By Greg Howard
Last weekend was the third in a row of anti-government protests in France, as clashes in Paris between as many as 8,000 protesters and 5,000 police officers wielding tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons resulted in one death, at least 133 injuries and over 400 arrests.
- The protests began on November 17 in response to tax hikes on fuel to reduce emissions
- Since then, three people have died in traffic accidents as protests blocked roads
- In recent polls, between 70 and 80 per cent of French citizens supported the protests
The city’s famed Champs-Elysees was overrun with violence, as many protesters — mostly young men, some in hoods and masks — looted storefronts and burned cars and debris.
Perhaps the best expression of the anger and frustration in the country could be seen at the Arc de Triomphe, which was defaced with graffiti reading messages including “Macron resign”, “Overthrow the bourgeoisie!” and “Yellow Vests will triumph”.
While the demonstrations outside the capital were largely peaceful, some are calling the protests the worst in over a decade and even anticipate the unrest leading to civil war.
Here’s everything you need to know about the situation.
How did the protests start?
French citizens took to the streets on November 17 (local time) to protest sharp fuel hikes on petrol and diesel levied to reduce emissions and push people toward more environmentally friendly vehicles.
The tax, which was approved in 2017, raised the price of petrol by 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents per litre on petrol.
These taxes, combined with an October oil price surge, hit citizens’ pockets hard.
A further hike is slated to hit on January 1, 2019, for a further 6.5 cents per litre on diesel and 2.9 cents per litre on petrol.
The protests were largely organised on social media, where they exploded in popularity without clear leadership.
A petition that began circulating online in May to lower fuel prices generated over 300,000 signatures by mid-October.
And when truckers created a Facebook event in October to block roads to Paris on November 17, nearly 200,000 people replied they were interested.
Protesters blocked roads and highways, fuel depots, shopping centres, and some factories as an estimated 300,000 people nationwide took part in the first demonstration.
One protester was accidentally killed by a motorist on the day and 47 others were injured.
What are the protesters angry about?
Many citizens believe the fuel taxes, meant to help slow climate change, put an undue strain on the people.
Those who do not live in cities are reliant on cars to get around and say the new policies, set by the political elite, unfairly target and harm those outside of the country’s urban conclaves.
City residents are concerned about rising taxes and costs forcing them to the suburbs, where they’ll face the same problem.
“We are talking about cost of living and [French President Emmanuel] Macron is talking ecology,” protester Joffre Denis told American publication Bloomberg.
The protests were originally about fuel prices but have grown and expanded to include other grievances and demands in response to declining living standards and higher cost of living in France.
Famke Krumbmuller, a political consultant based in Paris, explained who was angry in an interview with American broadcaster NBC News.
“The white middle class, the forgotten middle class in France,” he said.
Many in the country believe they have to pay high taxes but get little in return in the way of social benefits that are largely designed to aid the poor, and that they are being left behind by Mr Macron’s policies.
In his 18 months in office, the centrist Mr Macron has been a target of ire from France’s left and right, and his popularity was just 20 per cent nationwide before the protests even began in November.
The President was pegged as “President for the rich” by detractors after slashing the country’s wealth tax last year.
Raising taxes on lower classes makes Mr Macron seem out of touch with much of France.
“Macron has a problem on his hands. Everyone’s fed up. He’s got to listen more,” protester Amaya Fuster said.
What’s with those yellow vests anyway?
The yellow vests are the symbol of the current movement.
Motorists in France have been required since 2008 to keep the reflective, high-visibility vests — “les gilets jaunes” in French — in their vehicles.
Facebook: Who are the yellow vests?
The protests are referred to by many as the Yellow Vest movement, and most of the demonstrators throughout the country donned the vests before taking to the streets.
This includes those who defaced the world-renowned monuments.
“I’ve worked on monuments around Paris for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this at the Arc de Triomphe. It was carnage,” a Paris City Hall official said while overseeing the Arc de Triomphe’s clean-up.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he was “shocked by the violence of such a symbol of France”.
French authorities are claiming extremists on the right and left and suburban “thugs” have infiltrated and hijacked protests with violence or egged on peaceful demonstrators.
But recent polls show around between 70 and 80 per cent of French citizens support the protests.
What happens now?
Three people have been killed in relation to the protests since November 17.
Mr Macron, who was in Argentina on Saturday for the G20 Summit, addressed the protests at a press conference in Buenos Aires
“I will never accept violence,” he said.
“No cause justifies that authorities are attacked, that businesses are plundered, that passers-by or journalists are threatened or that the Arc de Triomphe is defiled.”
He then returned to Paris to view the Arc de Triomphe and hold emergency meetings with French ministers.
And while French authorities are considering declaring a state of emergency, Mr Macron so far hasn’t budged on lowering the taxes before January 1.
“What I’ve taken from these last few days is that we shouldn’t change course because it is the right one and necessary,” he said.
Still, the President allowed he would try to introduce action to adjust tax hikes when oil prices spiked, to ease the strain on French pockets.
It was a rare concession from Mr Macron, who isn’t up for election until 2022.
France’s interior ministry said about 136,000 people participated in the protest nationwide last weekend, suggesting the demonstrations themselves may be dying down.
“The ‘gilets jaunes’ movement will probably peter out, but not the anger, which is likely to go on and take new forms maybe more dangerous for Macron,” Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University in the UK, told Bloomberg.
“It’s hard to see how he can complete controversial reforms like pensions and unemployment insurance without yet more blood on the pavement.”