The periphery protests in France and beyond

For seven Saturdays straight till Dec. 29, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) continued their protest in Paris and other cities in France. Protesters have occupied rural and suburban rotondas. They threw projectiles at the police, who retaliated with tear-gas grenades and made some arrests.

Media reports say the grassroots protest is the first big crisis of President Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. Of late, the demonstrators have been calling out: “Macron resign!”

It was in early November that anger erupted against a planned hike in the tax on diesel and gasoline, which Macron said would help France transition to green energy. The gilets jaunes, it has been explained, refer to the high-visibility yellow jacket – required of all motorists to wear or keep in their cars – which every protester wears.

One may recall that in the mid-1960s, jeepney drivers in Metro Manila, supported by young activists, blockaded city streets after a three-centavo hike in oil product prices. The unrest simmered and spread, heightening as the 1970s began; President Marcos then grabbed the opportunity to declare martial law and installed himself as dictator.

But the French protest actions have moved beyond the particular issue of fuel taxes; deeper roots are being revealed, and broader concerns are unfolding.

Up till now, no one leader has emerged. No trade union or political party has acknowledged being behind or with this mass movement. It’s unique, spontaneous. The protesters largely have come from smaller cities and towns, and the rural areas, across France. They include many women and single mothers. Most hold jobs, but all claim that with their low monthly incomes they can’t make both ends meet at the end of the month – the working poor.

A poll on Dec. 1 in Paris showed that 72 percent of the French people continued to support the protest movement.

“We want to get our purchasing power back and have a say in the (government’s) decisions,” said Priscilla Ludovsky, who had started the online petition against the fuel tax hike. “Not enough,” was how she described Macron’s tax concessions, which he had offered in a bid to boost disposable incomes among the low-paid workers.

Speaking to the nation on Jan. 1, Macron vowed to press on in 2019 with his plan to overhaul the social welfare state and social protection program, starting with changes in unemployment benefits. Saying that the “ultra free-market”capitalism is ending, he talked of reinventing a new form of “responsible globalization in a Europe that protects.”

To the gilets jaunes’ demand for a referendum and a greater role for citizens in policy-making, Macron promised to launch a national debate starting January. He would write to the citizens in the coming days, he said, to set the parameters of the debate.

It is uncertain whether the protests in France will continue for an eighth weekend today. However, the yellow-vest movement has already spread beyond France and Europe.

On Dec. 21, Guardian European affairs correspondent Jon Henley reported:

“The popular anti-establishment insurrection by France’s squeezed middle, living mostly in rural or deindustrialized areas and small-and-medium-sized towns far from the globalized cities where the wealth of the 21st century is increasingly concentrated, has found a global echo.”

As in France, Henley noted, “these diverse national movements have brought together people with disparate demands and political views, but (with)one overriding and common complaint: they cannot make ends meet.”

The gilets jaunes “revolt” first spread to French-speaking Belgium. Some 400 people have been arrested, as the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds pelting them with flares, cobblestones and billiard balls. Calling on the prime minister to resign, the demonstrators aim to launch a citizens’ movement to compete in next year’s European and Belgian federal elections.

Subsequently, protest actions broke out elsewhere in Europe: The Netherlands (The Hague and Rotterdam); Italy (anti-austerity, anti-European Union); Spain (“it’s worse than in France”); Germany (Berlin and Munich); Sweden, Greece, Britain, Ireland, Poland, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Beyond Europe it spread to Canada, then to Israel, Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq (Basra), and Egypt.

Why has the protest movement emerged and spread so dramatically?

French geographer Christophe Guilluy, author of the book, “Twilight of the Elite, Prosperity, Periphery and the Future of France,” explains:

“The anger runs deeper (than just over the fuel tax hike), the result of an economic and cultural relegation that began in the 1980s.” He traces the protest to the neoliberal globalization economic model adopted by “western societies” that spurred unprecedented creation of wealth but “sacrificed the European and American working class.”

In a few decades, Guilluy points out, the western countries have gone into “a system that economically, politically and culturally relegates the majority into an unequal society that, by creating ever more wealth, benefits only the already wealthy.” This system, he adds, comes with a “new social geography: employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities. The deindustrialized regions, rural areas, small and medium-size towns are less and less dynamic.”

“But it is in these places – in ‘peripheral France’ (or ‘peripheral America or Britain’) – that many working-class people live,” he stressed. “Thus, for the first time ‘workers’ no longer live where employment is created, giving rise to a social and cultural shock.”

It was in France’s periphery that the gilets jaunes movement was born. It is also where the western populist wave has sprung, Guilluy concludes. Thus, he notes, the protest “is carried out by the classes that, in days gone by, were once the key reference point for a political and intellectual world that has forgotten them.”

Along with the working class’ economic and cultural alienation, he observes, “economic and law logics have locked up the elite world.” This confinement, he elaborates, “is not only geographical but also intellectual. The globalized metropolises are the new citadels of the 21st century – rich and unequal, where even the former lower-middle class no longer has a place…(It’s) increasingly closed to the majority of the working people.”

 This is Guilluy’s intriguing explanation for the yellow vest:

“Cheap, readily available, easily identifiable, and above all representing an obligation imposed by the state, the yellow vest itself has proved an inspiring choice of symbol and has played a big part in the movement’s rapid spread.

“The point of the yellow vest is to ensure its wearer is visible on the road. And whatever the outcome of this conflict, the gilets jaunes have won in terms of what really counts: the war of cultural representation. Working-class and lower middle-class people are visible again.”

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Published in Philippine Star
Jan. 5, 2019

Featured image by Alexandros Michailidis/


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