward for leading us all towards a bright future. He is also certain, in my opinion, that he has a monopoly on the truth that probably justify in his mind both his arrogance and his lack of interest in the concerns voiced by the people who just aren’t intelligent enough to understand that their best interest and their proper place in life is working as a waiter for minimum wage while he and his peers take care of things.

clairobcsur, perhaps I am cynical or paranoid or both, but is there any chance this is some kind of rightist agitation fueled by outside money? Because it seems like that to me. I haven’s seen any articles saying who exactly these “yellow jackets” are or how they came to be, and that smells like political ratfuckery to me.*
*It smells bad.

Safety vests are not required to be yellow, but the one that came with my Citröen is; most car companies give you the vest and triangle when you buy a car. Yellow safety vests are a cheap way to identify yourself as a member of the movement and most people already have one (if all the vests you had were orange, it’s 3-6€, not exactly bank-breaking). But because it’s become a political symbol, now people mistake the Spanish custom of dressing the shotgun seat with your vest for a political statement.

I’ve had both people glare at me or try to get agressively political, and yellow-vests letting me through on account of the vest. The first time this happened I didn’t realize what was going on; once I understood, I now refuse the special treatment since I’m not a sympathizer, I’m just someone who happens to own a yellow safety vest.

  • The requirement is a few years old, but for some reason the “lone drivers make the other seat wear their vest to make sure it’s handy and easy to grab quickly” seems to have caught up a lot in Spain and not at all in most other countries which have that law.

I don’t share your analysis on the yellow jacket situation, but this quote is a big part for me of why I think this is exploding right now. Because it’s not as if things were really that different the last years. But Macron managed to push the arrogant and condescending act to new heights.

What a French person told me was that it was originally about the institution of a gas tax, and that it was started by a bunch of trucker types. That’s why it uses the yellow emergency vest that you are required to have in your car.

They said it extends further to a general idea that they are lowering taxes on the rich while instituting taxes like the gas tax that disproportionately affect the middle and lower class. It sounded like they were replacing progressive taxes with regressive ones.

Of course, this is only from one person, with one person agreeing with them, while another person was bringing up the French national deficit being $40 billion taxes and saying that’s why they had to be raised. Then the other person said something similar to “Then why reduce taxes on the rich?”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this, but it seems to suggest this is a popular perception. And I’m pretty sure the part about the origin is at least accurate. I mean, Macron did back down on implementing the gas tax, after all.

I see alot of French flags being flown. Isnt it also the fact Macron wants to build up the EU and downplay nationalism? Isnt he calling for an all-EU army?

FWIW, background conditions seem right for unrest. Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is highest in France among all OECD countries at 46.2% (just surpassing Denmark at 46.0%), Macron’s approval rating is in the 20s, unemployment is around 9%, and youth unemployment is over 20%. Macron did propose a reduction in France’s wealth tax in his 2017 budget (although my recollection is that he campaigned on abolishing it, so at least that would not have been a surprise), supposedly to reduce the amount of French assets being stashed overseas.

Curious what the response here in the US would be if several thousand Trump supporters ran through DC, burning cars, throwing rocks at police and defacing the Washington monument with graffiti.

But aren’t the protestors in France against Macron?

Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to be curious about the response to anti-Trump protestors doing the above?

That’s the exact augment we here from the trump “build the WALL!” supporters down here at the border. That all the “illegals” are living on welfare and popping out “future Democrat voters”.

I guess that must be between where they pick the fruit, clean the toilets, cut the grass and hang the drywall. Logic is not a factor in these arguments.

No need to be curious. There were several thousand anti-Trump protestors marching through DC after his inauguration. Objects were thrown at police, several storefronts were smashed, cars were damaged, and at least one vehicle (ironically, belonging to an immigrant) was burned. There were incidents of anti-Trump graffiti around the country at that time. Also, of course, numerous (confederate-themed) monuments have been defaced or even torn down by protestors since then. Responses and public reactions are a matter of record.

Clair and Bleiz - am I correct in understanding that there is also an urban-versus-rural aspect to what is going on? I read SudOuest (Périgueux) online (trying to relearn French) and they certainly seem to me to be playing up this angle: reduction of the general speed limit, attacks on radar traps, fuel price hikes having a disproportionately severe effect in (poor) rural areas where car travel is very much a necessity, not a luxury, and so on.


France has always suffered from a division between the Paris and, not only the rural areas, but the rest of France.

Paris and its elite looks down on the rest of the country and regards them as a bunch of peasants. The rural population in particular regard the Paris based political elite as being in great need a visit from Madame Guillotine or at very least a big demonstration and a punch up with the riot police. The French authorities also have history of behaviour.

While mostly it manifests itself as little more than class based snobbery, it can become very political. France has lots of small, barely economic farms. What they lack in income, they make up for in organisation. The Farmers are a Labour Union to be reckoned with and French Ministers are wary of them because they are quite up for a fight.

Macrons taxes are regarded as unfairly penalising people who are dependent of diesel fuel in the rural areas. But now lots of other groups are joining this anti-government protest. There is a tradition of street demonstrations in France. Sometimes they are quite unusual in that may involve not just the downtrodden workers but professional groups as well. When they are angry that they are not getting their slice of the pie they take to the streets and shout about it.

The people doing the damage during the riots are ‘casseurs’ - thugs - who often hijack excitable street demonstrations and try to take advantage of the situation while the police have their hands full. They usually want to smash and loot luxury goods shops. Some are political, some are just opportunistic criminals. You get the same fringe groups attaching themselves to popular political demonstrations in other countries as well. It is not just a French thing. Social media makes big demonstrations much easier to organise. It also helps fringe groups organise their escapades and the police seem a bit unprepared.

However, the underlying cause is Macrons economic policies and tax rises. He has rolled them back and is trying to defuse the tension. I expect he will beef up the police response, try to improve their intelligence on fringe groups and be a bit more prepared for the next confrontation. He will then be careful of his next move in economic reform, try to carry the people with him. In that respect he seems to be losing it. His popularity is very low. I am not sure if the conditions are right for Macron to make much progress. There are too many vested interests who are nonetheless doing well in stagnant economy with a lot of debt.

The protests are not like the new nationalist - populist movements in other countries. In France the nationalist party is long established and famously corrupt. That position is taken and they are almost part of the establishment. Nonetheless there are the ‘left behinds’ in France as well, the same frustration that gave rise to Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK. Both were, in part, giving the finger to the political establishment. So too in France, there is a deeply unhappy group who feel the changes to the economy has passed them by and they are suffering from the worst of government austerity measures. This is that group expressing their frustrations on the streets.

Macron claims to be not Left or Right, but a new broom, a progressive economic reformer. That is a tough sell in France where there is a lot of cynicism about politics a the best of times. The French would probably be happier with someone who is less ambitious who would continue the stodgy economic policies of the past. The country would have to be really on the economic ropes before they would accept any change.

Interesting times.

Thanks,** filmstar** - can I ask (out of curiosity) are you writing from France, or are you overseas and an interested observer?


Yeah too. Like filmstar said, that angle comes with a lot of history/baggage.

Here’s a long article (from an anti-liberal/anti-capitalist POV) detailing some of the origins of the protests, the part that right wings, left wings groups, and other traditional social movements are playing in it, as well as describing how each big day of protest went and how the french government is reacting:

Yellow-vest protests are now spreading to the Netherlands and Belgium. At least Macron can take some comfort that this not a nationalist movement.