This is the end of the Gilets Jaunes in France

France's favourite hobby - protesting in the streets - will go on, but after a year of activism, indications are the gilets jaunes movement has had its day, writes Nabila Ramdani in her latest column for Connexion

27 November 2019
By Nabila Ramdani

Bloody street protests have helped define modern France, as any of the rioters who have caused so much chaos during gilets jaunes’ demonstrations over the past year will tell you.

From the early days, I have watched them causing millions of euros worth of damage to historic monuments in Paris, including the Arc de Triomphe, as well as nearby banks, restaurants, and designer shops on the Champs-Elysées.

Beyond the destruction of property, they fought running battles with the police, losing eyes, fingers and, in some cases, their lives.

Such appalling tragedies were certainly on my mind during Act 53 – the 53rd Saturday in a row when thousands turned out for the movement’s first anniversary march, on November 16.

Once again, there was widespread disorder, especially in Paris, where a war memorial was smashed to pieces to make improvised missiles to throw at the police. 

Cars were turned over and set alight, and baton charges, flash ball guns, water cannons and masses of tear gas – a chemical weapon banned in war zones by international treaties – were used by officers to try and break up the crowds.

Beyond the relatively small number of activists in the French capital – under 5,000 compared to around 10 times that number a year previously – the most notable aspect of the anniversary Saturday was how few of the gilets jaunes were actually wearing their trademark yellow vests.

Hard core anarchists and far-left students, together with some far-right thugs, dominated the protest, but even the out-of-towners who have made up the “traditional” gilets jaunes demographic had discarded their roadside tops.

Their explanation was that the police now immediately pick out flashes of high-vis yellow when there is trouble, arresting those wearing the garments, and in some cases shooting them.

Beyond this, I sensed that the entire gilets jaunes novelty had – after a year – all but fizzled out.

It was launched in November 2018 by social media posters campaigning against high fuel prices. Within a week of the first riots, President Emmanuel Macron had scrapped ecological taxes on petrol and diesel.

Other measures included increasing the minimum wage and abolishing taxes on overtime, end-of-year bonuses and pensioners earning less than €2000 a month – but concessions have been few and far between since then.

This is not because the anger and commitment that drove the movement to its phenomenal early success has entirely dissipated. It is because the gilets jaunes now lack any firm objective, let alone coherent leadership.

Instead they waffle about direct democracy (effectively replacing the Fifth Republic and all its institutions with continual Brexit-style referendums), along with thousands of other ambitious and often conflicting goals, ranging from Frexit (France leaving the European Union) to abolishing private property.

Such incoherence allows troublemakers to exploit the demos, to the extent that Didier Lallement, the Paris police prefect, told one perfectly respectable gilets jaunes woman in her 60s that “we’re not in the same camp”.

The exchange – broadcast live on TV – was the firmest sign yet that the yellow vests have now been reduced from highly effective activists to an unwanted rabble.

Allowing anybody at all to buy a cheap and easily available identifier at a DIY store, and to join thousands calling for anything they wanted, was a clever piece of improvisation but it was never going to last for ever.

Yes, street protests will continue to cause havoc and change in France, but there will be new names, and new gimmicks, just as there has always been.

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