Who are the “yellow vests”, the movement without leaders

Emmanuel Macron is going through a deep crisis that threatens the future of his government by a street rebellion. Although it annulled the fuel tax that had unleashed the protests, the demonstrators do not seem willing to give in and no one knows how far they can go

It was known that, sooner or later, the government of Emmanuel Macron was going to face strong resistance. Their risky program of tax and labour reforms has very clear losers, who were not going to accept passive changes. For that reason, the confrontation with the unions was inevitable.

The first ones targeted were the railroad workers, who have a privileged work regime. They made three months of strike, but they did not manage to twist the arm to the youngest president of the French democracy. Winning that battle made him think that things were going to be easier than they ended up being.


It was not organized workers who caused the first major defeat for Macron and plunged his government into a crisis that deepens more every day. It was an inorganic and heterogeneous group, without clear references or a precise ideology, which assaulted the streets of Paris – and many other cities -, unleashing a chaos that had not been seen in the French capital for several decades.

“They mobilize through social networks, mainly Facebook, they do not have leaders, they do not have a defined direction, but there lies their success, because many of these people look with distrust at all the devices and at the institutions, including the unions. It makes it possible for everyone to bring their own claim, even if it has different and even contradictory foundations with those of its neighbours, it is a limit for the movement, but also a strength,” explained political scientist Jean-Marie Pernot, researcher at the Institute of Economic Research and Social, consulted by news website ‘Infobae’.

The trigger was the rise in taxes on gasoline and diesel, a measure recommended by environmental experts to discourage the consumption of fossil fuels. But a part of the lower middle class, which for many years faces restrictions due to high unemployment and low wages, felt it like a great injustice. Above all, by a government that reduced patrimonial taxes to the rich to prevent their fortunes being taken abroad.


More than 280 thousand people left to protest on November 17, the first big day of the march. Many of them were wearing yellow vests that motorists must wear. Quickly, that happened to be the emblem of the movement.

“They are mobilized through social networks, Facebook mainly. They do not have leaders, nor a definite address”

With the passing of the weeks, the mobilizations lost concurrence, but they increased their visibility due to the outbreak of violence episodes. The end was lived last Saturday. While Macron was in Buenos Aires participating in the G20 summit, Paris burned. Cars and buildings were burned, looting was reported in stores and a group of people vandalized the Arc de Triomphe.

The clashes between protesters and police were repeated in different parts of the city, which looked like a war zone. Authorities reported that 263 people were injured and 412 were arrested. In addition, since November 17 there were four deaths related to the incidents.

Not satisfied 

But the most worrying for Macron is that, despite having backed out with the increase in taxes, the crisis is far from over. The Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests) do not feel satisfied with the ads and feel they arrived too late. Nothing strengthens a protest movement more than winning victories, especially when they wait.

“The French do not want crumbs, they want the whole baguette,” said Benjamin Cauchy, one of the many organizers of the protests. The police fear new incidents and many shops will remain closed.

“The government’s measures could have taken effect at the beginning, but now they have lagged behind the magnitude of the movement, the only thing sure is that there will be demonstrations over the weekend. And that new actors will join, such as high school students and farmers.” Danielle Tartakowsky, researcher at the Centre for Social History of the 20th Century.

A movement that synthesizes the discomfort

“For many years there were social or individual attempts at resistance to work in France that seemed to lead to nothing, but after 2010, when there were big protests against rising pensionable age. I thought that a social movement was probably going to emerge. Although he did not know when or in what way, the discontent crystallized and began around a very specific demand, but it brings together many discontents and claims related to social inequality and the arrogance of the rich,” Christian Chevandier, professor at Contemporary history at the University of Le Havre.

The malaise is not new in France. For a long time, there have been large portions of the population in the country that suffer from economic stagnation. A chronic unemployment rate close to 10% and the inefficiency of a state that was too large and is now in retreat.


