For about five weeks now the less well off French people have been disagreeing with their government, the head of that government, President Emmanuel Macron, especially. Without going into complicated detail about the reasons, a brief description would be that it was because of a correlation of a new motor vehicle fuel tax, ostensibly to finance reducing carbon in the climate, keeping wages and other taxes as they are whilst he had already relaxed taxes on the wealthy corporations and individuals to the point of legitimising tax evasion in order to keep them here in France. Discontent began with murmurings among people who were immediately hit by the pending fuel tax.
How it began
It was not so-called ‘ordinary’ drivers at first but users of commercial vehicles whose kilometrage is already high but whose real terms income was already reduced by frozen tariffs whilst the price of petrol and diesel had already risen over the last few months. They saw their in pocket income shrinking. In some respects the proposition that the carbon tax needed to be tallied met little opposition, but the manner in which it happened without redressing the balance for working people across the board hit home. It was not just the lower socio-economic groups but well into what one may call the middle class. Of course the lowest income people such as farmers, taxi drivers and small delivery service type of fuel consumers felt the impending blow most of all but others who commute, take children considerable distances to school, travel a long way for doctors, hospitals, shopping and many other necessary resources felt the blow.
Wages in France are perhaps higher than many other European countries and wage equity is perhaps one of the best of all, but the tax burden undoes that. Despite the minimum income (SMIC), there are so many people who work outside the formalised employment structures when that must be paid such as small farmers, albeit it now a tiny percentage of all agriculture at 2% but still a considerable number, self employed artisans, trades and professions, the catering and culinary sector and several others that create a sizeable number of people who would be hit most of all. It also meant a knock on of fare rises, but outside urban areas since public transport is all but nonexistent it appeared to make it initially a rural issue.
What is the protest about?
Gilets jaunes say that the rebellion is not just about the fuel tax, indeed which has been dealt with, but it is about Macron. There has been at least 40 years of neglect in peripheral France that has brought with it distrust of all political parties, including the established far right and far left, but moreover distrust of ‘official’ media. The protestors are demonstrating about persistent unemployment, low wages, welfare cuts, high prices and high taxes. Since his election in 2017 Macron has become a large part of the problem. There is something about his overconfident and sometimes arrogant manner that makes the blood of people outside France’s 22 prospering metropolitan areas boil. When he was elected in 20117, he promised to create new opportunities for those neglected parts of France. His reforms are beginning to work, with employment creation climbing and the long enduring youth unemployment falling; also average wages are slowly increasing. They are too slow though, matched by taxes that are outstripping what has been gained by slightly higher earnings.
The other side of the picture is always that less than 50% of wage earners actually pay any tax on their salaries at all. They earn too little, far too many also earn under SMIC. Other people who are borderline look safe enough until the total of 48% taxation that one way or another catches up with people. The annual property taxes, taxe foncière, and the resident/owner’s tax, taxe d’habitation, take away large chunks of money. Nobody can avoid them. Utilities such as water, electricity, gas and telephony carry considerable taxes. Buying a car or another vehicle, new or second hand, carry heavy and high taxes. People in the periphery need those vehicles because, as said, public transport in all but nonexistent, so they also pay already high fuel tax. Then there is VAT on things in France that do not carry that tax in other countries. I have often argued with people over this during the five weeks of protest. They are in other countries saying their wages are far lower than France, true, prices are as high and even higher, true, but the point is that when it comes to reports of people who find themselves with only €40 for themselves or €60 for a couple for a week, within the French economy it is not enough to feed, clothe and, in winter, heat oneself. There are too many reports of people saying they can afford four days of food and three without. People earning below SMIC were already in that state. They are entitled to benefits and receive them, except that people who are classified as self-employed cannot claim for themselves although they may be able to receive some benefits for at least their children or elderly dependents. That is the real problem.
