A protester wearing a yellow vest holds a French flag as he walks among tear gas on the Champs-Elysees Avenue near the Arc de Triomphe during a national day of protest by the “yellow vests” movement in Paris, France, December 8, 2018. Reuters
In November and December French protest group the Yellow Vests (“Les Gilets Jaunes” in French) held Paris to ransom by burning cars, defacing monuments, and blocking roads across France.
Their complaint: that President Emmanuel Macron and his government had abandoned the people, and needed to change course, and fast.
They were quickly victorious, forcing Macron to abandon part of his policy platform and wage raises in a panicked attempt to quieten the sudden anger against him.
Macron has undoubtedly been diminished by the revolt. But, according to Business Insider’s conversations with figures inside the movement, his position at the top of French society is more secure than it might seem.
After more than a month of protest, Business Insider spoke with 12 Yellow Vests figures across France, including prominent activists online, where the group conducts almost all its activity.
What is clear is that they feel France no longer looks after the lower class, and needs a system of direct democracy put in place so they can start influencing laws in the country directly, via referendum.
But, failing that, they told Business Insider that having Macron for a president is preferable to the other most obvious candidate: the far-right Marine Le Pen.
The Yellow Vests held France to ransom with protests on November 17 and 24, and December 1 and 8.
President Macron conceded on December 10 he had done wrong, and said he would change course to heed their anger.
As a direct result of the protests nine people were killed, over 100 cars torched, the symbolic Arc de Triomphe was defaced, andhundreds of rioters were arrested in clashes with police.
Macron said their anger was “deep, and in many ways legitimate.”
His concessions, estimated to cost between eight and 10 billion euros, included scrapping a planned diesel fuel tax, raising the minimum wage by 6% (around €100 per month,) incentivising employers to give their staff tax-free bonuses, and cancelling a tax increase for low-income pensioners.
Despite this, they protested in numbers again on December 15.
Didier Plagne, a rank-and-file protester in Normandy, and soon-to-be pensioner, told Business Insider the concessions are “dressing on a wooden leg.”
Macron’s wide-ranging concessions show the group has moved on from single-issue protest to a much broader range of perceived injustices.
The initial complaint that diesel was being taxed too highly — punishing rural workers dependent on cars — was soon joined by complaints about rising costs of living, tax breaks for the richest in society, the French constitution, and the narrowness of France’s political class.
Business Insider spoke with 12 figures in the Yellow Vests, who gave an insight into what they want and what would convince them to stop their protests.
Christophe Bregaint is a single 48-year-old father of two and accountant who has protested every week in the Paris region.
“When we started on November 17, everyone thought it would last a week, no one imagined then that a month after it would continue,” he said, “today, the people are ready to pass Christmas on the roundabouts, to continue the movement.”
The Yellow Vests are a disparate, ad-hoc group who have not articulated a coherent set of priorities.
But everyone Business Insider spoke to seems convinced that Macron’s concessions on December 10 are little more than a start.
After Macron spoke on live TV to outline the promises, protesters took to social media to denounce the concessions. Bregaint was among them.
He told Business Insider he lives on €1,850 per month (around $2,100 per month, or $25,200 per year) and that Macron’s promise of €100 more per month will not be enough to change his situation.
Bregaint said he wants the group to go further than winning concessions from Macron. Essentially, a revolution to topple the whole system of government (one which has been in use since 1958.)
He wants France to enter into a “Sixth Republic,” he told Business Insider (the current system is known as the Fifth Republic). He wants the members of the National Assembly to better represent everyday real French people.
He says there are very few Deputies and Senators from working class backgrounds.
Bregaint wants Les Gilets Jaunes to be the ones to change France, and is not the only one in favour of overthrowing the government.
Teddy Lemaire, who has protested in both Paris and Orléans, told Business Insider some members are convinced that the Yellow Vests are the movement to bring down the government.
But Lemaire was softer than some, and said he wants to give Macron a chance to react to the mood in France. If he misses it, he says, France’s patience will snap.