“Many of these people do not see a consideration for their taxes, which gives the movement a very anti-imperial stamp,” Pernot said. “The phenomenon of the working poor is growing, the government is targeting the unemployed and says the only solution is have a job, whatever it is, but yellow jackets are employed individuals who cannot live with dignity.”

One of the great problems facing the French is that the reforms needed to revitalize the economy are unpopular and difficult to implement in a country with strong unions and bureaucratic structures, capable of blocking many initiatives. That is why, despite the fact that the last governments agreed on the need to make changes in the same direction, none could make much progress.

Macron is undoubtedly the president who assumed the reform mandate more firmly. So, it’s not surprising that during his rule the strongest reactions have taken place.

Movement without leaders 

“It’s a movement that is not structured,” Tartakowsky said, “the calls to march did not respect the requirement of preliminary registration, which created a difficulty for the security forces.” At first, the violence was related to groups of the far right and troublemakers, but many young people in vests also joined in. “There is a dimension of anger and there is a new element: some protesters vindicated the need for violence, something that is quite exceptional in the history of the French protests.”

“Discontent started around a very specific demand, but it brings together many discontents and claims related to social inequality and the arrogance of the rich”


Much of the anger with Macron does not go through the policies he wants to implement, but because of his style and what he represents. He is a member of the French economic and cultural elite, trained in the exclusive National School of Administration and with experience in the financial sector. No matter how hard he tries to explain that tax benefits for the most affluent sectors can have a positive impact on the economy, he has no way to avoid being accused of being “the president of the rich”.

“There are three elements that converge: the first is Macron’s arrogance, he was poorly elected, with a very high abstention rate, but he behaves as if he were the king of France and seems to show great disdain for people who have difficulties. The second is a set of public and private policies that made many people dependent on the car, France is a scattered country, where land prices forced many poor people to move out of urban centres. Related to vehicle maintenance grew in recent years, so the increase in gasoline was seen as too much. The third is the contraction of public services and social policies in general,” said Pernot.

What’s next for the Gilets Jaunes

The government’s response to the crisis was clumsy and erratic. First, he limited himself to condemning the violence. Then he tried to negotiate but found no clear interlocutors. Finally, in an unprecedented event since he is in power, he reversed a measure. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced the six-month suspension of the increase on Tuesday.

“The government responds with delay to the mobilization,” said Pernot, “if the announcements were made after the first march, they could have worked, but today surely not.” On the contrary, announcing a simple suspension gave the impression that he only intended to win. The yellow vests do not trust politics, they feel an incredible hatred that expresses itself, “it is a shared feeling: polls show that 70% of the population understands and supports protest, even after the violence.”

“Government measures could have taken effect at the beginning, but now they are behind the magnitude of the movement”
Seeing that it was not enough to calm the spirits, Philippe reported that the tax was cancelled and also froze the tariffs for public services. But it was not enough either.

Macron’s strategy 

Two things are very striking. One is how quickly the government did not give in to deliver everything after weeks of standing firm. Another is Macron’s strategy: despite the deep gravity of the crisis, it maintains an almost absolute silence. He only answered one question from Buenos Aires. “The guilty of this violence do not want any reform, they just want chaos,” he said. When returning to France, it was limited to cross the Arc of the Triumph.

Nobody is surprised that his image has fallen to the minimum since he moved to the Elysee. Only 23% of people support it, according to the latest Ifop-Fiducial survey.


Taking advantage of the weakness, the left parties agreed to push a vote of confidence in Parliament against Philippe and his cabinet next week. It hardly flourishes because the ruling party has a majority, but it is a warning light for the government, and gives incentives to the demonstrators to continue on the street.

“It is difficult to predict the future when one is a historian, but I can say that something is going to happen.” In the small town in southern France where I live, the movement is deeper than the discussion about the price of fuel. Accumulated for many years that is being expressed, the only sure thing is that, as was said in 1968, nothing will be like before,” concluded Chevandier.

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