France on the simmer: Yellow Vests return, Red Scarves make their debut

Thousands of gilets returned to the streets of France last Saturday to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies, resulting in violent clashes with the police in several cities who cracked down hard on the demonstrators following Macron’s bid to quell the movement.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons to push back the protesters at Place de la Bastille in Paris, even as a group of yellow vests pelted stones from a nearby site. There were 223 arrests in Paris alone, while the interior ministry reported an estimate of 69,000 demonstrators across France, in the 11th consecutive week of protests — about 15,000 fewer than last weekend.

Protests enter 11th weekend

The protests continued into the night in some cities but the police managed to quickly disperse several hundred protesters in the capital’s symbolic Republique square.

Clashes erupted in Nantes and Montpellier, where a police officer was injured by “a pyrotechnic device”, according to law enforcement officials. Bordeaux and Toulouse, where support for the movement has been consistently strong, too witnessed police crackdown on small groups of protesters tossing fireworks and bottles. 

In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, union members joined the protests and about a thousand protesters turned out in the eastern city of Lyon.

AFP reported the extensive use of stun grenades, , tear gas and water cannon across Paris. For the first time in eleven weeks, riot police used controversial ball launchers (LBDs) that shoot (1.6-inch) rubber and foam and is used by almost no other security forces in the European Union.

A French court on Friday refused to ban the seriously injurious weapon, despite human rights groups’ call for it.

The government has refused to withdraw the weapons as well, insisting that “defensive bullets” and stun grenades, containing a dose of TNT, are necessary to defend gendarmes (policemen) from violent attacks. 

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner on Twitter criticised “rioters disguised as yellow vest protesters” after Saturday’s clashes, as divisions began to appear among the yellow vests regarding the future course of the movement.

Course of the movement and factionalism

In a new political development, moderate activists like Jacline Mouraud and Ingrid Vavasseur are trying to set up political wings of the movement, saying they would like to lead a yellow vest list of candidates for the European elections in May. But this is not a widely shared sentiment, as both the women have reportedly been inundated with threats of violence from other yellow vests in the last few days.

It is clear that while some gilets abhor violence, others condone and even seek it. Some of the latter believe that the pressure must be kept on in the streets. Those unable to decide have said they would prefer a referendum to enable ordinary people a greater say in government policy.

However, the most significant development that could prove to be a substantial challenge to the movement has been the emergence of a new faction which is opposed to the gilets jaunes’ violent methods of operation.

On Sunday, supporters of the government staged their first “red scarf” protest to represent what they say is “the silent majority” defending “democracy and its institutions” and denouncing the “insurrectional climate” of the yellow vests protests.

A 10,000-strong march in Paris by the “foulards rouges,” who have 21,000 followers on Facebook, countered weeks of anti-government protests.

Macron’s loosening foothold

Meanwhile, Macron’s approval ratings had dipped below 20% when the gilets had first surfaced, though recent opinion polls suggest that he has regained some of the ground lost during the crisis, owing mainly to the “great national debate” he initiated in response to the protests.

Even some of the red scarves seem divided on the issue of supporting Macron. While some insist upon it, others want it to be an apolitical citizens’ movement. Most of them, however, seem to encourage civilian participation in the ongoing debates or nationwide town-hall meetings where Macron addresses protesters’ concerns — rather than confronting protesters on the street.

However, gilets supporters dismissed the debate as a public relations operation calling it a “masquerade”, and the participants vetted from before.

Brief history

The grass roots movement erupted with drivers protesting against fuel taxes in mid-November but soon it came to critique the gamut of Macron’s economic reforms, covering most of France’s working class dressed in high-visibility yellow vests.

Since then, it has branched out into wider rallies calling for the president’s resignation on grounds that he is out of touch with the economic struggles of ordinary French people. Assuming the form of one of the most violent street movements in France since 1968, the gilets have taken to clashing regularly with the police and seminal public monuments.

Last word

Economic, cultural and political exclusion of the working classes, has made the gilets jaunes unstoppable now, with the protests heading into calamitous territory. Described by political scientists as a shock to the elite cultural establishment, the protests stem predominantly from the divide between the elite and the gilets jaunes, and have gradually attained the stature of a grassroots insurrection against the transfer of power to plutarchy.

According to government estimates, around 1,700 protesters and 1,000 policemen or gendarmes have been injured so far, after 11 weeks of conflict. Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the leaders of the gilets jaunes was gravely wounded last , which should serve as a warning to both protesters, police and politicians, especially because the movement now rests on the leadership of one Eric Droet, who has called for a retaliatory “rising without precedent by all useful and necessary means.”

As the movement seems poised to enter its twelfth night, Drouet’s calls for open rebellion is bound to properly test the restraint of the gendarmes, this coming Saturday.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Emmanuel MacronFranceGilets JaunesRed Scarves