Paris-based journalist Cole Stangler speaks to Ford Fischer about the Yellow Vest movement’s ideology, tactics, and progress.
This interview was originally conducted live with audience interactions, so some questions asked came from the News2share audience on Facebook. A transcript is provided below and may contain slight errors.
Cole Stangler: So my name is Cole Stangler. I’m a journalist, contributor to Jacobin, The Nation, The Atlantic, In These Times, and other outlets. I used to be a staff writer at In These Times Magazine based in D.C. covering Congress and national politics for them. Then I worked also at International Business Times in New York covering labor in the workplace for them and for the citizen of United States and France. I was born in Paris.
Ford Fischer: And so, what sort of brought you to France? What’s sort of the intersection I guess of the subjects you were following in the US and then here in France?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. I came to France as a journalist to freelance ahead of the 2017 Presidential Election and instinctively drawn to making parallels between the US and France. Sometimes they don’t always exist but I think in both cases, there is a fracturing of the kind of political establishment and a sense of uncertainty around the future both for good and bad. And interesting thing how French labor is also different from the American labor movement and obviously much more powerful in institutional level, but I mean constantly as a writer, drawn to making these kinds of parallels between the US and France.
Ford Fischer: Cool. And so, I love for you to kind of walk us through how do we get from I guess the election of Macron to the Yellow Vests Movement? Sort of what precipitate kind of where we are now?
Cole Stangler: Yes. So I think Emmanuel Macron was elected in spring 2017 and from the very beginning, this was a president, I think it’s one of the most important things to point out about Macron is this is someone who did not have significant support from the very beginning. If you look at his victory over Marine Le Pen, the candidate of what was then known as the National Front. It has since become the National Rally Party, rebranded itself the far right.
Macron won with a really significant margin in that second round of vote. The fact of the matter is that most people were voting for Macron because they wanted to deny the presidency to Marine Le Pen. So Macron wins this election with over 60% of the vote in the second round. He then went to pretty substantial legislative, majority in the national assembly, also on the heels of some of the lowest turnout we’ve seen in the history of the Fifth Republic in France.
Nevertheless, he has this big institutional mandate basically to implement his agenda. And I think from the very beginning, I think I was making the case but many, many other people making the case, I think it was fairly obvious to most observers here in France that there never really was a popular mandate for Macron’s agenda, which is a very pro-business agenda, a very kind of classically neoliberal agenda in the sense that it involves the state withdrawing from civic life and the economy at the expense of the private sector.
Macron talks about turning France into a startup nation and unleashing the economy’s potential. France is the sixth or seventh, sometimes fifth largest economy depending on how you measured it and what year. But anyways, it’s one of the world’s largest economies. And Macron wanted to really dynamize the French economy even further. So that was very his agenda.
And what we saw from his – up until November of 2018 when the Yellow Vests Movement takes off was Macron pretty much implementing his agenda, and that involved in his very first budget passing a massive tax cut for the super rich. And when I say for the super rich, it’s really applied to the super rich. France had a wealth tax applied to people that have €1.3 million in assets. That was passed by the Socialist Administration before in the ‘80s. Underneath it all, the right had repealed it before then.
In any case, it was tax and Macron’s very first budget, his very first act as president was to say, “We need to get rid of this wealth tax on the super rich.” He reduced it substantially. Now, it applies only to housing property, to real estate. So huge tax cut for the super rich, was I think a really critical part of his agenda.
Another important part of that first budget was the decrease in low income housing aid. We’ve seen a freeze in a lot of – a freeze in public spending. We’ve also seen other important pillar of Macron’s agenda, I think just getting to the Yellow Vests Movement was these labor reforms. So Macron basically, the short version without going into intricacies of French Collective Bargaining, basically making it easier for companies to lay off workers and making it easier for companies to negotiate more “flexible” agreements with unions, so giving basically business more power. And also, reducing the penalties that courts were providing to laid off workers.
So really, this full onslaught of Macron trying to implement his pro-business agenda, his approval ratings had been sliding slightly from the moment he took over office, so below 50%. And then in November 2018, getting to the Yellow Vests Movement, we saw the seemingly spontaneous outburst of protests and that was anchored in specifically this question of the fuel tax, the fuel tax increase but it’s obviously not just about that.
Ford Fischer: So tell me about actually the fuel taxes, kind of the origins of this because I’ve seen a lot of Americans latch on to that as the motivation but it seems like it’s really a small portion of what they’re kind of throwing into as a platform.
Cole Stangler: Yeah. I think this goes much, much deeper than the question of fuel tax. So just to put things into perspective, I think this is why it’s important to draw the difference between France and the US. So first off, in France, people make a lot less money than the US. France has a much better safety net. I think in a lot of ways, working class people have more protection and that’s a good thing. But people get just the brute levels of income. French people make less money. That’s an important point to draw.
The second point is that gas in France is far more expensive than it is in the US. The US has all kinds of tax subsidies for the oil and gas industry. In France, the policy response has been different. It has been different taxes on fuel.
And so, gas in France costs over that $6.50 a gallon which is a lot of money. And when you’re taking into account that people are making less money, they are spending a lot of money on fuel and especially people that live outside of major urban areas, I mean this is a major chunk of their income is going towards fuel, fuel to drive to work, fuel to live their lives.
