Understanding the movement of Yellow Vests in France

Gilets Jaunes : retrospective of a French Revolution 2.0


Heir of social movements, France, a country of multiple reforms has been crying out its anger since three quiquennium. In 2018, the French have decided to unite under a single vest in ordre to loudly proclaim their dissatisfaction with the reforms that have been affecting workers for years. 

In October 2018 the price of gas oil was rising sharply and began to cause general discontent throughout the country. Very quickly, the idea of a national mobilisation on November 17th became apparent. The yellow jackets movement was born following a wave of protests from the French. On 17th November 2019, the fluorescent jackets celebrated their first anniversary with a 53rd act marked by numerous acts of police violences. A year of tensions, social struggles, violence and demands that have affected France and its population. But for what conclusions ?

An historical movement

It had been a while since a social movement had worried the Government. That of the Yellow Vests, its scope, duration and determination came as a surprise. This movement is the fruit of a rallying sign to express its anger, and to resolve a social crisis that impacts the majority of French people today. Created in November 2018, the movement emerged several months earlier under different names before finding unification under the same jacket.
On January 12th 2018, the French revolt was born with the creation of the Facebook group „You’ve had enough ? It’s now”. This movement entitled „anger” calls for a demonstration on January 27th against the new 80 km/h speed limit. They are also protesting against the high cost of living, the increase in the GSC (General Social Contribution – a compulsory levy on salaries to finance social security and unemployment insurance) and car-related taxes. The first blockades were created, particularly in the Périgueux region, with the setting up of „snail” operations on roads and the blocking of traffic at roundabouts. Roadblocks are developing in several other major cities in France. But the movement ran out of steam following the imprisonment (due to a five-year-old problem) of the person in charge of the operation. 

A roadblock in Haulchin ©Reuters
In May 2018, the petition called „For a decrease in fuel prices at the pump” will revive the anger of the French. This petition denounces the continual increase in the price of fuel becoming an exorbitant monthly budget for each household. Fuel being a inevitable expense due to the impossibility to travel other than by car in rural areas or in the suburbs (lack of public transport). Moreover, this compulsory expenditure is added to all the other essentials and constraints (rent, taxes, travel…), encroaching more and more on the purchasing power of the most modests. While the „well-off” continue to be favoured with the abolition of the wealth tax (ISF). 
A few months later, Jacqueline Mouraud, still unknown to the general public, published a video that collected more than eight million views. She questions the president with a question that every French asks themself „But where is the dosh going?”. Mrs. Mouraud speaks on behalf of everyone, of the general outcry about the rise in fuel prices, the tolls at the entrance to major cities, the multiplication of radars on the roads. As well as the domestic consumption tax on energy products (TICPE). Then follows the call to demonstrate and blockade on November 17th. The symbol of the yellow vests (vest mandatory in all vehicles) appears as a rallying sign. 
Demonstration of Yellow Vests in Paris @FranceInfo

The movement has no hierarchical structure. It does not claim to be political or associative. The yellow jackets, without leaders or spokespersons, did not think that this movement would take such a large scope. 
The fluorescent jacket made their struggle an unprecedented movement under the Vth Republic. The means used are original, such as the blocking of roundabouts, or road axes widely used both in the regions and city center. These peaceful gatherings took the unions and the authorities by surprise, leading to blockades sometimes marred by fatal accidents. Indeed, in the first week of the demonstrations, mobilisations against the increase in fuel prices and taxes resulted in some 530 injuries, including 17 serious injuries and two deaths.

The violence of the clashs in the Arc de Triomphe

Each Saturday, the demonstrations were on the rise, bringing with them an increase in violence between demonstrators and police officers. The damage committed around and inside the Arc de Triomphe, as well as the face-to-face clashes on the Champs Elysées will be remembered. 
These excesses of aggressiveness have been highlighted by Amnesty International, which criticises the inappropriate conduct of the security forces. But also by the UN and the European Council, which question the use of LBD (Ball Launcher) weapons and grenades to de-encilade by the police. 

