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France

Government seeks to appease, but Yellow Vests remain elusive

media French police detain a Yellow Vest protester during demonstrations on the Champs-Elysées Avenue in Paris, 1 December 2018. AFP/Abdulmonam Eassa

France’s government announced Tuesday a slate of measures aimed at calming weeks of Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) protests, but it is difficult to gauge the effect they will have on a movement which has so far resisted attempts to identify leaders or representatives.

After a day of emergency talks with cabinet ministers and opposition politicians, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government would suspend a proposed fuel tax hike that has sparked weeks of sometimes violent protests.

But the Yellow Vests' concerns range from the cost of living to the perception that the government is not acting in their interest, raising the question of whether a six-month moratorium on the fuel tax will be enough.

Indeed, it remains difficult to see what could appease a protest movement that has until now resisted most attempts at providing channels for mediation.

It’s not that the Yellow Vests are disorganised, and the government is under pressure to do something before protesters follow through on their calls for a fourth consecutive Saturday of nationwide demonstrations.

‘They want the whole baguette’

The Yellow Vest movement itself has consistently undermined attempts to produce spokespersons, representatives or leaders to articulate the grievances and demands.

Some would-be spokespersons warned French media in advance that simply suspending the fuel tax would not be enough.

“French people do not want crumbs,” Benjamin Cauchy, an organiser with the movement in the Haute-Garonne region, told AFP Agency. “They want the whole baguette.”

But beneath those comments is another reality of the movement.

Cauchy and Jacline Mouraud, another would-be spokesperson whose viral video denouncing the treatment of motorists made her one of the faces of the movement, both said they had received threats from hard-line protesters warning them against talking with the government.

Ahead of Philippe’s announcements, the prime minister’s office said it would not meet with a delegation of these spokespersons for “security reasons” over such threats.

How official is an official website?

Another group of eight self-appointed spokespersons, most of whom have created Facebook groups or started online petitions associated with it, have also faced pressure to retain the movement’s informal structure.

Some among them have sought to address that concern.

Eric Drouet, a Yellow Vest organiser in the Paris region, has argued at length in Facebook videos that taking up the task of being a spokesperson did not imply a claim to represent the movement.

That hasn’t stopped the group of eight from announcing the launch of what they call an official website on Sunday, called “La France en Colère” (France Enraged).

The site lays out a list of conditions for meeting with the powers that be, including that they will only meet with the prime minister or government spokesperson, and that any meeting must be live-streamed on the web.

Demands are wide open

However, the nebulous nature of the movement makes it difficult to discern any concrete demands, and the group of spokespersons appears reluctant to set any precise limits.

The website, for instance, calls on the government to take the concrete step of scrapping the tax hike planned for January, as well as the less precise step of reviewing its tax policy.

Then it calls for the creation of a “citizens’ assembly” to “represent and defend the interests of the citizen” which politicians have been unable to do, due to “a total disconnection with reality”.

In the more informal realm of social media, there is no lack of imagination when it comes to other demands.

One ‘unofficial’ communiqué circulating among Facebook pages associated with the group of eight lays out sweeping changes to the French Constitution.

These include allowing citizens to call referenda in order to propose or scrap laws, remove cabinet ministers or elected officials from office, and to effect further constitutional reforms.

Acceding to those demands would essentially involve the current French Fifth Republic agreeing to dissolve itself and turn France into a direct democracy.

For now, France’s political class appears content to disagree over the effectiveness of suspending the fuel tax.

Immediate reactions of opposition politicians are saying the measures offer too little, too late.

But the real test for the government will come in the form of turnout to protests on Saturday.

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