Analysis: the sense of frustration many in France felt with their politicians led to a protest movement which erupted out of nowhere

By Ciarán CrowleyUniversité de Lille

The gilets jaunes ("yellow vests") protests that initially flared up in France in December 2018 surprised everyone, none more so than the political class in Paris. The people’s movement erupted out of nowhere and made global headlines. The world watched on and witnessed an avalanche of anger and despair, largely emanating from those "left behind" and living on the margins economically, socially and geographically in the poorest parts of France.

The largest cry erupted from la france profonde (or rural France), particularly in regions like the North-East and the "peri-urban" (commuter) areas around the big cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and Nantes. Their demands were numerous and not all specific to the French context: rising fuel prices in the absence of rural transport, stagnant wages and fewer opportunities, having to drive longer distances to go to work or access basic services, and a knock-on sense of isolation, decline in community spirit and feeling of abandonment.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Clovis Casali, reporter with France 24 in Paris, on how France dealt with the yellow vest protests in December 2018

Donning their distinctive yellow vests, la France des invisibles of lorry drivers, factory workers, carers, shop assistants and many others began to be seen again. This is the France that gets up early in the morning before travelling long distances to work for low pay, poor job security and little thanks.

Anger had been simmering across France for quite a while against les élites politiques, but even more so amongst the low-paid, "looked-down-upon" and largely forgotten. Gaffes made by out-of-touch career politicians, like Jean-François Copé, did not help. Copé was widely ridiculed during his campaign for French president in 2016 when he thought a pain au chocolat, a treat on Sunday mornings across France, cost as little as between 10 and 15 cents! He duly won 0.3% of the vote in his party’s primary. In not knowing the value of something dear to the French public, Copé had been made to pay the price politically.

Emboldened by public support, many of the yellow vests blocked busy roads to disrupt traffic, while others marched into Paris and other cities to demand a reaction from the political elite. Having no traditional leadership in the vein of trade unions or political parties, the yellow vests largely organised themselves on social media. Due to this flexible structure, yellow vests also garrisoned themselves at roundabouts at the edge of towns, often located beside soulless shopping centres found across the country.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Lara Marlowe from the Irish Times on why the Gilets Jaunes protests in France have continued

It was no accident that the yellow vests assembled at roundabouts (or les ronds-points). In the absence of rural public transport and given that the shopping centre has replaced the small businesses of the villages and towns where they resided, a car was essential to their way of life. A middle-aged woman was asked by French radio why she chose a roundabout ("of all places") to stage a protest. Her answer was curt: "we don’t meet people anymore. There is nothing in the village. The last café has closed. We have to drive five miles to the nearest boulangerie".

Her comments touched a nerve. She had painted a bleak picture of the France rarely seen from abroad or advertised by Air France or Brittany Ferries. The France she spoke of was les provinces that French people drive through and never stop to see. The France of little-heard-of départements like La Meuse or Les Ardennes, where the villages are quiet and the cafés are closed. Where older people have to wait to see a doctor and many young people leave in order to go to university: La France des marges, as Samuel Depraz has written about in a recent book.

The sense of community was on the wane. People had nowhere to get together. Or they had to get in their car and drive to meet people. There was a pervasive sense of frustration and they were ras-le-bol (or fed-up), as Benoît Coquard, a professor of rural sociology has explained. The gilet jaunes movement was born and le peuple, the common people, had spoken.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, journalist and broadcaster Agnes Poir on President Emmanuel Macron's tax cuts in response to the yellow vest protests

A year on and some of their concerns have been heard. President Macron dropped proposals to raise a tax on diesel. Tax breaks have been introduced on overtime hours for the hard-working. The French government has launched L’Agenda Rural to help revitalise rural communities in a bid to repair the bounds of rural life that have slowly unravelled over the years, with the closing of cafés, butchers and épiceries (corner shops). There has even been a plan launched to reopen 1,000 cafes across France, a positive recognition of what is needed to help vulnerable communities with little entertainment or small businesses left. The value of fostering community spirit for the happiness of citizens has entered the political dialogue once again.

It has been a year of rural protests across the continent: from the gilets jaunes in France to the farmers in Ireland, Holland and France who drove all the way to Dublin, The Hague and Paris in order to tell their political leaders the challenges they face. Important questions of geographic injustice and inequality are being raised by protesters across Europe. Voters are marching in step: Redcar, of all places, voted Tory in the UK election last month. We must now wait to see if they will be heard and helped by those in the corridors of power.

Ciarán Crowley is a law lecturer (professeur certifié affecté dans l'enseignement supérieur) at Université de Lille France

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