It started out as one tax too many. A fuel tax that grossly over-affected people living on or below the poverty line in rural areas of France was the spark that began the Gilet Jeune movement mid November 2018. With the help of social media and a general dislike for French President Emmanuel Macron, the movement spread throughout France, to the department of Reunion Island and most notably to iconic areas in Paris. Tensions and violence increased in Paris in December and the original issues of fuel tax became an anti-Macron protest with a large majority of French people supporting the movement but rejecting the “casseurs” or people breaking and burning property.
Historically, when the French protest their government listens aka backs down. This happened 50 years ago during the protests at the Sorbonne in 1968 which resulted in death, injuries and an increase in the minimum wage. Another example is the transit strike in 1998 that began with a proposed welfare cut and ended a month later with those plans being cancelled. French identity was formed by the 1789 revolution which means protest is in the DNA of France. When citizens speak, the government listens and the Gilet Jeune protests of 2018 is just an example of a long history of citizen unrest stopping changes before they happen.
Many Americans can’t understand how protests can grow this large and continue for weeks at a time. The mentality in France is so much more accepting of not only criticism but also actions against the government. Throughout the protests I experienced the inconvenience of not being able to get to work one Saturday morning. I also received about ten messages and comments of concern from my American friends and family asking “if they were coming towards you” as if an army of angry Frenchmen were storming the coffee shops of bobo-Belleville. The media tells one story and that story may be sensationalized. Not being able to walk along the Champs-Elysee for a weekend is nothing in comparison to stories like this man in rural town Guéret, France who talks about having to skip meals and barely being able to afford using his car before the fuel hikes. Bringing the Gilet Jeune protests to Paris brought the issues, unrest and widespread dislike for President Macron to the world stage-fast.
With the recent arrest of a Gilet Jeune leader, Eric Drouet, many fear that the worst is yet to come with the protests and liken it to pouring oil on gasoline and creating a martyr. While things have seemingly quieted down during the holiday break, what’s next is unclear. But if history repeats itself, the people will be heard by Macron and change will be made in their favor.