Undeterred by armed riot police, a few hundred diehard gilets jaunes protesters marched towards Paris’s Gare du Nord rail terminus on a blustery Saturday this month — the rump of a movement that has captured the attention of France.
“I think the movement overall has worked. It has changed things,” said Josiane, a 66-year-old retired teacher, reflecting on the gilets jaunes’ achievements nearly a year after they exploded on to the political stage with a big march on the Champs-Elysées. “Yes, there are lower numbers, but that is partly because of fear.”
The regular weekend demonstrations in towns across France and the frequent violence that followed the first Paris event on November 17 last year are now dwindling — but not without having changed the way President Emmanuel Macron governed the country.
He has made numerous concessions over the past 12 months in the face of a popular uprising that began as a provincial motorists’ demonstration against green fuel taxes and evolved into a broader anti-establishment protest.
Mr Macron quickly scrapped the rise in fuel taxes and made billions of euros of other financial concessions for middle-class workers, amounting to about 1 per cent of gross domestic product, according to private-sector economists. The climbdown has undermined his government’s plans for swift reductions in the budget deficit and the national debt.
A contrite Mr Macron, accused by demonstrators of being an arrogant “president of the rich”, also launched a “great national debate” to discuss social and economic grievances from taxation and public transport to the state of the health service and the political system.
Later, the president acknowledged that “real anger” persisted about injustice and economic difficulties.
The gilets jaunes, according to sociologist Michel Wieviorka, combined the use of social media and on-the-ground action in “an exceptional, very spectacular, very media-savvy” way that began by bypassing the trade unions and political parties that have dominated anti-government protests since the second world war.
“The gilets jaunes told the government not to forget the poor, the social injustices — and the government listened and understood. The government was not deaf,” Mr Wieviorka said.
A year after it began, however, demonstrators can be counted in hundreds or even dozens instead of tens of thousands.
Some gilets jaunes are trying to organise a spectacular day of anniversary protests on the weekend of November 16-17, but the infiltration of the marches by casseurs (wreckers) and violent anarchists has eroded popular sympathy for the demonstrators.
At the same time, veteran demonstrators are drifting back towards more traditional forms of protest, including a union-organised transport strike planned for December 5 over Mr Macron’s plans for pension reform that would end favourable schemes for railway employees and other categories of state workers.
“We shook up the unions that were maybe in a bit of a torpor,” said Josiane, the teacher.
While the gilets jaunes movement changed Mr Macron’s style of governing and made him yield ground on some of his economic reforms, it did not fundamentally alter the institutions of France’s Fifth Republic. One reason is that it remained largely leaderless and its supporters have not built a political platform with clear goals.
“It invented some very important things, but it did not make itself sustainable,” says Mr Wieviorka. “It is a very defensive movement, not one that is turned towards the future . . . In its initial form it is finished, but the problems have not gone away and people’s expectations remain.”
Both the government and its opponents agree that the movement has made a lasting impression on French society.
It was not just that 2,500 demonstrators and 1,800 police officers have been injured in the past year — more than 40 of the protesters had serious eye injuries from police weapons — or that over 3,000 gilets jaunes were convicted of various crimes.
The weekly demonstrations also exposed France’s privileged metropolitan elites to the grievances of remote communities where people struggle to make ends meet, depend utterly on their cars and costly fuel for transport, and lament the loss of public services.
Priscillia Ludosky, whose petition on fuel prices helped launch the gilets jaunes movement a year ago, stopped short of calling it a success. But she said it “changed quite a lot of things” — not least by bringing people out of isolation to share their problems and triggering discussions “between working-class people and members of the elite, that’s unheard of in France”.
Among the marchers in Paris this month was Eric, a 43-year-old Parisian electrician who said he had joined 35 of the weekly marches and who foresaw further protests against Mr Macron led by the trade unions.
“If we had not been here, the government would have gone further and done more reforms. We have put the brakes on,” he said. “And in December, we think the unions, with the reforms that are coming, are going to fight on.”
The rest of the protesters marched on, chanting: “On est là, on est là! Même si Macron ne veut pas, nous on est là!” (We’re here, we’re here! Even if Macron doesn’t want it, we are here!).
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