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Despite a brief lull over the holidays, the anti-neoliberal and anti-tax yellow vest protests continued in France for a 12th consecutive Saturday. We speak to Cole Stangler in Paris, shortly after the 10th week of protests

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

According to government estimates, 84,000 so-called Yellow Vest protesters took to the streets across France on the tenth consecutive Saturday of protests. Yellow Vest protesters themselves say the number is an underestimate. These protests, with at times violent clashes with the police, have been roiling France for well over two months now. The protests are named after the yellow emergency vest that protesters wear, and that all private cars are in France are required to carry for an emergency. They began, apparently, spontaneously in reaction to a gasoline tax that President Macron imposed last November, but have morphed into a far broader expression of discontent against the economic situation of working class and lower middle class families in France.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now from Paris, France to analyze the latest developments with the Yellow Vest protests is Cole Stangler. He’s a freelance journalist covering French labor and politics. Thanks for joining us again, Cole.

COLE STANGLER: Thanks so much for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So the Yellow Vest protests in France have been going on for 10 consecutive consecutive weeks now, every Saturday, as I said. And according to opinion polls the vast majority of the population in France seems to support the movement, even if they aren’t participating. What is the latest status of this movement, and will it fizzle out, will it continue, or will it evolve?

COLE STANGLER: What’s really interesting is the movement appeared to be on the decline for a number of weeks. Really never has reached its peak, over 200,000 protesters that first Saturday, November 17. The movement has been on the decline since then in terms of turnout. It seemed to really be fizzling out around the holidays. People were out of it, were on vacation, and not coming out to protest. And then what we’ve seen, very interestingly, since the new year, is actually an uptick in the participation again, to 50,000 a couple of weekends ago, then 84,000. Then this past weekend another 84,000 people coming out into the streets. And there were again calls for an Act 11. Hard to believe that we’re on the 11th straight weekend of protests, but that’s where things are at. The movement is actually continuing. And as you pointed out, what’s also another important element here is it continues to benefit from broad public support. You know, the support’s still there. It might not be as high as it was in the very beginning, but polls are still showing about 60 percent public support.

The interesting question now is what are these protests about? You know, we’ve seen the government already give that concession of fuel tax increase. They canceled that fuel tax increase for 2019. They then went ahead and had a number of other concessions, three big concessions, including an increase of the state wage subsidy for low income workers. They’ve got all that. And the protests are continuing. So you know, it’s been interesting to see what’s the next phase of this.

GREG WILPERT: President Macron has tried to defuse the movement, it seems, by organizing town hall events in smaller cities, where he says he wants to listen to people’s complaints about the government. Has the strategy worked? I mean, what has been–what has been the result of this?

COLE STANGLER: Well, you know, Macron has kicked off this initiative, what they have been billing as a great national debate. And so it’s going to be involving mayors, and the local level of France, the way the government works, there’s lots of mayors representing lots of small towns, so they tend to be pretty close to the communities. The idea is discussions with mayors in these kind of town hall settings. They kicked it off in Normandy last week. You also have a phase that’s supposedly going to be rolled out online, where people will actually put their input in. And there really is four key areas of focus, the way the government has outlined it. There’s taxes and public spending, public services, environmental transition, and democracy and citizenship. These are the four big things they want to have this debate around.

The other, the key part about this debate, is you can say you’re having discussions, you can say you’re listening to the population, but what does it mean if there aren’t real accountability mechanisms built into the process? And that’s kind of been the main critique here. You know, there’s no guarantee that at the end of the day, after a few months of these talks, there’s no mechanism to ensure the government is going to be automatically, say, putting forth legislation that’s reflecting what they’re hearing.

And so one of the big–one of the big demands of protesters, and they’ve been very diffuse, one of the kind of central demands, if there is one central demand at this point, has been this question of a citizens referendum initiative. This is an idea that that has been inspired by other experiences in Europe and around the world. Switzerland has a referendum initiative in their country. And the idea of this referendum would be would allow citizens to revoke legislators they don’t like. It would allow them to propose legislation on their own, would allow them to make amendments to the Constitution. And this is one of the closest things we have at this point to a real kind of coherent, universally shared demand of the movement. And what will be interesting to see as if the government’s going to include this referendum initiative as part of their town hall–part of this grand debate. And you know, for pretty obvious reasons, it might not want to be–that might not be something they want to do.

GREG WILPERT: Interesting. Another strategy of the government, though, has been to prevent people from gathering in central traffic roundabouts, which has been a key gathering area for the Yellow Vest protests across the country. It’s kind of reminiscent, it seems to me, to the public parks where the Occupy movement in the United States was gathering, and then was expelled from. How important have been these gathering places, and is their dismantling having an effect on the movement?

