Who are the Gilet Jaunes?
The gilet jaunes or yellow jackets movement is a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice that began in France in 2018. An online petition posted in May reached 300,000 signatures by mid-October and was followed by regular mass demonstrations beginning on 17 November. I spend part of my life in Normandy. The following report is based on my personal experience.
Early in 2018
Earlier in the year I had begun to suspect that something was bubbling away under the surface. I am by nature drawn to scenes of political trouble.
A late night visit to meet the midnight train from Paris and I found myself in a railway station in the freezing cold occupied by local tough guys, who initially did not appear friendly towards the only white face in the station. I stood by them, warmed my hands on their radiator, and soon we struck up a political argument, laying into all of Europe’s rulers, bankers, elites and whatever. These people were angry and although we parted shaking hands and backslapping each other, it was clear that sooner or later this anger would explode.
Meeting the gilet jaunes in rural France
I saw quite a lot of the gilet jaunes in rural France during the period leading up to Christmas, 2018. Participants wore the yellow jackets which are required by law for every motorist and vehicle driver to wear in the event of a break down or road accident. Unlike the scenes of violent confrontations between riot police and gilet jaunes in the streets of Paris, the rural activities of the protesters were generally peaceful and in some respects more troubling for the regime.
These were local people, who had erected blockades at road junctions and traffic islands, on the whole letting people through. But it was obvious from their numbers and piles of wood they had stacked up that they could seal a road off within minutes. They were showing the world a new dimension in political protest. They were showing how a country can be brought to a standstill without violence and at the same time ensure that local businesses are not hit, and property not destroyed.
As for the much televised looting in some cities, look no further than Antifa and some unpleasant anarchists. The people I met were outside their own towns and villages and would not attack businesses and shops run by their neighbours and families. Motorists showed support by placing a yellow jacket folded up in the front window of their cars. Some of the cops did likewise. So you would see a road island occupied by protesters wearing their yellow jackets with a mountain of firewood and wood for barricades if needed, maybe a wooden hut to protect against the cold. Many local townspeople had taken the opportunity to dump unwanted furniture which added to the available wood. Sitting nearby would be a van with armed police, but a look at the front window might very well reveal that a yellow jacket was there to show solidarity with the protesters.
Our local market town
When I arrived at the outskirts of my local market town the road island was occupied with about 100 women of all ages. They saw my yellow jacket in the car window screen, I waved, shouting something unpleasant about President Macron, and the protesters responded with cheers and hand waves.
My local town has a mayor, a local chap, who started off as a plumber. He has worked on my house over the years and we know he would never send the riot cops against his own people. Likewise the protesters would not behave destructively towards the shops and businesses of friends and relatives. But if necessary at the right moment that town could be sealed off like many thousands of similar towns.
What do they want?
The protests were triggered off by tax increases including a tax on fuel in order to meet with some of the widely recognised ludicrous proposals to tackle climate change. But now, other than getting rid of Macron, the objectives are not clear, although the EU dream is not high on their wish list. Macron angered many on Armistice Day by insisting that his letter praising the EU was read out in churches, by the graves of WW2 soldiers.
I don’t know how it will end up. Maybe the coming winter weather will weaken them and it will fizzle out. But what they have shown is that the elites, corporations and the like can be brought to a standstill. They will tell you it is not political, which is true as politicians are not welcome. But the action, challenging the state, is very political. I would describe the mood as one of patriotism, not Gaullist nationalism, but with a strong sense of recovering their country.
It should not be compared to 1968, which provided a platform and career opportunities for a rising elite from the universities. The people I saw were factory workers, farm workers, men and women, old and young. In many ways I was reminded of my experience during the daily protests in Poland before the communist regime collapsed. At the time we did not know if Soviet tanks would crush the resistance as they did in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968.
Plans to celebrate the D Day anniversary are underway
Whatever the outcome of the protests and indeed the future of the EU, Brexit and all, the people of Normandy, have big plans to welcome wartime allies on the D.Day anniversary in 2019. This will be on a grand scale, and sadly one of the last opportunities to honour those who fought in the liberation of France in WW2. Signs that the British will be made welcome can be seen in the fact that hotels are already fully booked up for that week by British tourists.