How should we view the Gilets Jaunes? Are they a nascent political force, like Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy – or indeed La Republique en Marche in France, challenging the established political order as out of touch and out of ideas?

Time will tell. For now, we sum up their evolution and look for parallels in other popular movements that might hint at what is possible.

From a reflexive beginning

October, 2018. The French government announced a levy on motor fuels as part of its effort to reduce green-house gas emissions. Hardest hit by the tax were low-income households, especially outside big cities, who depend heavily on their cars. They protested noisily. Their tactic was simple and reflexive. Adopting, as an emblem shared by all affected by the tax, the yellow, high-visibility vest that all motorists in France are obliged to carry, and donning them, they began disrupting traffic on auto-routes and roundabouts, later moving to city centres where their numbers could swell.

It was also effective: by mid-November surveys showed about 70% of French people either supported or sympathised with the movement, and both far-left La France Insoumise and far-right Rassemblement National were quick to court them. By 26 November, the Gilets Jaunes were organising and naming spokes-people – excluding Benjamin Cauchy, who broke away to form Les Citrons Jaunes. Mainstream Gilets Jaunes now demanded President Emmanuel Macron’s resignation.

Macron responded the next day, and Francois de Rugy, Minister for the Environment, met with Gilets Jaunes representatives, who nevertheless declared their intention to continue weekly Saturday protests. A number of artists and celebrities expressed solidarity, and popular support for the movement rose to 75%.

Peaceful city-centre protests provided predictable cover for mischief-makers, and increasing aggression broke into violence and vandalism, notably of the Arc de Triomphe on 1 December. Yet non-violent Gilets Jaunes were being taken seriously: spokes-people Christophe Castaner and Laurent Nunez were invited to address the Senate. On 9 December, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced a three-month suspension of the “green tax” increase. Established groups and organisations, such as farmers and universities joined in and trade unions announced a strike. In mid-December spokes-person Priscilla Ludosky set out a list of demands, including a change to the constitution. Further concessions by Macron were deemed insufficient. Melenchon urged no retreat.

By now, with their main grievance largely resolved, most French people were keen to pause for the coming Christmas-New Year festivities, and fewer were turning up to protest. Gilets Jaunes organisers, keen to keep up the momentum, on 15 December announced help with travel to demonstrations. On 5 February on the outskirts of Paris, Luigi di Maio and Alessandro Di Battista, leader and prominent member of Movimento 5 Stelle, met Christophe Chalençon, and other Gilets Jaunes candidates for the forthcoming European elections.

By mid-February, 2019, continuing weekly Saturday demonstrations saw ever fewer protesters, popular support down to 50% and fully 52% of French people saying the protests should stop.

Where we are now

A logical next step is to harness popular support in a political party or movement. Hayk Shahinyan announced that he will register an association called Gilets Jaunes, Le Mouvement, and on 7 January, Jacline Mouraud launched Les Emergents, describing it as a common-sense party, seeking major fiscal reform, with new and constructive ideas for the state. Along with Benjamin Cauchy’s Citrons Jaunes, this brought the party count to three, a crowd, as they say.

All three are a long way from anything that could be called a political platform. The demands set out by Priscilla Ludosky in December look more like a wish-list than anything else: the demand for a change to the constitution to facilitate referenda on popular initiatives, in particular, seems at this stage quixotic.

And yet…

Other popular movements show that this leap is indeed possible, and can happen very quickly. Do the Gilets Jaunes resemble anything we can recall in recent political history that might hint at a prognosis?

What can we learn from other popular movements?

We can look at five examples:

The Labour movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries harnessed broad support for workers’ rights and political representation of the working classes to establish themselves as lasting political parties.

Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s and 1990s was at heart a labour movement, which achieved a much bigger goal of regime change, surpassing workers’ rights and paradoxically reducing it to a single-issue party. Having changed Poland, and arguably the whole soon-to-be-former Soviet European bloc – and beyond – forever, it eclipsed its own raison d’être.

Occupy in New York, London and elsewhere (but not Hong Kong) knew what it was against, but was less clear about what it was for, a fatal omission. By contrast, Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, which became the Umbrella Movement (because its first protests took place in the rainy season), has a clear objective and an enduring campaign; but it is operating in a political system that barely pretends to be democratic, making it a less instructive comparison for the Gilets Jaunes.

By contrast, Hong Kong’s Occupy Central, which became the Umbrella Movement (because its first protests took place in the rainy season), has a clear objective and an enduring campaign; but it is operating in a political system that barely pretends to be democratic, making it a less instructive comparison for the Gilets Jaunes.

Syrzia, Movimento 5 Stelle and Podemos, each of which rose quickly to political office, albeit with mixed outcomes. Like the mainstream government before it, Syrzia has found its room to manoeuvre constrained by economic reality in the form of the national debt, which puts it at the mercy of its creditors. Movimento 5 Stelle has seen its popularity, and hence its power, subordinated to its coalition partner, the already established far-right La Liga. Podemos may be better placed because of – or despite – its not holding national office.

Emmanuel Macron and the République En Marche movement seemed to go from almost nothing to national office in not much more than a year. Yet that time-frame is misleading: Mr Macron had formulated coherent policies and even a platform long before he left the Socialist Party, as well as a very clear idea of where his support would come from, and indeed what kind of skills and resources he would need. He also started with several years’ experience and essential training in a mainstream political party, where he had acquired name recognition, valuable skills and vital contacts that allowed him to recruit seasoned political operators, without whom he could not succeed, either electorally or in government

While the Gilets Jaunes could be a whole new category, they share elements of each in that in common with all five examples, they have broad-based popular support and Like Occupy, the Gilets Jaunes are also very clear about what they are against, but less clear about what they are for. As with Occupy, Syrzia, Movimento 5 Stelle and Podemos, they are inexperienced politically and so vulnerable to being hijacked by established populist parties on left and right.

An Unintended consequence?

Following a series of verbal attacks on the French president by Matteo Salvini and Luigi di Maio, President Macron recalled France’s ambassador to Italy. He accused Salvini and di Maio, who had travelled to Paris to meet Christophe Chalençon, and other Gilets Jaunes’ candidates for the European Parliament elections, of manipulating their relationship with the Gilets Jaunes for electoral gain. The meeting was also seen as a tactic by the Movimento 5 Stelle to regain some of the popularity lost to its coalition partner, Salvini’s far-right La Liga, and to form some kind of alliance in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

As an open end question, Was Macron right to recall France’s ambassador to Italy?

To be continued.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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