Back on the Offensive

After a steady decline in turnout, France’s Yellow Vest movement is on the rise again. Emmanuel Macron’s call for a “great national debate” lies dead in the water.

Protesters gather at Place de l’ Opera during the Yellow Vest demonstration on December 15, 2018 in Paris, France. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

They’re not done yet.

There had been a steady decline in numbers. According to the Interior Ministry just 12,000 Yellow Vests took to the streets on December 29, down from 282,000 on the original November 17 protest. Many figured the movement had entered its dying days. They were wrong. Some 50,000 people turned out nationwide on the first Saturday of the New Year, followed by 80,000 last weekend for “Act IX” — named for the ninth straight weekend of protest.

In other words, protesters are unimpressed with recent government concessions. Neither the scrapping of the fuel tax hike nor the bevvy of reforms unveiled last month by President Emmanuel Macron — which include the expansion of a state wage subsidy by up to €100 a month — are enough to quell the rage. After all this, two-thirds of the country still backs the movement, according to a recent poll. Meanwhile, the French president’s own approval ratings hover embarrassingly around 30 percent. Macron is far from out of the woods yet.

The Not-so-Great Debate

At the heart of the government’s effort to rein in the Yellow Vest movement is the so-called “great national debate.” One of the olive branches pledged to protesters last year, the project is slated to involve a series of open forums with mayors and, eventually, the general public — both online and in person. In a highly publicized letter to the nation designed to kick off the debate, Macron announced four key areas of focus: taxes and public spending, public services, the environmental transition and democracy and citizenship.

Protesters are highly skeptical — and rightfully so. The nominally independent state commission in charge of the “great debate” has already voiced concerns that Macron and his prime minister Edouard Philippe might commandeer the process, turning it into a public relations initiative. Moreover, the consultations lack real accountability mechanisms. Even if certain demands surface repeatedly — say, boosting taxes on the rich or expanding funding for public transportation — there is no guarantee they’ll be taken up by Parliament.

Perhaps the most heinous part of the debate, though, is Macron’s effort to set its terms in advance. The Yellow Vests have focused on bread-and-butter economic issues and, increasingly, on what’s known as the Citizens’ Referendum Initiative, or RIC. This would allow citizens to propose and approve legislation themselves as well as recall unpopular elected officials. Macron’s open letter to the nation largely avoids these topics. It contains just one vague reference to the possibility of “more referendums” and no mention whatsoever of the popular demand of reestablishing the wealth tax his government repealed in 2017. Worse yet, the president’s letter floats the possibility of implementing immigration quotas — “annual goals defined by Parliament” — as well as “reinforcing the principles” of French secularism. Nobody is asking for this. A research study overseen by a team of sociologists, political scientists, and geographers found that Yellow Vests were largely protesting in favor of improved purchasing power, lower taxes, more equitable wealth distribution, and to show opposition to the government. Just 1 percent said they were motivated by hostility to immigration.

All that said, it’s reasonable to think improved dialogue — in a general sense — marks an obvious step for a government as unpopular as this one. It might want to acknowledge that it needs to better listen to citizens. It might also consider adopting policies that actually reflect the interests of the low-to-middle-income people who continue to back this spectacular and unprecedented wave of protest.

Taking Aim at Protest Rights

If only! After offering up some carrots, Macron and Philippe are yet again reaching for the stick. In a live interview on national TV last week, the Prime Minister announced plans to unveil legislation that would restrict the right to demonstrate.

“In many cities across France, protests are taking place peacefully, but we cannot accept that some are taking advantage of these demonstrations to burn and break things,” Philippe said in the interview. “These people will never have the last word in our country.”

Ostensibly, the government’s proposal would only target vandalizers and rioters — but in practice, appears set to go much further. Parliamentarians reportedly plan to base the legislation on a bill already passed last October by the Senate, which is held by the right-wing Les Républicains. That legislation, approved before the Yellow Vest uprising, was designed to target the most radical participants in left-wing and union demonstrations — until recently, the most visible sign of discontent with Macron’s presidency. It’s a frightening text: The Senate bill would regularize the use of security checkpoints outside protests and give greater authority to police forces to deny access to certain individuals. It would also beef up penalties for the act of covering one’s face during protests, transforming what is now a decriminalized infraction [contravention] into a criminal offense [délit], punishable with a stunning one-year prison sentence and a €15,000 fine. Finally — and perhaps most alarmingly — the Senate legislation would create a national database of individuals prohibited from partaking in demonstrations.

The idea of a database for supposedly dangerous protesters is based largely on the French government’s fight against football hooliganism. After a 2006 law authorized police to bar certain individuals from entering stadiums, the government created a national register of supporters banned from attending matches. No matter one’s perspective on the existence of the hooligan list — and it’s been heavily criticized by football supporters and human rights groups alike — the extension of that logic to public streets marks an unquestionable rollback of the right to protest.

As it stands, protests are already heavily regulated in France. While the Constitution explicitly recognizes the right to strike, it doesn’t explicitly recognize the right to demonstrate — the opposite of the United States. As the center-left newspaper Libération explains, those seeking to organize protests must make an official declaration with the police at least three days before the protest takes place, providing information about the time, location, and estimated turnout. Police can outlaw demonstrations if they risk causing “trouble to public order” but rarely do so in practice. Likewise, authorities rarely target the organizers of undeclared marches, like many of the Yellow Vest demonstrations are. Still, they retain the power to do so.

All this to say, there are already laws on the books that give authorities considerable leeway in managing protests. Many French human rights activists and lawyers would say too much leeway. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights, to which France is a signatory, explicitly recognizes the “right to freedom of peaceful assembly.” This makes the government’s initiative all the more disquieting.

One might have suspected Macron and his inner circle to be humbled by the whole experience. After all, he has been forced to make two rounds of concessions to a mass protest movement that retains broad popularity in spite of violent clashes with the police. Apparently not. The Yellow Vest movement is still kicking, and so is the government’s condescending attitude toward its critics. All eyes on Act X this weekend.