Date
January 14, 2019

Yellow Vest demonstrations, despite an overall reduction in participation, are likely to cause significant disruptions in France and Belgium through at least the end of January. Related sporadic protests will continue well into 2019, with particularly unpopular government announcements possibly triggering a resurgence. The Yellow Vest movement began in France as a popular protest organized largely via social media in opposition to fuel price increases. Government action to address activists' initial concerns came too late and allowed the campaign to evolve into an anti-government protest movement supported by diverse civil society organizations for their own causes. The movement eventually won government concessions, motivating attempts to emulate it in other countries. These copycat protests prompted intermittent, low-level disruptions in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, but participation failed to reach the heights it did in France. Attendance at demonstrations has declined significantly in France since their peak prior to the government's announcement of concessions; although it is unclear if the Yellow Vest movement will continue to shrink or experience a resurgence in the coming months, those still participating are more likely to engage in disruptive and violent behavior.

 

Key Judgments

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A Yellow Vest protester at an early January protest in Paris, France. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock
  • Attendance at Yellow Vest demonstrations in France has declined from its peak, though continuing attendees are those most likely to engage in disruptive and violent behavior.
  • Significant protest action is likely to continue in France and, to a lesser extent, Belgium, through at least the end of January.
  • Attempts to generate similar protests outside France and Belgium have typically seen fewer than 100 protesters, though they retain the potential to cause isolated disruptions.

 

Initial Yellow Vest Protests

The Yellow Vest movement began as an extremely popular protest movement against rising fuel prices. Residents of rural France and the Wallonia region of Belgium are heavily reliant on private vehicles due to poor public transportation options. This reliance caused the dramatic fuel price increase in October 2017 to have an outsize impact on residents of these areas, adding to existing complaints of economic hardship.

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The turning point came when the French government pressed ahead with an eco-based increase in fuel taxes as part of its 2019 budget. Activists organized demonstrations against high fuel prices in France and southern Belgium, primarily using social media to connect supporters spread throughout the countryside. An estimated 290,000 people participated in related protests Nov. 17 and through the following week. Large-scale demonstrations took place in cities, and protest roadblocks targeted highways, ports, and border crossings Nov. 24. The first major gatherings resulted in clashes between protesters and security forces in multiple locations, most notably in Paris, where riots occurred along the Champs-élysées. To unite the demonstrators in various locations, protesters wore high-visibility jackets; this symbol was chosen as all drivers in France are required to have one in their vehicles, hence the movement became known as the "Yellow Vests," or Gilets Jaunes.

 

Evolution into an Anti-government Movement

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​ Editorial credit: Nicolas Economou / Shutterstock.com ​

In the face of government intransigence regarding the fuel price demands, the Yellow Vest protests evolved into a general anti-government movement and gained the support of established labor unions eager to seize on the group's popularity. These labor unions contributed to the large-scale and disruptive protests throughout France. Established civil society groups sought to use the Yellow Vest momentum for their own causes. The National Students' Union (UNL) blockaded schools nationwide to protest a new university application process and expressed solidarity with the Yellow Vests. The French General Confederation of Labor (CGT) exploited the popularity of the movement to call a nationwide general strike Dec. 14 to demand better pay and working conditions, also offering its explicit support for the Yellow Vest protesters.

 

By this time, an increasingly vocal minority of protesters was advocating violence to force the government to act on their demands; protests on Dec. 1, when widespread destruction and clashes with security forces took place around the Champs-élysées, had provided an opportunity to test their methods. Violent protests also took place in other cities, notably in Marseilles, where security forces fired a tear gas canister that accidentally struck and killed an 80-year-old woman in her home. The government's cancellation of the proposed fuel tax increase Dec. 5 evidently came too late, as the Yellow Vests' demands now focused on wider economic reform and Macron's resignation.

 

Yellow Vests International

Inspired by the success of the protest movement in France, populist organizations elsewhere co-opted the Yellow Vest symbol for their own causes. However, while they have created occasional disruptions, such groups have been unable to mobilize anywhere near the level of support the Yellow Vests attracted in France.

