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(What) are the Yellow Vests protesting?

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

‘What happened to the Yellow Vests movement?’ I’m having coffee with a friend and we both squint our eyes trying to dig up memories of news articles we’ve read to be able to answer this question. ‘I have NO idea.’, I admit, like with many big news items that slowly fizzle out when the hype is over. Let’s investigate.

How did it start?

‘I have two small words to say to mister Macron and his government. When are you going to stop the man-hunt on drivers who you have put in place ever since you have been here?’. These were the words spoken by French activist Jacline Mouraud on 27 October 2018.

Rewind 1.5 years to June 2017. Hours after Trump announced that the US would pull out of the Paris climate agreement, Macron’s office responded with a social media campaign with the slogan ‘Make our planet great again.’ The underlying ambition was for France to be the frontrunner in climate change research and technology. The campaign even included a website via which US climate researchers could apply to conduct their research in France. Another significant step towards this ambition was to instate an eco-tax on fuel* which, combined with the 23% rise in oil prices due to a limitation of oil production by OPEC**, would be felt heavily throughout the country. This was especially true for people with low- or middle incomes because fuel is a relatively large part of the everyday expenses and therefore would have disproportionately affected their purchasing power. Macron, who was already known as the ‘President of the rich’ due to his policy to loosen labour rules and to lower wealth taxes, was now condemned by a growing group of French citizens.

Going back to Jacline, who felt the effects that were just described. She expressed her frustrations with the eco-tax and Macron’s government in a video she posted on Facebook which soon went viral. This was the start of the Yellow Vest movement.

The Yellow Vests demonstration – referencing the fluorescent vests motorists are obliged by French law to have in their vehicles in case of an accident - started on November 17th, 2018. 290.000 people took to the streets blocking many roads and highways to force Macron to cancel the eco-tax. Protests continued and soon turned violent, with 100.000 people protesting all over France a week later but the government announces it wouldn’t back down. The movement has no central organization but managed to release a list of demands - far more extensive than the cancellation of the eco-tax - ranging from a minimum wage increase to France to leave the EU and NATO (see below - translated to English).
Source:, 2019

After calling for a three-month consultation, soon followed by a six-month suspension of the tax, Macron announced that the tax will be cancelled completely on December 5th. Protests continued and, after Paris went on lockdown, Macron introduced several new financial measures including a minimum wage increase. In the meantime, the symbolism of the yellow vests had caught on in many other countries, and demonstrators popped up all over the world (see map below).

Where are they now?

After some research, I realise there is a lot to find about the first months of the movement and the initial political response. However, constructing a coherent storyline after December 2018 of the events, participants, and more importantly, the vision behind the movement turns out to be a bit harder. Why do so many people across the world feel drawn to the movement and what’s below the social unrest? The incoherency of the movement might cause us to quickly disregard it altogether. However, I can’t help but draw a parallel to how Brexiteers were often disregarded before the outcome of the referendum or when Clinton referred to Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’. It can be overwhelming to deal with such a large amount of topics brought up by protesters and to cope with the many tensions, emotions and moral clashes that come with it but should we therefore not acknowledge it at all?

Just last month, a group of Yellow Vest demonstrators clashed with the police on Paris' Champs-Elysees. However, since November 2018, the number of protesters has decreased significantly in France. The below graph shows the number of protesters in France over time (blue line). The exact number of protesters worldwide is unknown.

Source: Le Parisien, 2019 - The blue and red lines show the number of protesters in France and Paris according to the French Ministry, the yellow line shows the number of protesters according to the Yellow Vest movement.

When reading the demands of the Yellow Vest protesters worldwide on a scattered landscape of websites and social media-pages it becomes clear that even though a broad range of topics is mentioned, the main clusters are the following:

  1. Inequality Lowering taxes, social security & pensions increase, lowering health costs

  2. (Governing) elite Accountability politicians, bankers, media, multinationals & corruption

  3. Sovereignty/globalization Leaving the EU & NATO, binding referendum, immigration

What have I learned?

These demonstrations beg the question: How can you be heard in the current system aside from voting for a new government every 5 years. This kind of feels to me like if you were to ask me where I would like to live – my reply: somewhere in the Netherlands, preferably Amsterdam, definitely in a city – and you would then move me to Almaty (Kazakhstan) because it has a similar size and temperature and it also starts with an ‘A’. A representative democracy has many benefits, including the possibility to design policies based on expert opinion instead of popular vote. However, if we become too technocratic and forget that there is no single optimum for governmental policy but rather a large number of preferences, opinions, and interests in society; we lose our connection to our fellow-citizens, and one way or another, people will make themselves heard.

So what happened to the Yellow Vest movement? The number of protesters has gone down significantly but the online presence is large. The movement seems to be everywhere but nowhere, in many countries with little organization. It’s a group of people with a variety of opinions, that have one clear commonality: They want to be heard.

Author: Lotte Cloostermans

* 6.5 cents per litre on Diesel and 2.9 cents on petrol

**. Organization Of The Petroleum Exporting Countries


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