Perspectives on the "Yellow Vest" Movement

by Tianxing Cao and Davit Gasparyan

On December 5, IES was honored to welcome international business lawyer and activist Jean-Claude Beaujour (Vice-Chair of France-Amériques) for a timely lecture titled “Can the French President Emmanuel Macron Reform the Country After the Yellow Vest Protests?” Beaujour's presentation clarified not only the purpose of the Yellow Vest movement in France, which has gained recognition worldwide, but also the reasons behind why the government has been unsuccessful in addressing and mitigating it.

 The brightly colored yellow safety vest, which French law requires all motorists to keep in their vehicles and wear during emergencies, was chosen by protesters as a symbol of visibility. It is also the vest worn by construction workers and thus, quite different from the clothes worn by white-collar workers. Finally, the color yellow represents anger. All these ideas are manifested in the movement itself, which Beaujour described as a general demand to hold the government accountable for the pacte républicain, or the belief in equality of opportunity for everyone in France. Originating as a protest against the rise of gasoline taxes, the movement has coalesced into a call for better public services, higher wages and retirement pensions, and solidarity among students, farmers, and working-class people. 

Beaujour then discussed the French government’s failure to successfully address the movement, especially citing the lack of direct contact between politicians and members of the movement. While Macron may have been successful with international policy, Beaujour argued, his domestic policy in France has largely failed as a result of fading optimism in his ability to address social issues more effectively and reestablish a closer link with the population. In order to succeed in managing the Yellow Vest movement, Macron will need to reestablish a vision of inclusion and to shift decision-making away from a small group of elites. With the challenge of reelection around the corner, Beaujour stated that Macron would need to understand the importance of involving everyone in the political process and to distance his government from its elitist image in order to regain popular support. 

During the Q&A, Beaujour elaborated on France’s situation in the broader context of Europe and the world, acknowledging the deep rooted tradition of revolution within French society. The gilets jaunes protests, he pointed out, can be seen as the expression of a sentiment present in many countries in which the middle class is demanding government recognition of mounting grievances such as the rising cost of living.