French prime minister Edouard Philippe has announced a series of authoritarian measures to crack down on yellow vest protesters. The most significant include banning protests in certain parts of major cities, such as around the well-heeled Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris and popular areas of Bordeaux and Toulouse.
The week before Philippe announced the measures, the yellow vests clocked up their 18th consecutive week of anti-government protests. The movement began with hundreds of thousands of people protesting against president Emmanuel Macron’s proposed fuel tax hike. However, their protest quickly morphed into a movement against wealth inequality and for greater participation in French political life.
In the 18th week, some protesters in Paris marked the occasion by destroying and looting the luxury stores and boutiques that line the Champs-Élysées, culminating in the torching of Fouquet’s, a brasserie where Sunday brunch will set you back €95 ($150) and which in 2007 hosted right wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s election victory party. As one Guardian columnist noted, Fouquet’s is not only a renowned symbol of France’s rich and powerful – the image of it burning has become a symbol of the hatred the yellow vest movement feels towards Macron and the rich he is seen to represent.
The burning of Fouquet’s struck a nerve with the country’s elite. Days later, Philippe announced the new anti-protest laws.
The French PM says that the laws are not aimed at the “normal” protesters, just the bad eggs. He describes some of the protesters as casseurs (rioters), which derives from the French word casser (“to break”).
Yet when it comes to breakage, who “broke” the French labour code, increasing employment insecurity for French workers, destroying long-held working conditions such as protection from unfair dismissal and overtime? Who “broke” the railway workers, denying them the conditions they had won over decades of organised struggle? Who “broke” the country’s wealth tax, allowing the country’s super-rich to continue to hoard their wealth while attacks on the poor and working class continue?
Compared with the burning of a few luxury stores, Macron and his government have inflicted far more serious damage with their project of shifting more of the country’s wealth to the rich and driving down the living standards of ordinary people.
Anyone should be wary of a justification like Philippe’s: it’s designed to sow divisions between the yellow vest protesters and encourage sections of the movement to denounce other sections.
Any movement like the yellow vests is going to employ a diversity of tactics that not everyone will agree on: however, the prime minister’s measures are not about ensuring the right of “normal” yellow vests to continue protesting; they are an authoritarian way of attempting to wind up the movement.
Fortunately, yellow vests last week rejected Philippe’s warnings and continued their national protests for the 19th week in a row. Many protesters called on their yellow vest comrades to ignore the prime minister and the police chiefs’ calls to exclude sections of the movement: they reiterated that all yellow vests were welcome to join the demonstrations and defy the government’s bans.
In the end, about 40,000 protested around the country.