Réunion Island

From the beginning of the fluo movement, several Reunionese cities have been the scene of looting and various urban violence. Gatherings and demonstrations took place during the day, notably in St-Denis, while at nightfall riots began. The Secretary of Interior, Christopher Castaner, introduced a five-day partial curfew following the many acts of violence. Dozens of roadblocks were built to paralyse the island to denounce the high cost of living. 

November 2018 in front of the prefecture of St-Denis, at Réunion @Richard Bouhet/AFP

Unsatisfactory government responses

At the beginning of November 2018, the Government stated that it did not wanted to go back on the planned increase in fuel taxes. The increase in the price of gasoline is being maintained and is expected to be increased annually until the end of the five-year period. 500 million is allocated for the replacement of polluting vehicles and oil-fired boilers. Nevertheless, this will not prevent the demonstration on 17th November from taking place. 
In December, after an unprecedented revolt and clashes between high guerrillas on 1th December (the Arc de Triomphe), Edouard Philippe, Prime Minister, announced a six-month deadline for raising the carbon tax. A freeze on the increase in gas and electricity prices was also planned for the winter of 2018, as well as a halt to the hardening of technical controls before the summer. 
The measures planned by the French Government did not stop there, in order to satisfy the people and put an end to French anger. Indeed, in December 2018, the Government announced an increase of 100 euros per month for employees on minimum wage, without costing the employer a penny. This increase through the increase in the activity bonus does not unfortunately concern all employees on minimum wage. But eligible households will rise from 3.8 million to 5 million (this premium takes into account all household income). 
Emmanuel Macron also invited employers to pay an end-of-year bonus if they can to their workers. This bonus, granted to employees earning less than 3,600 euros per month, was tax-exempt. 
Another measure concerning employees, overtime was paid without taxes or charges as of 1 January 2019.
Pensioners earning less than 2,000 euros per month saw the increase in the CSG cancelled at the end of 2018. This affected 3.7 million pensioners. 
Finally, the increase in the carbon tax, the premise of French anger, was finally cancelled. 

The announcement of a Great Debate

In response to the anger of the Yellow Vests, the Government proposed a Great National Debate on 15th January. For two months, millions of French people were able to exchange around 35 questions on four major themes chosen by the Executive: 
    – Taxation and public spending
    – The ecological transition
    – Democracy and citizenship
    – Organisation of the State and Public Services. 

The organisation of this Great Debate, which cost 12 billion euros, took the form of local meetings, online contributions, regional citizens’ conferences, as well as the setting up of local stands in public places to give everyone the freedom to give their opinion. 
All this was organised by a group of five people from ordinary and diverse backgrounds to ensure the independence of the discussions. 

Emmanuel Macron trying to appease the anger of Yellow Vests in November 2018 @BFMTV screenshot

But this Great Debate, barely started, was immediately rejected. Some judged that it did not represent the people, others accused the President of trying to buy time. Nevertheless, it was a success for the Government with 10,134 meetings and more than 1.9 million contributions on the dedicated website. 

A first step

This Great Debate began with the „marathon interventions” of Emmanuel Macron, travelling from city to city in 13 metropolitan or overseas regions, meeting mayors, young people, yellow jackets, or ordinary citizens. 
During these sessions with the President, the French debated about health, education, purchasing power and culture, which was not among the major themes chosen by the executive but was often discussed. They were also able to discuss taxation – purchasing power, retirement, CSG, lower taxes – and the ecological transition. 
Other subjects were addressed but still little looked at, such as the recognition of the white vote, the restoration of the wealth tax, the fight against social inequalities or even medical deserts. 
Unfortunately for the yellow jackets, the popular referendum or the citizens’ initiative referendum mobilised only a few participants and was totally excluded from the demands listened to by Mr. Macron.

A second step

The contributions to the Great Online Debate were processed by OpinionWay, the French national library and the Roland Berger consulting firm. All collective and individual contributions are available in OpenData, with respect for personal data. A summary of the recorded data was presented by Edouard Philippe at a dedicated conference. 
The local meetings ended on March 18th but did not end the Great Debate. Indeed, it was organised in a different way, in the form of regional conferences with citizens drawn by lot. Young people were not neglected, and dedicated conferences were held for them. 

