I was on the metro and I heard a statement over the speaker:
“Message de la police: Pour votre sécurité…”
“For your security?” Something about that phrase always makes me cautious. I don’t trust monotonic commands over a loudspeaker, especially from the police. I left the metro station curious to see the commotion. At street level, I saw a more concentrated police presence than I had ever seen before in my life; there were at least fifty officers in my sight. Was it a terrorist attack? It must be, what else could necessitate such a huge show of force by the police? Whatever it was, I knew I had to see it. As I passed all the top luxury stores, I noticed something strange: The police were escorting people in Mercedes and Bentleys past the barricaded street I was on, yet blocking people in yellow vests from coming into the luxury boulevards. I began to ask myself, ‘Who or what are the police really protecting?’
Following the mass of yellow vests, I moved to the Champs-Élysées, where I saw a clash between protestors and police who were using riot control weapons such as fire hoses, rubber bullets, and tear gas. The ‘gilets jaunes’ — yellow jackets in English — take their name as a symbol against the French political elites by alluding to a 2008 law that mandated all cars to have high-visibility vests inside in case of emergency. Certainly, one fuel tax is not the only cause of this popular rage. How did this happen?
Over the past 30 years, the French government has been servicing large corporations and capital by privatizing formerly public industries. Rather than collecting taxes from corporations, the government has cut costs by closing public services that made life affordable for the middle class of previous generations. Subsequently, there has been an increase of in-country immigration; small rural towns — and even major cities like Toulouse — are losing populations to major economic centers like Marseille, Lyon, Paris — even London. Simultaneously, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies has shown that the living standards of the bottom 70 percent of earners have virtually frozen since the 1990s, and class mobility has unprecedently decreased for the first time since World War II.
This fuel tax was the last straw. Having a car and being able to fuel it is equivalent to a lifeline for most rural people and urban poor who have been relegated from the city centers due to unaffordable housing and gentrification. So, when French president Emmanuel Macron announced that older vehicles, which tend to be those that workers can afford, will be taxed at a higher rate in order to encourage people to buy newer, more ecologically friendly vehicles, it was perceived as a direct assault on the livelihoods of millions across the country.
It is undeniable that French workers know when they are being exploited. This is more than can be said about the thousands of housebroken government workers who continued to perform unpaid labor during the longest government shutdown in United States history. U.S. workers could learn something from our sister republic across the Atlantic, as the Yellow Jackets have been protesting for the past 13 weeks with no end in sight.
The Yellow Jacket movement is proof that it is becoming increasingly evident that the erosion of the Keynesian welfare state in France and other Western liberal democracies is reducing the working class to an extremely precarious existence, a condition in which the hidden elements of class conflict are coming into view.