Macron was weak with French gilets jaunes

- and institutionalised rioting is the result

27 March 2019
By Nabila Ramdani

If a week is a long time in politics, then almost five months of anti-government rioting is close to an eternity. It certainly seems like that to those of us who have been following the gilets jaunes from their early days as small town pressure groups calling for a reduction in fuel prices.

Now extreme violence associated with the protesters – who are named after the high visibility jackets that motorists are legally obliged to have in their vehicles in France – has become so terrifying that President Macron’s administration is trying to get their more risky demonstrations banned.

The catalyst for this was a weekend of absolute pandemonium in Paris. Historic restaurants such as Le Fouquet’s were burned out on the Champs-Elysées, along with banks and high-end boutiques, which were also looted.

The dark events of March 16 marked the 18th Saturday in a row of gilets jaunes’ “Days of Rage”, and appeared to be a tipping point.

Mr Macron’s Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, said “criminal acts are no longer acceptable”, and that the “government’s response must be strong.” He sacked the chief of Paris police and pledged to outlaw all future gatherings of agitators wearing the now-feared yellow garments.

Which rather raises the key question: what has changed since Macron and his most senior ministers backed down to the troublemakers?

The politicians effectively institutionalised weekly rioting in a manner that was as cynical as it was absurd.

Yes, France’s ruling classes have a long history of bowing down to the street, especially in a traditionally revolutionary capital like Paris, but Mr Macron has been pitifully inconsistent in his handling of the gilets jaunes.

Riots in December last year were every bit as destructive as those in March. The Arc de Triomphe itself was ransacked by a mob in a freezing city that took on the appearance of an Eastern European one during the Cold War.

Thousands of riot policemen set up roadblocks and patrolled constantly, just as they did in major cities such as Bordeaux and Toulouse, which were also reduced to battlegrounds. Macron reacted by capitulating to the gilets jaunes, scrapping much vaunted green taxes on petrol and diesel – delighting the protesters, but infuriating ecological campaigners.

The dramatic U-turn was accompanied by similarly generous fiscal measures, such as raising the income for those on the minimum wage by €100 a month.

Such concessions came less than a month after the Gilets Jaunes movement was founded as a loose alliance of disgruntled activists on social media.

Their speed of achievement undoubtedly made it the most successful group of its kind in history.

They were so emboldened by Mr Macron’s exceptional generosity that they vowed to pay him back by forcing him to resign. 

This led to Mr Macron’s second major error, which was praising the gilets jaunes as a legitimate expression of populist dissent, while allowing his security forces to use fiercely repressive measures against them. These have ranged from the much-feared “flash-ball” rubber bullets that have caused the loss of eyes and limbs, to firing endless rounds of tear gas.

Chemical weapons are used with abandon, with a particularly sinister substance being administered by gendarmerie armoured cars.

The undefined compound is said to be 200-times more powerful than the regular lachrymator agents that police spray everywhere.

Mr Macron has tried to have it both ways: using extreme repression against rioters, while granting them a highly effective role in his governance. The result is seemingly never-ending social disorder with which his period of office will always be associated.

 

Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion

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