Until the gilets jaunes protests began, most urban people and the media had had little or no contact with the ‘others’ who are mainly low waged employees, artisans and small contractors in a number of trades. I have chatted with a group of people protesting at a roundabout. The people standing warming their hands around a fire were pleased to receive foreign visitors and supporters also more than willing to talk about their grievances. They are mostly well behaved people who have been picketing roundabouts, crossroads and motorway tollbooths all over France for over a month. They stop traffic occasionally to have petitions sign, discuss their objectives and ask people to read short texts explaining their protest. It is generally good humoured, even being polite to people who rant and shout back at them. The gendarmes who are the protest places with them mingle and chat, it is friendly. When foreigners stop they try to find somebody who speaks at least some English, the most common non-French language, but a small number of Dutch speakers seem to be present much of the time in this area. The chances of people they stop getting angry and telling them they are wrong has never been high, as cars with the gilets jaunes on their dashboards show, but the almost inevitably vocal objectors include English residents who feel put out. I was certainly called a ‘terrorist’ by an angry wife and a ‘troublemaker’ by the husband at the wheel when I asked the woman to explain why and how that may be the case. When I asked them how long they had lived in France, to which they said eight years, I pointed out that their car had clearly not been re-registered as the law demands, therefore was not legally taxed and tested with even the UK number plate illegal. If they wished to object to me further I could call a gendarme over to take their complaint, knowing that she speaks English I was sure they would repeat what they had just told me. They shut up and were allowed to go. The real point was not about ‘shopping’ them but making them aware of their ignorance and double values. Plenty of French cars were also less than even remotely legal, they were mainly ‘friends’, therefore went away with no such details mentioned.
Emmanuel Macron, is not a man not for turning, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher’s often bowdlerised words. He went on television to solemnly tell the nation that he had seen the error of his ways. He offered €15bn in financial relief for the angry people across ‘peripheral France’ who have blocked provincial roundabouts and protested on city streets in large cities, but most noticeably in Paris since 17 November. His offer includes a de facto 6% increase in the minimum wage, it was expressed as €100 a month on an ‘average wage, with a tax free Christmas bonus for low waged people and a partial abolition of the very much despised new tax on pensions. His statement went somewhat further than many people had anticipated. Polls began to find that a considerable portion of the French population that had been incredibly supportive of the gilets jaunes were beginning to think the protest should end. However, Macron has not gone far enough. He has not met what is considered a key demand, which is to reinstate taxes on the wealthiest individuals and companies in France. His argument for relieving the rich of that tax was to encourage wealth and enterprise to stay in France, to invest and develop in order to drive the economy and thus with it increase employment and help raise wages. The fact that he is not even bowing down to that demand, that such global corporations as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft are getting away with exactly that ‘little people’ cannot get away with did not go down well. As for his €100 rise, it is really €20 since €80 had already been promised well before the protests and the Christmas bonus is conditional, only employers who can afford it. In the provinces not many people expect those bonuses. They are fed up with left, right and centre governments fobbing them off with promises that are never kept, they do not just want less tax and a fairer proportion of their earnings, but a regime that actually listens to them and acts on their needs, simply a representative government that bears its responsibilities to its electorate.
The wrong image
What has sullied the image of the protest is the violence and damage media show in large cities, Paris especially. Both police authorities and government ministers, including Christophe Castaner, the Minister of the Interior, have said that infiltrators, casseurs, have been sent in or gone in themselves, with confrontation with the police rather than the gilet jaune wearing protestors as part of their action. One minister even described them as ‘professional troublemakers’. They are from left, right and anarchist groups; many of the people arrested are 30 to 40 year olds, many of them with existing records of violence and disorder, including clear connection with political extremes. It is known that there are people who train these people to confront authority violently, how to do maximum damage and prepare the situation by planting caches of tools, weapons and all of the other ‘accessories’ of violent confrontation where they can to avoid detection by checkpoints and spot controls. Amidst the chaos the gilets jaunes have marched peacefully, protested quietly, very few of them becoming embroiled in the disorder. Five successive weekends have begun to now see a decline in numbers on the city streets which may signal a relaxation of the tense mood and less force behind ambition of the high visibility jacket wearing mass, but I personally doubt that. The gilets jaunes have made their previously invisible wearers the visibility and sense of power that they are reluctant to surrender until Macron goes a number of steps forward, then governance begins to be far more responsive to their more than reasonable demands.
There is an image problem outside of France. It is mainly a media creation that people feel insulted by here. There are frequent accusations of them being the creation and under the control of either Le Pen’s Rassemblement national, formerly Front national, Mélenchon’s La France insoumise, Russian (or Putin’s) intelligence services, the CIA, MI6 and various other ‘powers’. The French police are naturally high on the list as well, although the relationship between the authorities, the police especially, and gilets jaunes has been convivial rather than as confrontational as a set up would be intended to be. Of course there are pockets of bad tempered protest where there is intimidation of people stopped by protestors. It is no surprise to many that those seem to pop up where there are pockets of strong RN, FI, old style Stalinist communist and other extreme local government and support. The majority may occasionally be annoying but with some of them offering cakes and biscuits prepared over their campfires, Santa Clauses handing out chocolate to passing children and laughing protestors sharing coffee around the fires with gendarmes there seem to be more myths than truths.
