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France’s European Spring

The Yellow Vests movement in France may be spinning out of control, raising the risk of contagion to other European countries

Hany Ghoraba , Wednesday 5 Dec 2018

The French nation is no stranger to strikes and protests, and the French are among those nations whose citizens organise strikes on the most regular basis.

The labour unions in France wield massive powers in rallying and executing major strikes that can hit vital economic sectors such as transportation and communications.

These strikes have affected the French economy negatively for years, but the nation survives them as they are perceived as part of democratic practice in France.

However, this time round the protests and strikes that have hit France since 17 November have been a far cry from the usual strikes and sit-ins.

The new wave of protests organised by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) who wear high-visibility yellow vests during their demonstrations have taken over major streets across the country in protest against the new taxes imposed by the French government on fuel along with other objections to French President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies.

The fuel taxes reportedly increased by 14 per cent in 2017 and 22 per cent in October 2018 on unleaded 95 petrol and diesel. What appears to have triggered the current protests is a new fuel tax that is set to be applied in January 2019 on the same type of fuel of 6.5 and 2.9 per cent, respectively.

The announcement of the latter was the last straw for the French protestors, who feel their government is squeezing them dry for no valid reason.

The Yellow Vests movement remains unaffiliated with any political party, but it comprises people from all social classes angered by Macron’s economic policies.

It was first organised as a Facebook group, choosing 17 November as a date to trigger protests. It is thus reminiscent of the 25 January 2011 uprising in Cairo that started as a call on social-media outlets and ended up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square with the difference that the famous Champs-Elysées Avenue in Paris is the setting for the French protests.

Unlike other protests in France, these have been characterised by rioting, vandalism and the looting of private property.

The protests started with over 300,000 protestors across the country, and they left two dead and hundreds injured, with hundreds of others being arrested.

Some of the protesters have resorted to violence, including by throwing stones, torching cars, shops and restaurants, and assaulting the police, who have responded by tear gas and occasionally heavy-handed tactics.

The riots and acts of vandalism have continued for three weeks, and on 1 December they appeared to be out of control with over 200 arrests and over 100 injuries being recorded in Paris. The demands of the protesters have also been escalating, with some now demanding that Macron step down from office.

Macron has condemned the violent demonstrations and claimed that far-right groups have infiltrated the protests despite indications that the protests contain all social classes, including immigrants from North Africa and others.

He has aimed to use the riots to attack his far-right adversary, National Front leader Marine Le Pen, but this is oversimplifying the situation and harming Macron’s position.

While the president is correct in condemning the violent nature of the protests, which have resulted in the loss of life and hundreds of injuries, he has yet to address their roots.

Macron is perceived by many of his detractors as an elitist former banker who rules in favour of the upper social classes and does little for the middle or lower ones. This reputation has been tainting the French president, and he has failed to brush it off during his time in the Elysèe Palace.

Tax breaks were among Macron’s actions when he was at the ministry of finance under former president François Hollande.

Despite adopting more conciliatory rhetoric with the left-wing parties by promising taxes on richer citizens and corporations, he has actually declared further tax reduction for corporation from 33 per cent to 25 per cent while at the same time increasing taxes on fuel. The latter taxes affect the majority of French citizens.

Macron has been left with a limited range of options that includes weathering the storm and waiting out the situation, which is a risky strategy given the timing close to the Christmas holidays.

If the situation is not resolved by the end of the year, it will likely escalate further, and France will have to endure deeper political and economic losses.

Aside from the costs of the destroyed property, the economic losses stem mainly from the paralysis that could hit major sectors in France including transportation and other services and the loss of tourism revenue during the Christmas holiday season.

Macron could choose to cancel the planned increases in the price of fuel and surrender to the protestors, while at the same time reshuffling his cabinet.

While this second option is less risky, it means halting Macron’s economic plans and also opening the door for further demands.

Should Macron be seen to give in to the Yellow Vests movement, others will be emboldened to make further demands. However, every passing moment appears to place the future of the young French president in a more precarious position as the situation seems to be spinning out of control and even affecting neighbouring countries.

The Arab Spring revolutions in 2011 also moved from one country to another. Waves of protests leading to a revolution started in Tunisia before moving to Egypt and then to other countries in the Middle East in 2011.

A similar situation may be simmering on the European continent. A group of Yellow Vests in Belgium organised violent demonstrations in Brussels that resulted in serious clashes with the police on 1 December, for example.

An anti-EU group in Italy has declared it is adopting the Yellow Vests model and plans to organise similar waves of protests. Some of the Yellow Vests are hoping that the movement could reach Germany and Holland.

If that happens, Europe could be witnessing the birth of a European Spring, which, though it will probably not be as violent as the Arab Spring was in the Middle East, will remain unchartered waters that could cause the toppling of some European governments.

The present incidents in France serve as a reminder that governments, even the most democratic among them, do not have carte blanche to do as they please when it concerns the economy without serious consequences.

Trying to adjust the fiscal balance through taxation can lead to adverse consequences that toss away any gains made from higher taxes.

There is a limit to what people can bear in taxation and price hikes even in the most democratic of nations, and France is becoming a prime example of where such policies may lead.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: France’s European Spring 

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