yellow vest protest LUCAS BARIOULET/AFP/Getty Images

Fifty Shades of Yellow

Six weeks after they started rocking French politics and a month after violence erupted on the Champs Élysées, the Yellow Shirts remain both highly visible and highly enigmatic. The question now is whether the movement will find a political voice, and, if so, which one.

PARIS – Who are the Yellow Vests? What are the true roots of their uprising? And what do they want? Six weeks after they started rocking French politics and a month after violence erupted on the Champs Élysées, these questions are still hotly debated in France. 

The Yellow Vests are both highly visible and highly enigmatic. Their rebellion started with the occupation of roundabouts all over the country, but it made headlines with violent demonstrations in Paris. They have kept the support of some 70% of the population and nearly three million have people signed up on the “Official Yellow Vests Counter” on Facebook, but their protests never exceeded 300,000 participants – far fewer than in past union-organized demonstrations against social reforms. They have been ubiquitous on the news channels but have no real spokespersons. When, at the peak of the crisis, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe called for a dialogue and opened his door, nobody showed up.

It is not easy to find out what they really want. The Yellow Vests have mutated twice already. The uprising was initially triggered by the announcement of additional fuel taxes, intended to encourage a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. But after the government canceled the planned tax increase, stagnant purchasing power became the focus of the protests. Again, the government gave ground: President Emmanuel Macron announced on December 10 the repeal of tax hikes for pensioners and a top-up of in-work social benefits that will increase the income of people living on the minimum wage by 8.5%. The protesters responded dismissively and emphasized political demands, including greater scope for direct democracy, especially through popular referendums.

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