The role of media
Neither the media nor internet created the gilets jaunes, they are not a movement or organisation but they have used social media to support their protest and keep it alive. Their indignation and suffering is authentic, there it is amplifying that by using the power of social media to turn their enduring sense of regional and class injustice into what is being unjustly portrayed by some as a sanctimonious, unrealistic, unstructured and leaderless revolution that is unlikely to achieve real relief to provincial France. The gilets jaunes are being targeted by dangerous propaganda generated by the alt-right in the USA and Russian bots who are claiming that France is in a state of utter turmoil therefore is to be ‘handed over’ to the UN, its peacekeepers and negotiators. They are claiming the French constitution is null and void, that Macron is an illegitimate president and there are many fake images circulating of alleged French police violence against peaceful protestors. The media are picking up the fake news, using some of it to make more spectacular points but are losing the actual message by doing so.
There are two important points that foreign media either wish to overlook or are in denial of. The first is that it is a protest without structure and leadership. When a number of people proclaimed themselves representatives of the ‘movement’, thus some kind of leadership, when the opportunity to meet senior politicians arose during the second week of protests, the mass of people around the country disowned those people so that no such meetings happened. It is a very spontaneous and disconnected protest that has used social media to communicate rather than organise, thus is well informed and seems well coordinated at times. In fact this strength is also one of its weaknesses. The other fact that foreign media appear to deliberately avoid mentioning is that the right to peaceably assemble derives from the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), which is incorporated into the current French Constitution. Article 10 of the Déclaration states that ‘no one should be bothered for his opinions, even religious ones, so long as their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.’ Since 1935, the right to assemble in a public space has been contingent on prior notification. Notification must be given to the local prefecture or town hall (mairie) of the town(s) where the demonstration or assembly is supposed to take place, at least three days, and no more than fifteen days, before the date of the demonstration or assembly. The gilets jaunes exploited a loop hole by choosing mainly sites on the edge of or outside definable municipal areas at first then affirmed their peaceful protests by notifying them. Authorities (prefect or mayor) may prohibit a demonstration if they believe that it would disturb public order. It this case they would risk losing voters, so very few would have dared even attempting a ban. So, peaceful demonstrations are generally allowed. If it is prohibited, organisers may challenge the decision before an administrative judge, who will verify whether such a prohibition is necessary to protect public order and security. In this case there have been no bans which, given there are no organisers, is fortunate. The right to peaceably assemble is furthermore guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, to which France is a party.
The French have a phrase for pushing all limits to the bitter end without considering the consequences which is ‘jusqu’au-boutisme’ (more or less to the end-ism). It is a quite blunt refusal to recognise when a cause is lost; a refusal also to recognise when one has succeeded. This is part of Macron’s dilemma. In the view of the gilets jaunes he started it, now they will finish it, but his last word is not their last word. They show signs of greater anger such as placards and banners saying he should be overthrown, there is even a mock gallows with a totally white, thus unidentifiable dummy, hanging that is distasteful in many people’s view. Otherwise the amicable atmosphere at the demonstrations continues. Some of them proudly explain they will continue to stand there at the roundabout despite working hard all week. They are still full of enthusiasm. In fact, they all seemed contented to be socialising, discussing work, life and their hopes of creating another, better world. Some are saying they would like the gilets jaunes to join a wider campaign to move away from capitalism with fewer cars, less consumption, better quality of life and a cleaner, safer environment. Some of them have marched with gilets vertes, greens, among their number. A few environmentalists have combined the yellow and green. In principle none of them is against the carbon tax their fuel tax was supposed to pay for. They simply believe there is a better way, such as taxing the wealthy. Other protestors remain firmly focused on profound fault lines in France so speak a little about the people can actually afford to think about the end of or change to the ‘system’, although most of them are more concerned about getting through until the end of the month themselves or others they see struggling.
Will the gilet jaune protest succeed and survive?
