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France

How a Facebook rant led to a national protest movement in France

media Demonstrators wearing yellow vests, a symbol of a French drivers' protest against higher fuel prices, block access to the fuel depot in Fos-sur-Mer, France, November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

In mid-October, after a rise in petrol tax to help fund a greener France, Jacline Mouraud posted a rant on her facebook page venting her anger at what she called the government’s anti-car policies.

It went viral, supporters were encouraged to wear or display yellow high vis jackets - Gilets Jaunes, in French. They chose Saturday 17th November to be a day of action.

Mouraud is a 51-year-old accordion player and self-employed hypnotherapist living in Brittany.

It is perhaps because of this that the government and authorities at first failed to notice the movement, then hoped that its support on social media would not translate into too many roadblocks.

But the disruption was huge. More than a quarter of a million Gilets Jaunes turned out in the cold to block roads all around France, at 2,000 separate points.

74 percent of French people say they support them.

Who are the Gilets Jaunes?

The Gilets Jaunes is a grassroots movement, with no official connection to any political party, lobby group, trade union or other organization. However, nearly all the political parties in France, except President Emmanuel Macron’s LaREM, are now trying to jump on their bandwagon.

What unites the protestors is a shared feeling that they have been ignored for too long.

The Gilets Jaunes are drawn from France’s small towns or their suburbs, or rural France.

They need their cars to get to work, to take their children to school, to go shopping, to live.

And they are fed up of being lectured by metropolitan types about the evils of the car. They point out that with uneven public transport and big distances to cover, they have little choice.

Some bought diesel cars, encouraged to do so for ecological reasons by the previous government, before the new one changed tack. They cannot afford to replace their cars and are now forced to pay more for diesel fuel.

In several areas of France, roads are still blocked, as are some oil depots while the Gilets Jaunes plan another major protest on Saturday -- this time in Paris.

This is crucial because last Saturday, apart from those near the Palais d’Elysées, many Parisians went about their business as usual on scooters and bikes and metros, blithely unconcerned and even unaware of the Gilets Jaunes revolt outside their bubble.

Simmering revolt

For some, this revolt has been simmering for a long time. In 2014, French geographer Christophe Guilluy's book La France périphérique lifted the lid on life for the huge number of people in France who live in small provincial towns or their outskirts, or in the countryside.

He and others have since highlighted a growing Town mouse--Country mouse divide in France - a widening gulf between metropolitan types in France’s big cities and the rest.

The trigger for this movement was a frustration over anti-car measures. But already it has widened to a more general protest about taxes.

Far right politician Marine Le Pen said this weekend that the Gilets Jaunes are “too poor to be rich and too rich to be poor.”

As the movement is so new, there are no statistics available, but from social media posts it is clear that many have jobs and feel they work hard but are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet.

They feel the rich are often able to escape taxes and the very poor receive government help but that they are stuck in the middle and always end up footing the bill.

So what happens now?

The government is dealing with a new and unstructured uprising and it is worried.

Several commentators and political analysts in France are suggesting that this is just the beginning.

The Gilets Jaunes are furious about what they see as an unfair tax burden. Will they now turn their attention to how their taxes are spent?

Some suggest it is part of a wider identity crisis, and that the Gilets Jaunes share many of the concerns of Trump voters in the USA or Brexit voters. It is undoubtedly a populist movement.

Before the Saturday roadblocks, the government attempted to dissuade people from taking part by suggesting it was linked to the Rassemblement National, the former National Front party led by Marine Le Pen.

But that tactic failed.

Now the government will hope that rival leaders emerge and that the unstructured movement will descend into infighting, and that the 74 percent of French people who back the movement, will lose patience with it.

Many of the placards held by protestors specifically target President Macron.

The president has plummeted to around 25 per cent in approval ratings polls and has been criticised for being out of touch. His party won heavily in urban areas, but is visibly less comfortable with rural issues.

Macron himself won power in spectacular fashion after a career in the French finance ministry. 2017 was his first election and he won after a series of big rallies and walkabouts.

He has never had to knock on doors canvassing for votes.

And it shows.

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