COLE STANGLER: Well, those gathering points are huge for the movement. This is what gave the Yellow Vest movement this initial visibility. And what’s so interesting about the movement, among other things, is the fact that precisely these gatherings were taking place in not traditional protest places. These aren’t taking place in–these aren’t taking place in the center of Paris every week, you know, every day. They’re taking place in traffic roundabouts in rural France, and in the North, in the South. You know, parts of the country that aren’t accustomed to having protests. And so these points were such an important point of visibility for the movement. Especially, you know, in these communities where they’ve gotten their support from. And you go to these roundabouts and meet people to discuss politics.

And I think one of the most interesting points of the movement, which again I think harkens back to Occupy, was the sense that people were coming to these roundabouts to discuss politics and so feel a little less lonely. I know that sounds kind of trite, but I think it’s important. Politics is about feeling like, you know, wanting to have some control over your life. And this was really an important part of the movement, was coming to the roundabouts and discussing politics, sharing grievances, and venting these common frustrations.

So what we’ve seen, actually, is, you know, as I pointed out at the beginning here, is the protest figures have actually continued to go up now, since an initial decline. So it’s clear, I think, just based on that alone, that the movement is not dead. It’s in fact very much still alive.

GREG WILPERT: So how are other opposition parties in France reacting to these protests? Are they receiving any support from any of the sides, either the left or the right?

COLE STANGLER: Well you know, I think the most significant support we’ve seen from the beginning came from both the far right–again, just verbal support. And I think that they printed some materials that supported the protest at the very beginning. The far right National Front, which has now rebranded itself as the National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen. You had parts of the far right–another more fringe party led by Nicolas Dupont Aignon, a smaller party, excuse me, the National Rally also supporting. Also on the left side, the other side of the spectrum. And I think actually more overtly, more directly, France Insoumise. Translated in different ways, but you know, one of the translations is Rebellious France. It’s being led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, who is a deputy from representing Marseilles in the south of France.

France Insoumise has been very supportive of the movement, and the France Insoumise group in Parliament actually put forth a proposal in Parliament that would create this citizens referendum initiative that’s been so supported by the protest movement. I don’t suspect that that will go anywhere, actually, in Parliament for the time being. But it’s certainly reflective of an effort of Melenchon’s party to show that they support the protests. And Melenchon himself, as well, has been pretty vocally supportive of a number of high profile Yellow Vest protesters. One in particular, a man named Eric Drouet, who was taken into police custody. Melenchon has really tried to show solidarity with him.

So you do have this, this kind of vocal support. At the same time, a lot of the Yellow Vest protesters do not like traditional political parties. I think we shouldn’t, you know, try to romanticize them, either. It’s very messy and sometimes it’s not so clear. There’s a real kind of hostility towards towards traditional political parties, and hostility in a number of different parts of the country to the labor unions. At the same time, labor is also trying to support it in a number of locations. So a very messy movement.

GREG WILPERT: And so all in all, what would you say has the movement accomplished, and where does it go from here?

COLE STANGLER: Well, I think it’s clear, just in a really direct sense, that the movement has already gotten the government to cancel this fuel tax increase. They’ve also gotten those three other concessions. So the biggest one being an expansion of that wage subsidy for low income workers. They’ve also gotten the government to detax overtime pay, which is controversial in its own right. And then another, the big–there’s three big measures announced by Macron that would cancel a tax increase that was hitting retirees, so with a tax on pensions.

So they’ve accomplished all that. And you know, it’s worth pointing out, again, not to romanticize or to take sides here, but it is a fact that in just a couple of months of protests the Yellow Vest movement has accomplished more than the French labor movement has been trying to do for years now, which is to actually get the government to back off an unpopular proposal. And in addition to that, in addition to cancelling the fuel tax increase, actually got the government to put forth a number of other measures. Now, you could say don’t go far enough, but it put pressure in a way that we just haven’t seen from the traditional left and from traditional labour movement. I think that’s why that, you know, the attitudes are changing from from the left and labour in France to really try to to better position themselves with this movement. To try to show solidarity, to try to benefit from the wave of support.

As things move forward here we have another wave of protest. In addition to more Yellow Vest protests on Saturday, Act 11, there’s a protest been called by supporters of the government to stop the violence. Kind of echoes of 1968 there, if you think back to the May ’68 protests in France where you had supporters of de Gaulle coming out to show their support for law and order. You have that. And another important date to look forward to, again in addition to these seemingly weekly protests that we’ve been seeing, is the beginning of February, the second biggest labor confederation in France, the CGT, has called for a day of strike and protest. So it will be very interesting to see if the Yellow Vests and labor movement can actually take sides together and join forces. We haven’t really seen it in a substantial way to this date. And I think if that does happen, a lot of speculation–you know, we could see things take an even more impressive direction in terms of in terms of the power and influence of this movement.

GREG WILPERT: Well, we’ll definitely keep an eye on that. But we’ll have to leave it there for now. I’m speaking to Cole Stangler, a freelance journalist covering French labor and politics from Paris, France. Thanks again, Cole, for having joined us today.


GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.