If there is any single thing that particularly expresses the durability and determination of the protest is what has often been said by gilets jaunes: “We’ll stick it out to the end.” Christmas, cold weather and flagging participation may attenuate their visibility and people may cease to really notice groups of people by roadsides, but the unique ability of the French to protest until the bitter end, to try to maintain the spirit of their national motto, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, and naturally jusqu’au-boutisme may see them there for some time to come. Will they entirely succeed? Given there is no actual end, perhaps not, but they have already achieved a lot and some more would make it a massive victory for the people over the power holders. No doubt there will be plenty of ifs and buts to explain to me how wrong I am. I am quite sure that most, if not all, will come from outside of France. I have had those discussions already with people going back to the violent casseur minority who are infiltrating or are planted in the peaceful protests as their point of reference and explanation for why I am totally wrong. I live in a provincial part of France, I know protestors, I go out among them, I am listening more than giving them my opinion. What they say locally I also see and hear in most other places. I see no violence or damage, only good humoured either rain soaked or freezing determined people who have a sizeable majority support of the entire nation, do not want or need political parties or other interfering groups to organise or intervene. This is the grassroots speaking out. Whoever cannot or will not accept that is highly likely to be the victim of fake news more than they are expressing informed opinions. I shall continue to have my gilet jaune on my dashboard and shall also share some of the rain and cold with the people on the roadsides but the moment there is any sign of violence or vandalism then they will lose my support although I suspect many of them would walk away with me.
I began by asking if they are the ‘new revolutionaries’? No, not really, they are just ordinary people who want to be seen and heard. They have been the ‘other’, neglected in the French periphery for around 40 years. They have had enough of that, they are making themselves seen and heard. The protest may have a little of a revolutionary air to it, but none of the people consider themselves revolutionaries.
I’m afraid there’s a host of problems with this article. Not only is talking only to the GJ a rather skewed way to go about writing about them, but sampling people at one roundabout is hardly statistically solid in any way. This is little more than a sympathetic anecdote which has little to do with providing an accurate view of the movement, its actions and its effects.
And before you point out that I do not live in France and that you predicted just that – my parents do live in France. My parents do live in provincial France. My parents do live in areas where they have trouble reaching their medical appointments, because getting to their doctors in the next city is trying to navigate a labyrinth. Provincial France, where peage stations have been torched. But of course, it’s always “the others” who do that. The “casseurs”. Who, of course, have nothing to do with the GJ. Strangely enough, however, not only do they always strike where there are GJ, but for all their will to bring the republic to a halt, they seem strangely disinclined to stop them. After all, you say you see no violence or damage, and claim you’d walk away. So you happily avoid reading such articles in local papers.
GJ are great at averting the eyes from the effects that their actions have on people who are actually in need. Those truck drivers they are blocking are not precisely affluent and under huge pressure to be on time. Often, they will take a pay cut when they miss their target or even lose their jobs. So when the other day, one driver tried to force his way through, a GJ stopped him with a pallet spiked with nails. That not only started a brawl between truck drivers and GJ, it will make sure this particular driver will not make any money any time soon. In fact, in another location, a GJ died because a truck driver simply couldn’t take it anymore and instead of waiting in line until allowed through, tried to overtake the truck in front of him and accidentally hit the GJ “directing” the traffic. A tragic disaster, and both truck drivers certainly shouldn’t have acted in that fashion, but should they have accepted that they have to lose their jobs because the GJ decree so? Why are truck drivers not allowed to spend Christmas with their families? In another location, a truck was hit by pebbles in the vicinity of a GJ blockade. But it was night and it surely had nothing to do with the GJ…
My mom told me also of a letter to a newspaper from a single mom. She can only work on Saturdays, where the GJ hold their greatest protests (them having the luxury not having to work on that day). But she only gets paid when she actually shows up at work, and she has increasing problems doing just that thanks to your friends in yellow. Grande surface supermarkets have been in danger of cutting jobs or shutting down completely because neither suppliers nor customers really get through to them in sufficient numbers. The result will not be a resurgence of city centers, but rather people in the periphery being even more cut off and left behind and having trouble buying their groceries.
And when they go as far as blocking oil ports and refinieries, how precisely is it going to help people in the periphery when gas stations run out of gas?
On the one hand, you write these people have been neglected in the periphery for 40 years, on the other hand, Macron supposedly “started it”. The cognitive dissonance seems lost to you. As for the catch-all solution of “taxing the rich”, where is your mention that Hollande tried just that and failed miserably? Where’s your pointing out that far from abolishing the notion of taxing large fortunes completely, as he has been accused of, Macron has refined the axe introduced by Hollande into a more fine-tuned instrument that at least makes it less attractive (rather than more, with Hollande) to take one’s fortune out of the country and invest it elsewhere.