“I think that the ultimate goal of this movement is to make the government listen to reason,” he said, “and if the government does not want to react then it will have to leave, because the French will not endure this situation for a long time.”
Thomas Miraflors, a prominent protester in Perpignan, near France’s southern border and a frequent poster on the “Gilets Jaunes Leadership” Facebook group, said the movement “holds the key to the solution to enforce democracy.”
He believes referendums are the solution, effectively giving middle and lower class people the power to circumvent the political class.
He and other Yellow Vests are coalescing around a proposed system known as Référendum d’initiative citoyenne (RIC), which is “citizens’ initiative referendum” in English.
Under their system, petitions (presumably, but not explicitly, online petitions) would help steer the government’s agenda.
It specifies that if a petition reaches 700,000 signatures then there would be a compulsory national referendum on the proposed change.
France does have referendums, but there have only been five since 1990. Four have been on the mechanics of local government, and one was on European integration. The new system would dramatically expand this.
In the French media, on Yellow Vest forums and social media, and among the members we spoke to, the RIC plan is by far the most salient single issue which they agree on.
Many Yellow Vests are also clear that they want the RIC plan to be implemented by Macron, rather than kicking him out.
The most obvious alternative, a government led by Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant leader of the National Rally party (formerly the populist Front National,) would be far worse, they said.
Le Pen came close to winning the 2017 elections. In the first round Len Pen won 21% of the vote to Macron’s 24%. This prompted a second round where the two went head-to-head, which Macron won with 66% of the vote.
But 18 months after the election, Le Pen remains strong in French polls, and extremely close to Macron.
21.5% of French people would vote for Macron and En Marche!, closely followed by 21% for Le Pen and National Rally, according to a nationwide poll in September 2018 from Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting.
The Institut Français D’opinion Publique has Le Pen ahead, on 27% to Macron’s 25%.
Their nearest current challenger, Laurent Wauquiez, and his party Lés Republicains, currently have around 14% of the vote, according to the same Odoxa-Dentsu Consulting poll.
Didier Plagne, the Normandy protester nearing retirement, said: “The movement of the Yellow Vests will last until Macron really understands it. i.e. a long time.”
Plagne said the main reason for giving Macon a chance to act is because the other option is worse.
“Marine Le Pen, who is the only alternative, would be a mistake,” he said.
Protester Guillaume Lacordais shares this sentiment. “The French did not want Le Pen in 2017,” he said, “what they want is to regain control.”
Paris protester Teddy Lemaire said: “I do not wish to see the government of Mrs Le Pen because what we need is a real renewal in the political class.”
“I would like to see Macron and his government resign because he is the direct representative of a system that the French no longer want.”
“The real problem is the current elected officials who prefer to flirt with money more than with the people. Today we need a true leader, close to the people.”
Like Lemaire, Benjamin Chapeaux-Rond, a Yellow Vest from Nantes, near France’s west coast, said he is against Macron.
But he told Business Insider: “I am also against Marine Le Pen, who is an incompetent who has just the talents of speaking.”
Another protester, Luca Freeman, said: “Not Marine Le Pen. I would like the French people to be listened to by their elites and not repressed by violence, as is the case now.”
When asked by Business Insider whether he would like to see the change, Rudolphe Boullay, an organizer of the 40,000-strong Nous Gilets Jaunes Facebook page simply said: “Uh… Le Pen would be worse than Macron.”
Le Pen’s policies include calling a referendum to revise the French Constitution, and sweeping electoral reform which she says will give real French people more representation.
Didier Hernandis, a protester from Fontcouverte, in the Alps, told us: “Macron can stay, as long as we manage to impose the Citizen Initiative Referendums in any matter!”
Bregaint and Lemaire were the only Yellow Vests we spoke with who want to see the end of the Macron government outright. Neither said Le Pen was a viable option, only a total overthrow of the system.
This dynamic leaves Macron a lifeline: even though he is despised by many of the protesters, and weakened politically, he is bolstered by the fact that there’s nothing else.
How he responds to the protest group could well determine the shape of French politics in 2019 — and for years to come.