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To understand the Yellow Vests, take a look at the Green: an economic overview of European populism

Rubin Roy, George Washington University (GWU).

Over a full year since their inception, the Guilets Jaunes (the yellow vests) have continued to swarm French landmarks and confront police officers: most recently escalating into violent interactions that involved both tear gas and firehoses. The movement itself is as disorganised as it is disruptive; with some supporters accused of advancing anti-Semitic rhetoric and resorting to violence. More recently, the group has taken an anti-capitalist stance and allied itself with “green marches,” organized by eco-protestors looking to bring more awareness to the issue of climate change. Such ambiguity within the movement, combined with its endurance, and the lack of a recognized leadership, has forced international leaders to search for the most effective means of curbing the group’s influence.

Political science has a name for movements in the vein of the Gilet Jaunes: populism. Often characterized by charismatic leadership and a claim to represent the “forgotten majority," the election of Trump in 2016 and the rise of leaders such as Victor Orban in Hungary have been cited as recent examples of populist movements. The yellow-vests seem to share elements that drove both to power: a disdain for “elites” and a sense amongst participants that they have been neglected by the current world order. Within the United States, movements similar to the one that led to the election of Donald Trump have become synonymous amongst their opposition with belligerent discourse, and with having supporters considered ‘deplorable’ for supporting a candidate with such openly base or racially divisive messages.

It is quite widely accepted that this analysis was reductionist in 2016, but this arguably rings true of France to an even greater extent. Dani Roderik, a Harvard University professor, contextualized the issue by observing that economic angst — frequently driven by income inequality — is at the heart of populist movements. Demographic analysis of the yellow-vest protests would seem to substantiate Roderik: the protests themselves started after a Macron-led policy to raise tax on diesel. Political scientist Yasha Mounk furthers this argument, observing that Populism (and by extension, the yellow vests) generally advocates against the incumbent form of governance, due to some variety of inequality or other. In this case, it is specifically because of economic inequality that the yellow vest protests have remained at such great intensity for such a prolonged amount of time.

As noted by NPR, the rise in diesel prices dealt a particularly tough blow to the rural regions of France, both because residents had to commute longer distances without public transport (thus having to literally pay more out of pocket) and because a large portion of the population were truck drivers reliant on diesel; often lacking the disposable income or higher education needed to acquiring more training, or a better paying or more viable profession. These elements comprise a more nuanced way of thinking about the yellow vest protests. Their populist nature means that the core mission of ‘economic equity’ amongst the yellow-vests can be easily co-opted by association with other causes. Despite this, however, Yellow Vesters’ common denominator remains the same: policies that prevent them from being “forgotten”, ranging from their initial demand for an elimination of the diesel tax (to which Macron immediately capitulated) to their most recent call for a raised minimum wage.

Therefore, the leadership of France must make addressing issues relating to economic inequality its primary goal. Not only does this come through directly addressing the issues that the movement has brought forth (e.g. minimum wage, gas taxes), but by synthesizing Macron’s long-term plan for the country with the needs of those who took part in the protests. Case-in-point: Macron has long had a history of advocating for stronger economic globalization, particularly in regards to free-trade (as showcased by his 2017, 500 billion-dollar free-trade agreement with Japan). Yet, this implies a broader shift toward France’s service and energy sectors and, in turn, away from manufacturing (largely composed of these lower-skilled workers). Thus, more must be invested in retraining and free-trade assistance programs, to ensure an effective pivot to more sustainable, dignified jobs going forward. This is but one example of a preemptive policy that the French government could take to assuage the demands of the Yellow-vests today, and prevent future crises.

The Gilets Jaunes have been at the center of global media attention, and have drawn condemnation from the wider international community. Yet the optimal response is surely to recognise the movement’s economic motivations, and use this information to drive policy that is more egalitarian in its treatment of French citizens. Hopefully, it won’t require French leaders to use much more than common sense.

Cover photograph: Bloomberg.

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