Launch of the Great Debate à Grand Bourgtheroulde (Eure) @Reuters

The Great Debate was closed in mid-April by Emmanuel Macron, during a televised speech in order to give the main lines to be followed and to define the measures to get out of the „crisis” of the yellow jackets. Mr. Macron rejected the idea of a citizens’ initiative referendum, but wants to simplify the rules for the shared initiative referendum that have existed since 2008. One hundred and fifty citizens were drawn by sortition in June to form a citizens’ participation council to better represent civil society. 
The French President announced several measures favouring pensioners as well as public sectors such as schools and hospitals, and said he was ready to cancel the abolition of 120,000 civil service posts. Tax provisions have also been introduced concerning bonuses allocated to employees. 
Macron expressed its views on a number of major issues that have disturbed the French economy this year. He said he had learned a lot from the Great Debate. In particular, he acknowledged that some may feel a „feeling of abandonment”. 

The "Real Debate," the counterattack

At the same time, to counter the creation of a government-organised debate, the yellow jackets themselves developed their idea of a great debate. This initiative saw the light of day in Reunion Island in November 2018. At the initiative, a collective of Yellow Vests opened a online platform to collect and synthesise the demands of Reunionese citizens. After developing in several regions of France, another collective of yellow jackets is being formed to create the „True Debate”. 
On the website, the „Vrai débat” had made available a tool for public debate, allowing citizens to define the themes they wished to defend. Their goal was to hold deliberative Citizens Assemblies throughout France in order to work on the construction and development of laws and also, if possible, citizen proposals for legislation.

Group press conference "The real debate"

The objective is to bring together and federate the entire French population, to offer a strong voice of proposals to everyone. Collaborative meetings are therefore organised throughout France to deliberate and discuss different themes. 

The movement today

The yellow jackets have struggled to mobilize in recent months. The movement has lost momentum due to its longevity and the numerous violent demonstrations. But for their first anniversary, they gathered 28,000 people all over France, including 4,700 in Paris (according to the Ministry of the Interior but around 40,000 according to the movement). Far from the 200,000 people gathered at their first gathering in November 2018. These demonstrations took place without incident in the provinces, but were marked by much violence in Paris. 
Complaints against police violence have multiplied and cases are beginning to be dealt with in the courts. In November 2019, a three-month suspended prison sentence was requested against a police officer tried for violence after he threw a paving stone at demonstrators on 1 May 2019. 
All this violence during this year of Yellow Vests has had an impact on the Government and the country. The Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées, emblems of the country, were ransacked on Black Saturdays. This led to the dismissal of the Prefect of Paris, Michel Delpuech, during Act XVIII, and the Benalla affair

Police violence during a demonstration in Paris @ Ludovic Marin AFP

Despite the 17 billion euros allocated for the Yellow Vest claims in November 2018, Macron is set, the movement still exists. The Yellow Vests shouted their discontent on Saturday 16th November 2019, for not having been listened to for a year. At the beginning of December, the movement gained momentum with a convergence of struggles emanating mainly from a new pension reform. This mobilization against the new reform was a justification for all French people to mobilise. Students, firefighters, ambulance drivers, yellow jackets, pensioners… All of them demonstrated in the four corners of France. 
The French will not cease to express their anger whatever the decisions taken by the Government. The granting of 17 billion euros in tax cuts and benefit increases were not enough to put out the fire. What about the pension reform scheduled for the summer of 2020? In addition, following the suicides of several students due to the precariousness of their student life, plus the lack of means in hospitals and all public services, the demands will continue for a better quality of life.

To understand the movement in few minutes


  1. Podcast file retracing the year of the Yellow Jackets :
  2. A year of Yellow Vests, understand the movement
  3. Beggining of the movement :
  4. Great debate : 
  5. Measure taken by the Government : 
  6. La Réunion :
  7. First anniversary : 

Despre autor

Michelot Melanie

Mélanie is a French journalist who has taken a year to discover Eastern European cultures by volunteering in Moldova. She wants to raise awareness about gender equality or any discrimination through her pen.

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