I’ll be going there tomorrow and purposefully booked a flight and train connection to avoid my parents having to travel larger distances to pick me up.
‘So you happily avoid reading such articles in local papers.’ No. I do read local newspapers and in this part of France there have been accidents in which actually some GJs have been hurt, not by violence, the only genuinely obstructive and forceful action against members of the public was in a RN stronghold, one of very few, where the placard were pro Le Pen. Coincidence?
I obviously went to a local GJ group, which is reasonable unless people like doing things pointlessly, for which you possibly have a penchant.
Bear in mind by the time you read this two weeks had passed and things had changed quite considerably. The degree to which damage and potential violence was increasing has diminished, although not ended, the numbers of people. The overall sympathy for the protest is still much the same, the sympathy for protestors is growing less. Coming here now you will be hardly affected anyway. You seem a bit paranoid to me. Most protests are quietly standing by roadsides not stopping or delaying traffic. They do periodically stop a few cars. Truckers stop to talk to them which delays traffic. That comes from the truck drivers rather than GJs stopping them. Incidentally, although I go to one place, in fact there are several locally, so should I travel around 30km in one direct I would probably pass four, similar in other directions. I drove nearly two hours into Bordeaux to shop last week. I passed quite a few groups, perhaps 15 or 16. I was not stopped once. The protests on the edge of Bordeaux have been quite large, after all it is one of France’s main cities, and the only time I was approached by them was when I was leaving the car park that is at a major tram stop, therefore the flow of people is large. I am a quite small person, getting on in years and obviously have an accent, so easy to antagonise if they wished which they did not. There are conversely parts of urban France where the protests are quite aggressive. I too have read about them, but not seen them, and have discussed them with protestors who did not find such behaviour acceptable. There is another element to take into account. Industrial protests, strikes, pickets and blockages are not every day as people exaggeratedly claim, but the French has the constitution right to protest so they do and, as a result, it is not uncommon to have your car stopped by people with a cause. Recently we have had a company making the woodwork for roofs that was cutting back on personnel, a private company of course, where the people went on strike and picketed the company. They stopped vehicles to collect signatures for their petition. I know none of the circumstances, whether the company is having difficulties perhaps, but signed because in an area of very high unemployment that seemed unbearable. Then for an entire week just before the GJs began, local care workers in the homes for the elderly went out on the streets, also stopping vehicles, because with staff shortages caused by state funding cutbacks, they were being made to work longer than their contracts state. They get a miserable wage as it is, but to squeeze more work out of them seemed unjustifiable. I naturally supported them. So to what you say is consistent. For 40 years people on the periphery have been neglected. Successive governments have done so. If one seriously stops being a naive tourist and looks about oneself, there are empty shops, too few medical practitioners, a shortage of teachers but with schools closing down as well, deserted or barely surviving small farms, higher rates of youth and young adult employment than national averages, almost no public transport systems with now small rail lines also being closed… The list is very long. That I say Macron started it, is in this instance, this round of the discontent that is reaching its limit. Hollande was bad, Sarkozy before him and so on. The discontent under Hollande certainly had the potential to release what happened here over the last few weeks. It simply happened now because despite manifesto pledges, the appearance is that Macron has favoured the rich by cutting wealth taxes that he is still now refusing to reinstate. Hollande imposed them. One difference. Then it was not so much that the fuel prices were going up, but that it was yet another tax. If one looks at the government’s programme there are potentially two more foreseen. Had Macron not suspended the fuel tax rises, then total taxation would have reached 48% of all personal wealth with the potential to go above 50%. People said ‘No’. In any civil society that seems like a reasonable proposition to me. Whilst French wages can be quite decent, in many parts of France they are lamentable. So, at this stage of a 40 year progression of people to a point at which discontent peaked and Macron was responsible for increased taxes, their tolerance ended. Where is the contradiction?
