Why is Paris burning?

By Prarthana Mitra

For the last few weeks, France has been gripped by mass mobilisations by the “gilets jaunes” or “yellow-vests”, comprising mostly civilians protesting against the increase in fuel prices and living costs, every Saturday since November 17.

As the movement continued over subsequent weekends without respite and despite repression, clashes with the police grew, until December 1 when the movement grew particularly violent. Cars and national monuments were unscrupulously vandalised in central Paris, after a day of clashes between riot police and gilets jaunes protesters, in what is being described as France’s worst social movement in recent history.

What is happening?

On the first day itself, the movement saw some 282,000 anti-government protestors mounting roadblocks across the country, conducting “snail operations” to slow traffic and over 2000 actions to defy tolls — leading to almost four hundred arrests, several hundred injured, and one dead.

On the next Saturday, November 24, 106,000 people took part in the protests according to the Interior Ministry estimate, with 800 of them agitating in the national capital. Demonstrators managed to approach the central Avenue des Champs Elysées, sparking violent clashes with police that continued throughout the day.

What happened in Paris on December 1?

On the third straight weekend of the riots, thousands of protesters stormed the streets of Paris, leaving torched cars, smashed windows and vandalised stores in their wake. Police said that 133 people were injured, including 23 police officers. Protestors smashed an iconic statue of Marianne inside the Arc de Triomphe, symbolising the breakdown of liberty, equality and fraternity that the French constitution embodies.

Arc de Triopmphe was vandalised and as a result has been closed until further notice.

President Macron inspected the damage done to the landmark after returning from Argentina, where he had attended the G20 summit. As he walked down the Champs Elysées on Sunday, he was met with a jeering crowd.

A government spokesman, Benjamin Griveaux, also said France would consider imposing a state of emergency to prevent a recurrence of what is being described as some of the worst civil unrest in more than a decade by protesters.

Why only Saturdays?

What began as a fuel tax protest by French drivers over the 17% hike, soon fuelled a wider anti-government sentiment among men and women, employees, precarious workers, those on unemployment benefits, the economically inactive, retirees, teachers, businessmen, and workers from all over the country.

The gilet jaunes are daily wage-earners who come from smaller towns and rural areas, not large urban centres. They cannot afford to take up full-time activism, and give up on their daily jobs and only sources of income.

Why are they protesting?

For these peripheral French men and women, who formed a majority of the protestors, French president Emmanuel Macron is seen as a wealthy and aloof figure, oblivious to the struggles of ordinary citizens.

“They’re protesting against the rise in fuel taxes, which Macron thinks will ease the transition towards cleaner energy in France,” said Vasudha Rajkumar, a masters student of Public Policy at Sciences Po. “These workers are neither poor enough to qualify for government aid nor rich enough to pay exorbitant taxes, and of course they don’t care about clean energy, which pits them against everything Macron’s endorsing,” she told Qrius over an email correspondence.

Is it right or left?

While some participants told the media they are apolitical, authorities have blamed extremists or “professional rioters” from the right and the left for fuelling anti-government sentiments and infiltrating the protests. Although the “yellow vest” movement wasn’t organised by the Left, many are hopeful that the fight to widen the demands of the working classes is key to blocking the growth of Marine Le Pen’s far Right.

“It is a worker’s protest, but since the only strong opposition to Macron’s government is the Rassemblement Nationale (Marine LePen’s party), they have co-opted the protest,” added Rajkumar. But just because it is a worker’s movement, it doesn’t mean that it is leftist, because many white workers in France support right-wing parties and policies, since they feel threatened by immigration and higher taxes, Rajkumar told Qrius

With the future of the movement unclear, it is worth acknowledging that the movement, led by that section of France which struggles to make it to the end of the month, has attained high visibility and awaits Macron’s next move. The subsequent weekends may even see a tightening of security across France and a possible increase in police brutality, especially after the violations of December 1.

Is this possible in India?

Petrol prices in India have also surged 20% over the last year, causing immense inconvenience to civilians and prompting a strike by cab aggregators demanding a commensurate hike in fares. Musing on what it would take to recreate a similar movement back home, Rajkumar said, “Since France is a small, well-connected country, it is possible for protests to take off without language barriers, and it is relatively easier to gain political backing with there being a handful of political parties, unlike India.”

In addition, “unionisation is very strong here, whereas in India, unionisation is weakening gradually,” she added. The significance of unions in grass roots movements was proven last week, when thousands of farmers all over the country marched to the Indian Parliament agitating for their longstanding demands, giving stakeholders of the petrol price hike a new lease of hope.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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