To Understand France's Yellow Vest Movement, You Have To Get Out Of Paris

Jan 14, 2019
Originally published on January 15, 2019 1:06 pm
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French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to end the yellow vest protests that are now in their third month. In a letter today to the French people, he invited regular citizens to take part in a series of public debates. Despite government concessions to the protesters, there is no sign that the yellow vest campaign will stop soon. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley explains.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The gilets jaunes are fired up. This group of yellow vest protesters has been occupying the same traffic circle near the Normandy town of Rouen since mid-November. Threats of arrest don't keep them away. They build bonfires, block traffic and chat with truckers who honk in support. With the movement constantly at the top of the news, protester Fred Bard says they feel powerful.

FRED BARD: (Through interpreter) This is the most important thing I've ever done. We've made the government react. But we yellow-vesters are not going to accept the crumbs Macron has thrown us.

BEARDSLEY: Bard says they won't stop until Macron resigns. Others talk about dissolving the Parliament. Marc Lazar, a historian at Sciences Po university in Paris, says part of the movement is radicalizing.

MARC LAZAR: They refuse a possibility of compromise, of negotiation with the government. They say, no, we just want the rejection of Macron. We hate him. The importance of the hate is something crucial in this yellow vest movement.

BEARDSLEY: The movement rose up from small-town, rural France, places without public transport where people depend on their cars. Anger over higher gas prices sparked the movement last November. Christophe Barbier, a columnist for L'Express magazine, says there are two different nations within France.

CHRISTOPHE BARBIER: In France, there is a nation who understood the new rules of international capitalism, and it is the brain of France. But the body of France did not understand the rules and did not accept the new rules of capitalism.

BEARDSLEY: In some ways, the bonfires and bonhomie at rural roundabouts across the country have replaced the cafes and shops that have disappeared as rural France declines. Forty-two-year-old yellow vest protester Claire Bitaine has lived her whole life in the countryside.

CLAIRE BITAINE: (Through interpreter) Before, any village would have at least a newspaper and tobacco shop, a bakery, a couple cafes, places for people to meet and socialize. That's all disappearing as people are pushed to come to the cities to work. Rural life is discredited now. Only intellectual work is recognized and valued in France today.

BEARDSLEY: These protesters denounce violence and say it's aggressive riot police who create the trouble. The French public doesn't condone the violence, but its support is key to the movement's continued success, says Professor Lazar.

LAZAR: Many French people, even if they don't support the movement, think that the claims of the gilets jaunes are not only for them but for all the French people.

BEARDSLEY: Yellow-vesters can be from the far-left, or even the far-right, but most say they are apolitical. But they don't accept that a CEO makes 40 times what a worker does or that shareholders get ever-larger dividends while employees get laid off. Most don't even believe in capitalism. Christophe Barbier from L'Express magazine says that fits in with the general French view.

BARBIER: If you are a good capitalist, if you are lucky in business, you have to share the profit with everybody. That's the French conception since the French Revolution.

BEARDSLEY: Not since the French Revolution and May 1968 has French society been so shaken to its core. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.