You list the accidents. They make news, like the violence and damage. Of course they do. They sensationalise it, you walked straight into the media trap of an event rather than a whole picture. That is very naive. The big supermarkets have been saying they are cutting back on staff since early 2017, the GJs are contributing to that? Really? Because mummy and daddy told you about a story in a newspaper about somebody who could not get to work. Then my friend you were not in rural SW France last winter when we had very extensive flooding during around four months during which there was rain every week, at times for two weeks non-stop, four storms with high winds of around 120km, on one occasion that was with gusts over 150km. A few GJs by roadsides compared to our local over 40km diversion because two sections of river were totally overflowing thus closing four bridges because the roads on one or both sides were no longer navigable. Also hundreds of trees fell, roof tiles were flying through the air, things like advertising hoarding collapsing, so that even if people had the courage to try to drive they were lucky to get very far. We happen to be on high ground with one of the open bridges to get our daughters to their respective school and training centre. Why am I telling you about that? Well, did you read about that in the world media every day for however long? That was far, far worse on lives than the GJ protests. The violence was far greater and the ability of authorities to do much about it almost nonexistent. It is a matter of proportionality. Yes or no?
So, did I write from a single and biassed perspective? Certainly I did. I understand and support their grievances. They are far simpler even than the media have made them, they are part of survival. That is no exaggeration, simply an observation. But then I have lived here for many years. Unlike the majority of foreigners who have planted themselves in France I do not live in a luxurious house at all. Nothing even resembling one. The majority of foreigners living here have better than we have, but the French have worse and they have my sympathy. There I am, the foreign academic living in the heart of the peasants, of course that’s how it looks. Yes, I am a Cambridge man but I grew up in a purpose built slum in a family that scraped through. I have not forgotten that, so I have eyes that see and when they see are not so shocked they have to turn away. I understand why the French are so ready to protest, after all it is their right to do so, but I do not understand why people in other European countries do not. So, of course I am biassed in favour of the GJs, but I did say things that reveal my reservation if you care to look for them. As for your own prejudices. I could really have a good laugh. You are planning how to get to Mummy and Daddy without them collecting you. Why? Unless you are going to one of the Paris airports media has seriously exaggerated the blockages. Just like the oil ports and refineries that were blocked for obvious reasons, but just a moment. Wasn’t that for two days? Compare that to the refinery workers strikes over the last decade when at times we have had to stay at home because there was no fuel. Some petrol stations ran out because people went out in large numbers to fill their vehicles and a couple of jerrycans on the basis of previous experience, more so than any real belief that the blocks of some, not all as during the strikes, would eventually cause shortages. It never happened, but the stations that sold out were reported half way round the world.
One of my main critiques, you perhaps noticed, was reserved for media and how the ‘bad’ things were reported. The entire story was never told. There you are outside France, but dependent on your parents information that may be as biassed as my own, but in the opposite direction. After all, a lot of the fuss about this action appeared to be from impatient foreigners living in France who often live by double standards, especially feeling superior to the French. So indeed I am biassed and like roughly 80% of the population of this country am sympathetic with their cause, disappointed in the great hope for France Macron and because I live in it am equally but not worse affected by it. However, it is absolutely fine to disagree from the other side of a border and some distance from it, safe from marauding peasants.
I live in France, have done since 2005. Like Oliver Hauss’s parents, I have medical issues that are requiring me to drive stiff distances around my department at short notice for treatment, tests and consultations. And, of course, the GJ protests sometimes get in the way of my travel.
But … but ? The question that all citizens have to ponder is how the poorer, disadvantaged and ignored people in any country, struggling and suffering as a result of their government’s decisions and policies, can attract their politicians’ attention and have their case heard ? And the same is true of Brexit Britain as of GJ France. In Britain, peaceful mass protests with 700,000 marchers, lobbying of disinterested MPs who never reply and one million-plus signatures on petitions that are routinely ignored never bring home the bacon. In France, by contrast, the GJ protests have attracted and held Macron’s government’s and the international media’s attention and – maybe – things might change for the better.
Of course, few would condone extremists attaching themselves to the fringes of any protest movement and causing wanton destruction and damage. Few would be happy if the protests caused them to be late for work, or delayed them taking their kids to school or caused them to miss vital medical or business appointments. But many, I suspect would understand the reasons behind the GJ protests and be at least tolerant or perhaps even supportive. I am supportive of the GJ protests. After all, there but for fortune go so many of us.
Disappointed but not surprised to see Brian’s interesting and educational article getting a hammering. The media, of course, concentrate on the violent flash-point stories and the fact that the vast majority of the GJ protests is being carried out by friendly and patently decent people is somehow ignored. As a former press photographer, I’ve often seen at first hand how an inquisitive and perceptive reporter on the ground with the people involved, can winkle out novel and interesting insights into news-worthy situations that their more timid colleagues, sitting in cosy offices, tapping out their lazy cliches and tired opinions, can never get near.