 

Activists in other countries, such as Ireland, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands have held their own "Yellow Vest" protests over a variety of issues, including to demand better social protections and wages, and to demonstrate solidarity with immigrants. At the same time, opposing activists have used the Yellow Vest symbol at anti-immigration protests in Germany and the Netherlands and at protests in London calling for a hard Brexit.

 

The lack of central organization to clearly delineate Yellow Vest interests allowed the movement to spread beyond France but also enabled more extreme political groups to co-opt the symbol, discouraging mainstream groups from supporting the movement. Furthermore, these other countries have so far lacked a spark like France's fuel price increases to unite a large section of their populations. Civil societies in France and Belgium also have a long history of using protests and direct action to engage with their governments, which is not necessarily the case in other countries.

 

Overall, while examples of Yellow Vest protesters outside France have generated media attention, the impact is generally overstated. Nevertheless, the few demonstrators that do attend "Yellow Vest" events are often able to cause isolated disruptions, particularly when they emulate original Yellow Vest methods such as roadblocks. Although the disruptive impact of Yellow Vest protests outside France is likely to be low, sporadic incidents will likely continue while the movement remains popular in France.

 

Decline in Attendance

In France, attendance at Yellow Vest demonstrations has fallen, though weekly protests on Saturdays remain disruptive and violent, particularly in Paris. The movement will likely persist into 2019 in some form. The lack of central organization to coordinate the movement's divergent demands has made it practically impossible for the government's concessions to appease all activists.

 

Nevertheless, protest participation has decreased significantly, dropping from 125,000 Dec. 8 to 66,000 Dec. 15. While this trend continued through the end of 2018, it does not necessarily indicate the end of the Yellow Vest movement. As the casual participants drop out, demonstrations are attended by more committed individuals who are more likely to engage in disruptive and violent behavior. Furthermore, participation at major demonstrations in the new year has been increasing, though remaining far lower than at the movement's peak; this could indicate that the decline was partially a temporary effect of the holiday period.

 

The French government appears to have hardened its stance toward continuing Yellow Vest actions following its Dec. 10 concessions. Lawmakers have proposed legislation that would more tightly regulate future protests, ban known agitators, and shut down unsanctioned protests; in addition, authorities deployed 80,000 officers to monitor the Jan. 12 demonstrations, and plan to assign more security forces to the weekly protests. While this new approach may successfully stifle the Yellow Vest movement, it will also likely antagonize the remaining core participants and result in further violence. The arrest and subsequent release of a prominent Yellow Vest figure prompted renewed calls for violence, with protesters reportedly attacking government buildings using a forklift truck Jan. 5.

 

Outlook

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Editorial credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

In France, Yellow Vest protests will continue to draw thousands through January, resulting in clashes with security forces and significant disruptions. However, it appears that the most severe unrest is over and attendance will continue to decline due to public weariness with disruptions and violence, fragmentation of activists, and the lack of a uniting aim. Established groups, such as trade union bodies, now appear unwilling to associate with the movement following the drawn-out violence. However, the Yellow Vest movement's success in obtaining compromises from the government means a resurgence of the movement is possible following any highly unpopular government announcements in the future. Smaller groups can be expected to use the Yellow Vest symbol in various anti-government movements in France and elsewhere in Western Europe well into 2019, causing sporadic incidents of disruption and violence. Demonstrations are often planned via social media, making them easily avoidable by a forewarned traveler.

 

Advice

  • Avoid all related gatherings. Even seemingly peaceful rallies can spur violent activity or be met with resistance by security personnel. Security forces' crowd-control measures, including water cannon, tear gas, or other measures, may harm bystanders.
  • If you know of an event ahead of time, plan pedestrian and vehicular routes that avoid the affected areas. Road closures and traffic delays are possible. Give yourself extra time to travel.
  • If violence erupts or appears imminent, leave the area as quickly as possible. If you cannot leave the area, seek shelter in large, public buildings such as churches, hospitals, and museums. Do not seek shelter in metro stations as tear gas can often collect in such areas. Wait until crowds dissipate before going back outside.
  • Strictly observe any security restrictions; do not attempt to cross protester roadblocks.
  • Maintain a low profile by avoiding demonstration areas and discussions of the issues at hand, and by dressing conservatively.

 

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