Macron vows tougher security as ‘Yellow vests’ movement enters week 20

A “Yellow Vest” protester on the Esplanade du Trocadéro in Paris. The demonstrations, in their 19th weekend, have been banned from some symbolic sites. Credits:Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock

French security officers fanned out across Paris and other cities as the country faced its 19th Saturday of “Yellow Vest” demonstrations, following a surge of violence last week that caught the authorities by surprise after months of dwindling numbers and calmer protests.

At least 2,000 people have been injured in protest violence since the yellow vest movement began in November, and 11 people have been killed in protest-related road accidents.

French President Emmanuel Macron — who cut his ski holiday short following a tour of Africa — vowed on Twitter Saturday evening that “strong decisions” were coming to prevent more violence. Macron is under pressure to avoid a repeat of last week’s sacking of the Champs-Elysees, where over 100 shops were damaged, looted or set alight during seven hours of rioting by mainly masked, black-clad protesters.

Authorities banned demonstrations in a large area in the west of the city, including the Champs-Elysees, the scene of last Saturday’s rampage by hundreds of black-clad agitators.

Dozens of police vehicles, including armoured trucks and water cannons, encircled the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the iconic avenue, with officers searching people’s bags and patrolling in front of boarded-up storefronts.

At the opposite end of the avenue access was completely blocked to the Place de la Concorde, near the presidential palace and the National Assembly, and two drones were flying over the capital to track any protesters’ movements.

Christophe Castaner, France’s Interior minister, said that 5,000 people had demonstrated in the capital and 40,500 nationwide. He said that 65,000 police officers and gendarmes had been deployed across France, making 233 arrests.

The protests, which began on November 17 over planned hikes in diesel taxes, have widened into an uprising against President Emmanuel Macron’s policies and become the biggest challenge to his presidency.

Here’s what you need to know about the movement.

Who are the ‘yellow vests’?

The movement takes its name from the high-visibility jackets protesters have adopted as a symbol of their complaint. Protests sprang up spontaneously in November against hikes in car fuel taxes, with supporters donning the fluorescent safety vests that French law requires all motorists to carry.

Protesters are angry over record prices at the pump, with the cost of diesel increasing by about 20 percent in the past year to an average of 1.49 euros ($1.68) per litre.

Macron then announced further taxes on fuel, in a move he said was necessary combat climate change and protect the environment.

Initially backed by people in small towns and rural France where most get around by car, the protests snowballed into a wider movement against Macron’s perceived bias in favour of the elite and well-off city dwellers.

A Gilets jaunes protest in Belfort, France on 29 December 2018. Credits:Thomas Bresson

Why do they pose a challenge?

The government has admitted it failed to appreciate the depth of the anger, and announced in December that it will cancel the fuel tax hike set for January, of seven euro cents for diesel and three cents for unleaded.

Coming increases for electricity and gas prices were also frozen, as were new vehicle inspection norms which would have hit users of older diesel cars.

The moves were dismissed by protesters – and Macron’s political opponents – as too little, too late.

Since then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has floated the idea of a bonus payment for low-paid workers.

But efforts to negotiate have gone nowhere, not least because the movement’s purported leaders have largely declined invitations to talks – some because they were threatened by other “yellow vests.”

The protests have hit the French economy, with France lowering its economic growth forecast for 2019 to 1.4 percent from 1.7 percent.

The way forward?

Concessions were offered to protesters late last year as the movement was picking up speed – including €10bn (£8.5bn; $11bn) designed to raise incomes of the poorest workers and pensioners. But this has not put an end to the discontent.

“It’s a first step, but we will not settle for a crumb,” said Benjamin Chaucy, one of the leaders of the protests.

The ‘yellow vests’ movement has also brought together people of all political backgrounds with a multitude of demands.

Among the most popular in recent days is the demand to introduce in the French constitution a “citizens’ initiative referendum” that would allow citizens to propose new laws. This idea is supported by politicians across the political spectrum, including far-right leader Marine Le Pen and leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon.

France was seen from the outside as having avoided a populist revolution 18 months ago – but the election of Emmanuel Macron simply papered over France’s problems. Fixing them will take a whole lot more.

Compiled by Naresh Singaravelu, with inputs from New York Times, Washington Post, Al Jazeera and BBC.