Old reporter’s/photographer’s mantra : “If your work’s not good enough, you’re not close enough”.
Thanks for the comment. I’m curious to know what you think of the images showing the fire in Paris and if that is a new problem or something that has always existed? Also, I would be delighted to chat with you about the project here if you are interested. It would be great to get your insights.
Hi Ken: A reporter’s words should alert a reader to a story of current interest, be that with fact or opinion. The photographs that accompany that story should be compelling enough to persuade a casual viewer to stop and read those words. Talk to any news photographer about ‘fake news’ and you’ll likely get a rueful smile. Of course, news snappers worth their salt would love to arrive on site with an open brief, have unlimited time to ease their way into tricky situations, spend the effort to gain the trust of participants and go with the ebb and flow of the action. But, most probably, the photographers will have only a couple of hours before they’re off on another job, will know in advance what their publication’s ‘slant’ on the story will be and – worst of all – may find that nothing much is happening on the ground. So, in news photographers’ parlance, they’ll have to “stunt it up” because going back to the office with no/duff pictures isn’t an option. The more experienced will create believable images where viewers need to look hard to see the ‘join’, the less inventive might be compelled to set light to a few pallets to create a crude impression of disaster and chaos.
You ask if ‘fake news photos’ have always been around and I’d say a guarded ‘yes’ (see below). Self-evidently, some news outlets no longer seek the truth or try to hold an accurate mirror to society, but have been subverted, with the connivance of the feckless politicians, into tame propaganda organs for the powerful and now merely masquerade as the ‘free press’. And many news reporters and photographers no longer have to cross that once formidable barrier of honest, ethical and fierce editors/picture editors/proprietors to get their work into print or on the screen.
But ‘stunting up’ news photos has a long history. Roger Fenton – the world’s first war photographer – was ‘embedded’ with British forces in the Crimea in the 1850s and was present at the disastrous ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’. Because the photo materials in those days (photography only invented some 30 years earlier) weren’t sufficiently sensitive to capture action, Fenton resorted to shooting a powerful image of the aftermath of the charge – the famous ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’, empty of soldiers and their horses and with the ground strewn with cannonballs, leaving the viewer to recreate the charge in their own imagination. Much later, Fenton was accused of importing more cannonballs into the foreground of the original scene to increase the horror, and of the pictured valley not being the actual valley where the charge took place.
PS: Ken, always happy to chat.
Thanks Jim. It kind of reflects when I was working with street children as a researcher, so would live on the streets in Lima for a couple of weeks at a time to see what was what on the ground. When I later became one of the ‘international experts’ who was expected to talk to anybody from a large UN group down to a group of coffee morning donors, one of the things I experienced so very often was that people had seen pictures of ‘X’, had read about them being thieves and murderers, dangerous gangs and who knows what. By then I had finished my Peruvian work and was going to other countries. They included Brazil. It was at a time when some kind of ‘competition’ had engrossed number crunchers with how many street children there were in the world with two of the best known figures much quoted giving Brazil more street children than sensible guesstimates made for the entire world, that was used by UNICEF until it was laughed out, and another that claimed a number that would have made one child in three in that country homeless and alone on the streets. I used to repeatedly have to explain that the fact a man in his thirties, a European quite clearly, could live out on the streets of vast cities without coming to harm. I was never robbed, in fact I was only once over all the years and that was by being part of a crowd of friends milling about and not concentrating in a waiting hall at a bus station with not a single street child in sight. My camera was gone, OK, but they had my precious supply of Gauloise cigarettes to last me a month – I hoped they choked on them! However, as much as I explained, as often as I showed my own photographs and those taken by people as young as 10 years old I would lend a Pentax to for a day or two to get me some street life shots and always get the camera back, there were always people who had read something in a newspaper or magazine and I should see those pictures that were probably real ones.
I am reliving that with GJs right now, reaction outside France to the sensationalisation of something that would probably be ignored if there were no pictures of riots and overturned cars is far more knowledgeable that those of us who are there on the spot. We are obviously biassed, so we should accept what they tell us. As I commented above, and you will have experienced last winter, how much world press did the flooding and storms get? In real terms that was far more serious, many times more expensive and affected immensely more people than the GJs. But who cares? No shock horror, no story.