French protest movement to contest European election amid signs of internal split
The gilets jaunes protest movement has announced it will contest the upcoming European parliamentary, marking a decisive shift from the street to the ballot box even as splits emerge over its future direction.
The “yellow vests”, as they are known in English, emerged out of nowhere last year in response to an increase in French fuel taxes. Apparently leaderless, the grassroot rebellion spread across France, morphing into a fight for the country’s left-behind and forgotten.
“In general they see President Emmanuel Macron as a symbol of traditional French elitism, remote from the hardships of ordinary people struggling to cope with utility bills, fuel taxes, low pay and unemployment,” reports the BBC.
Peaceful demonstrations made way for civil unrest and the worst violence seen in France in half a century. The scale and anger of the protests caught the French political establishment off guard and forced Macron into an embarrassing climbdown on a number of reforms that have seriously damaged his approval ratings.
They received the support of populist leaders outside of France, including Italy’s hardline deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini and spawned copycat protests across Europe, including in the UK.
Yet since the turn of the year, momentum seems to have swung back toward Macron.
Having initially been slow to react to the protests, the president has since embarked on a nationwide listening tour aimed at responding to public anger expressed by the demonstrators.
“Faced with competition from Macron’s Great National Debate, the yellow vests are dividing,” says John Litchfield in UnHerd.
Some hope to push the movement towards traditional politics.
Politico reports that “political groups on the right and left have been hoping to attract support from the Yellow Jackets movement in the European election, including the far-right leader of the National Rally, Marine Le Pen, and the French Communist Party”.
But after a recent poll found showed 13% of French respondents would vote for a hypothetical yellow jackets list in the European election some have decided to stand under their own banner.
To facilitate this, they have formed the Citizens’ Initiative Rally, in reference to their demand for a so-called “citizens’ initiative referendum,” which would let citizens trigger a referendum by collecting 700,000 signatures, or 1.5% of registered voters.
Ten candidates have so far put their names forward, with the initial list including an accountant, a forklift driver and a housewife. They ultimately hope to have 79 standing for the European Parliament elections in May.
“Its programme is likely to be anti-European,” says The Guardian.
In a statement the group said: “We no longer wish to suffer the decisions of European authorities and the diktats of the casts of financiers and technocrats who have forgotten the most important things: the human being, solidarity and the planet.”
Yet there is another, more militant wing, advocating a hardening of tactics. They plan for a series of night-time protests and even a general strike next month.
They have pushed the movement towards violence, alienating a growing section of the French public who were initially supportive of their cause.
Some claim the apparently leaderless group has been taken over by anarchists pursuing more overt revolutionary objectives.
One French police source told Le Figaro: “This is no longer an amateur movement. Its apparent disorganisation is deliberate, intended to defy the rules, destabilise the Republic and create the conditions for an insurrection.”
Yet even as they splinter, the gilets jaunes remain a potent force in French politics.
“While the gilets jaunes are a disparate movement, they have united around calls for fiscal equality and social justice, issues that have retained high support from the French public despite months of protests,” says the New Statesman.
“It is receding, certainly. It is splitting. It is changing. It has taken worrying directions. It is as hard to define as ever. It is fading in its heartlands. But it is not collapsing,” says Litchfield.