Organised, online, and leaderless – the protests rocking France are an expression of the deep malaise and disaffection with the state and direction of France.
When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced earlier this year that it would show users fewer posts from brands and news publishers, and more posts from family and friends, he couldn’t have imagined that in France users seeing more of each other’s frustrations would lead them to take to the streets.
But that seems to be exactly what has happened.
Hundreds of small, regional online groups have sprung with local grievancesranging from the lack of staff in retirement homes, to a lack of doctors, tax increases, gas and electricity bills, the lowering of the retirement age, closing classes due to a lack of teachers, housing crises, too many vaccines for children and other issues.
When the protests began, with their now symbolic yellow vests or ‘gilets jaunes’, it was about the increase in fuel taxes as the government attempted to burnish its environmental credentials.
Compounded by the fragmented nature of the protests, which remain largely leaderless, the government has found it difficult to understand who it should speak to and keep pace with during the changing nature of the protests.
The Macron government’s temporary halt on the rise in fuel prices earlier this week has failed to stem the momentum of the gilets jaunes.
The protests have so far resulted in the death of four protestors, left hundreds injured and seen hundreds more arrested with the state’s response becoming increasingly heavy-handed as it attempts to put down the protests.
A spokesperson for the Observatory Against Police Violence, an online watchdog, told TRT World: “The state response against protesters has basically been to make things more and more violent.”
Videos circulating online suggest that a ham-fisted police presence against peaceful protests may be stoking further unrest and could be dredging up racial tensions.
“All this has not begun with Macron’s policies but is deeply rooted in the way the police behave. Nevertheless, governments use this as a weapon by making the price of protesting higher every time. This violence is also not limited to protests as countless blacks, Arabs and other minorities, as well as refugees, suffer from police brutality constantly,” the Observatory Against Police Violence stated.
Madjid Messaoudene is an elected council official for Saint-Denis, a commune in the northern suburbs of Paris containing large immigrant communities suffering from state discrimination marginalisation.
Speaking to TRT World Messaoudene described the novelty of the event.
“These protests are something unique in French recent history. I think that it’s gonna be huge in the next few days especially with the youth. The response from the government is only repressive it cannot work,” he said.
France has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the European Union at more than 23 percent. For young French people from a foreign background finding a good job can be even harder, particularly for those from Sub-Saharan African and North African countries, who face discrimination along racial grounds or for being Muslim.
A recent book by Jim Wolfreys, Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France, decries the normalisation of racist discourse in France and it is this sense of frustration and alienation that is also driving young people to come out into the streets.
For Messaoudene and the council he represents, discrimination and seething resentment play a big hand in the protests. He said: “The youth here, they know they are not really considered as French people, they don’t have the same means to succeed including access to public services. If you add to that institutional violence and police brutality…”
Houria Bouteldja is a French-Algerian political activist, anti-racism campaigner and spokesperson for the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic, the first de-colonial party of France.
The problems facing Macron’s government, and the speed at which the population has galvanised against him, argues Bouteldja, lay in his rise to power. In the first round of the election, Macron won 24 percent of the vote with the right-wing Le Pen coming a close second with 21.3 percent.
In the second round of the presidential election, Macron picked up 65.8 percent.
“It was more of a vote against the extreme right than for its programme. He does not have a solid social base. Moreover, he has not ceased to pursue an ultra-liberal policy that has weakened the middle and working classes,” Bouteldja told TRT World.
The current issues facing Macron; unemployment, economic problems and a general social malaise, did not start with him but they have impacted his leadership faster than his predecessors. Macron’s approval ratings and standing, already at record lows, have slumped to just 17 percent.
“Revolt and insurrection at times cannot be predicted but can be explained by its factors. The increase in fuel prices is the last straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Bouteldja.
However, the complexity of what is taking place in France is due to the fact there is widespread disaffection on both the left and right with neither side feeling they are politically represented in the centre. For Bouteldja, protesters demanding better social and political rights is a worthy cause. But there is another current in the gilets jaunes movement that has a more “chauvinistic” tinge advocating the “repression of immigrants” said Bouteldja.
Philippe, who works in the cultural and media business, has not been involved in the protests suggests they were initially portrayed as right wing because of their demands to repeal taxes. He said: “As the movement grew, the protesters seemed to come from lots of different backgrounds especially from people we aren’t used to seeing protest.”
With further protests scheduled this Saturday, this will be a test of whether the government’s backpedalling worked. But with so many outstanding grievances and requests, from taxing the rich to pensions, immigration and social and economic injustice, it’s difficult to determine if Macron and his government have what it takes to turn this around.
“We need a deep change it’s not a question of fuel prices,” said Madjid Messaoudene.