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Who are France's 'Yellow Jacket' protesters and what do they want?

"The forgotten middle class" has taken to the country's streets. "They feel like the political elite is forgetting about them," one expert said.
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President Emmanuel Macron is once again finding that the French do not respond well to reform.

Thousands of demonstrators known as "Yellow Jackets" due to their fluorescent garb descended into the streets across France over the weekend to protest planned tax hikes on gas.

In Paris, the rallies turned violent Saturday with blazes set on the world-famous Champs-Élysées avenue while masked protesters waved the French flag. Police responded to skirmishes with water cannons and tear gas. More than 100 people were arrested.

Image: A protester during clashes on the Champs-Elysees in Paris
A protester during clashes on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Saturday.Benoit Tessier / Reuters

The demonstrations started earlier this month and have morphed into a wider rebuke of Macron’s presidency and his attempts at economic reform.

Macron condemned attacks on police officers in a sharply worded tweet, saying there is "no place for this" in France.

What’s happening?

The “Yellow Jacket” activists — named after the neon vests French drivers are obliged to carry in their vehicles in the case of roadside emergencies — want Macron to call off the tax increases.

Motorists have blocked highways across the country since Nov. 17, setting up barricades and deploying conveys of slow-moving trucks.

Around 280,000 protested in the streets across the country that day, with 106,000 people attending rallies on Saturday, according to French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

Image: Protesters wearing fluorescent yellow vests during clashes in Paris
Protesters wearing fluorescent yellow vests face a water cannon fired by police during clashes on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday.Benoit Tessier / Reuters

On Jan. 1, the tax on gasoline will go up by around 12 cents per gallon and on diesel by approximately 28 cents per gallon, according to Transport Minister Elisabeth Borne.

Gas taxes will go up by another 5 cents per gallon by 2020, with diesel jumping an additional 2 cents.

On Monday, gasoline cost around $6.26 per gallon in Paris, while diesel was around $6.28 a gallon.

Macron has so far refused to reconsider the hikes, which he says will help reduce France’s dependence on fossil fuels. By raising the cost of diesel, the French government hopes to convince more people to buy less-polluting vehicles.

Why are people so angry?

While the protests were sparked by the looming increase in fuel prices, experts say they have become an outlet for people to express their discontent with the high cost of living in France and with Macron’s presidency more generally.

A poll published on Friday found that only 26 percent of French people have a favorable opinion of Macron.

"They're fed up with the rising prices and the cost of living."

The findings by pollster BVA mean Macron is less popular than his predecessors Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy at the same stage of their presidencies.

Who is protesting?

“The white middle class, the forgotten middle class in France,” said Famke Krumbmüller, an expert in French politics at OpenCitiz political consultancy firm in Paris.

Krumbmüller said the people protesting were those who pay the high French taxes and social charges — which cover benefits such as the state pension and unemployment insurance — but feel they get little in return because they are not the poorest in society.

“They’re fed up with the rising prices and the cost of living,” she explained. “They feel like the political elite is forgetting about them.”

Image: A demonstrator waves the French flag on the Champs-Elysees
A demonstrator waves the French flag on the Champs-Elysees on Saturday.Michel Euler / AP

In France, an individual earning between $30,675 and $82,237 is taxed at 30 percent. In the U.S., an individual earning $30,675 would pay 12 percent in federal tax while someone earning $82,237 would pay 22 percent.

Joseph Downing, an expert in French politics at the London School of Economics, agreed that the protests were about "much more" than taxes on gas.

“It’s this entire idea of the squeezed middle or the squeezed upper working-class person who feels an entitlement to an ever-increasing standard of living but is something that no politician can deliver,” he said. “This is where we’ve seen disenfranchisement with Sarkozy, with Hollande and now with Macron.”

Are France's powerful unions involved?

The “Yellow Jacket” movement has been organized for the most part over social media with Facebook groups and trending hashtags resulting in supporters descending into the streets.

Downing said this self-organized approach was a relatively new phenomenon in France which has historically relied on unions to organize dissent.

“I think there is a lot of disillusionment with the unions as well,” he said.

Image: Broken barriers litter the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe
Broken barriers litter the Champs-Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe after protests turned violent.Francois Guillot / AFP - Getty Images

Krumbmüller said the fact that this protest was not organized by unions suggests it represents a “broader population” of people.

Almost eight in ten people in France support the “Yellow Jacket” protests, according to a poll published on Friday by the Figaro newspaper and public radio broadcaster Franceinfo.

Is the far-right involved?

Castaner, the newly appointed French interior minister, said that far-right protesters joined Saturday's rally in the Champs-Élysées after Marine Le Pen encouraged them to attend.

Le Pen — who is the leader of the far-right National Rally party, which was formerly known as the National Front — has expressed her support for the “Yellow Jacket” protests but condemned any violence.

Authorities have not suggested that the protests are dominated by supporters of the far-right.

An Ifop poll published earlier this month suggested that National Rally had nudged ahead of Macron’s En Marche party when measuring voter intention ahead of the European Parliament elections next May.

What's likely to happen next?

This is not the first time Macron’s attempts to bring change to France have sparked protests.

Macron’s revamp to labor laws — which has made it easier for companies to hire and fire their staff — resulted in thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets in Paris in May.

Around the same time, France’s rail workers went on strike in response to Macron’s plans to reform the state-owned SNCF rail company.

Krumbmüller said Macron plans to tackle pension reform next year — a political hot potato which she says is bound to provoke strong opposition.

She noted that protesting was a part of France's political culture and could only be expected in response to Macron's agenda.

“That is the challenge when reforming France. Whenever the reform is a little bit ambitious you’ll have the entire streets against you," Krumbmüller added.

“I always say, 'you say reform and they say strike,'” Krumbmüller joked.

Saphora Smith reported from London, and Nancy Ing from Paris.