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‘Gilets jaunes’: the protestors without borders

Madeline Pitt explores how the protests have changed as they've spread from France


Image: Thomas Bresson

IN FRANCE, DRIVING without a hivis jacket in your car is illegal. No wonder the simple, blinding garment was available in abundance at the start of the first protests in Paris in November last year. No wonder, also, that it seemed a logical emblem of a grassroots campaign countering the tax rise on diesel. Since then, the yellow vest movement has acquired brand status, and broadened far beyond a squabble over tax to encompass much wider concerns over globalisation, social justice and power. It has inadvertently infected the ‘Leave Means Leave’ movement in London, sparked a diplomatic incident in Italy and is jockeying for a spot on the European Parliament’s electoral register. The gilets jaunes have struck an unexpectedly inter-national chord of discontent. In France, the furious floods of yellow, coarsing through the streets of not only the capital but other large cities including Lille, Marseille and Montpellier, follow other, less-publicised demonstrations. Three months of train strikes and universities barricaded by angry students are hardly manifestations of an effective dialogue between citizens and state.

France, with its ever contradictory love-hate relationship with globalisation, whose leaders and opposition have for decades spewed criticism for market forces while their economy welcomes dynamic international businesses, has be-come something of a boxing ring where pro-globalisation and anti-globalisation forces both trade and ignore blows. Yet rarely has the debate been embodied as vividly and violently as this, with 1 700 injuries occurring since the beginning of the demonstrations. Those sustained as a result of the police use of the Flash Ball, a gun that fires rubber bullets, helped swing the crux of the debate away from taxes and towards the rising tension between protestors and police, and therefore away from questions of finance and towards those of power. Away from the violence, yet very much at the heart of the events, President Emmanuel Macron is trying to reconcile his pro-competition policies with those who stand to lose from them.

His fuel tax, introduced with applaudable ecological aspirations yet inevitably hitting the poorer, rural, car-dependent communities hard-est, was hastily jettisoned. A top-up of the minimum wage followed in an apparent acknowledgement that protestors were motivated by difficult economic circumstances. Since November, their demands have be-come less specific but no less insistent: the main message is, as it has always been “listen to us”. Those who seek to uncover which portion of the political spectrum can rightfully claim ownership of the “gilets jaunes” have missed the point. Certainly, the movement has attracted an eclectic mix of political support as leaders rush to gush their understanding for the demonstrators’ concerns, largely for their own gain, as is undoubtedly the case of far-right politician Marine Le Pen. Yet the gilets jaunes have sprung up precisely because they have found their voices unrepresented in the establishment. The clearest example of the muddiness surrounding their political orientation was in the spread of the movement to London, where a demonstration saw both anti-austerity and pro-Brexit marchers identify with their French counterparts and don the now famous yellow vests. In a turn of supreme irony, both groups proceeded to accuse the other of hijacking the movement.

This week, Italian deputy Prime Minister and leader of the populist Five-Star Movement, Luigi di Maio, enraged the French government by meeting the leaders of the gilets jaunes. In Belfast, some yellow vests brandished signs demanding equal marriage rights; others, messages of Islamophobia. The movement has crossed borders and lost clarity. The gilets jaunes are perhaps then a sign of the fading relevance of the traditional political spectrum.

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