So when the government announced in the fall that they were going to be increasing the fuel tax, in spite of these very high prices, in spite of actually an increase of 25% over the last year, this really enraged people. And so the fuel tax was this kind of trigger for a much deeper pent-up frustration with the government and a pent-up frustration about people’s living standards and ability to live meaningful, fruitful lives when you’re trying to make ends meet every month. That was a phrase that we heard very much at the beginning of the Yellow Vests Movement. The protesters talking about struggling at the end of each month trying to make ends meet. There was a phrase that, “The people that live at the end of the month.” That was a phrase that actually came up.
So the fuel tax increase triggered this call acted. There was a petition that started on Change.org, so largely online-based movement at the very beginning saying, “The government needs to cancel the fuel tax and it needs to cancel these other taxes.” Because the feeling is very much one of why is – why the super rich, people with €1.3 million in assets, why are they getting this massive tax cut while we’re being expected to now pay another 25 cents every time we go to fill up our gas which already costs – the equivalent of about $6.50 a gallon?
So it’s this feeling of tax – of injustice. And one of the phrases we heard is, why was this idea of physical injustice and a cause for physical injustice? Why are the rich getting this treatment? Why are we being treated this way?
And so, we saw this first call after the change that our petition that was circulated, the first call to block the country on November 18th. I’m forgetting if it’s the 17th or the 18th. It has been a while here.
In any case, November 2018, this first call to block the country organized largely online. There has been a lot of speculation about the involvement of parties, about organizations but I think it’s pretty clear that this originated from grassroots, people online. And when I say grassroots, I mean not affiliated to any parties or organizations, really regular people that were fed up and upset about this, this question of tax injustice.
And what we saw from the beginning of that movement and now we’re at Act 14 coming up this weekend – are we actually …
Ford Fischer: It will be Acte 15.
Cole Stangler: Excuse me. Yeah. Sorry. It’s hard to keep track. So every Saturday since that original one, November 2018, coming up on Act 15, what we’ve seen is the moving expand beyond this, this question of getting rid of the fuel tax hike because the government actually conceded on that demand which we can get to as well in December. But bigger demands about physical injustice, bigger demands about the rich paying their fair share, bigger demands to defend public services, and demands to have better representation and questions of giving more power to people through citizen referendum and things like that as well.
But I think it’s really important to emphasize here as well is that this is a real working class movement. I don’t want to romanticize it in any way but I think it’s a fact that few people will contest that in France today. This is a movement that has been led from the very beginning by working class people and by low and middle class people. There are surveys that cleared out. There had been two series of academic studies that been done about the movement so far led sociologists, political scientists, and geographers. And those have found that the people protesting are working class and low and middle class people concerned with questions of tax justice and living standards. So I think that’s what the movement is about.
Ford Fischer: Well, there’s this thing, can you talk about the literal aesthetic of that’s why – why are they with Yellow Vests?
Cole Stangler: So that’s actually – it’s a good question. I forgot to mention that. I mean this is something that – it’s a requirement in France that started several years ago where drivers have to have yellow vest in their car all the time that so if they pull over to the side of the road, if they have any problems, basically to clearly identify themselves. So drivers in France are supposed to have yellow vest in their cars.
And so that was why this was something that was seen as a kind of universal point in common between whoever is driving that car is pissed off that basically that they’re have to pay more money. So it’s a real – I think in essence, it’s a brilliant kind of symbol.
Ford Fischer: Right. And then what is kind of the actual tactic I guess of going out on a weekly basis? How are they hoping to turn like that kind of interchange?
Cole Stangler: Yes. So I think it has evolved as time has gone. I think at the very beginning, it’s important to point out we have not seen this size of protest really match that very first November 2018 protest, the first one, over 200,000 people were coming out across the country.
So by French standards, the numbers of protesters today is actually not that significant. I mean it’s important to point out. I think the most recent one was a little bit over 10,000 if I’m not mistaken across the country, which is not that significant. But in any case, it was bigger before. And what we’ve seen was people – the most emblematic I think sign of the – the most emblematic form of protest was going out to these traffic circles which are really just everywhere in France once you leave the city is basically where you have a bunch of different roads that are meeting and for whatever reason, I don’t know much about French urban planning but there are a lot of these traffic circles across the country and in rural areas. And this is where people responded to these calls online to just come out and protest against tax injustice and join this movement that they felt was representing their sense of being fed-up.
And what’s fascinating too is that these traffic circles are not in the kind of places that when you think about protest in France are the kind of typical places.
Paris, it has gotten a lot of attention because of the scale and the kind of spectacular images of the protest and the writing on the few occasions but most of the action is taking place outside of Paris. And I think that’s one of the most interesting parts of the movement is this is taking place in the “forgotten France” in rural areas and in what’s known in France as peri-urban areas, so that is kind of semi-urban areas outside of cities, outside of suburbs that are kind of somewhere in between rural areas and the suburbs. And that’s really where the Yellow Vests Movement has gotten its strength.
And I think – you’ve seen people flocking to these meetings and I think if you read some of their posts, what’s another fascinating element of this is, is the sense of community that people feel when they come. It’s a sense of coming out of retiring and talking politics, talking about how things are unfair, talking about what kind of society you want to live in.
I think that’s one of the – another really important point of the movement is a few weeks ago, I was out, I read about during these times but I was out at a neighborhood Yellow Vests meeting in Bellevue, so not far from where we’re talking right now and in my neighborhood. And it really made me think back to Occupy in 2011 of voyeurism, if you remember that and maybe you were on that as well. But it’s that sense of people talking about what kind of society they want to live in, really messy. Two will mix in, “We should go. Protest a bank. We should go. Keep protesting. And rich neighborhoods, we should light McDonalds on fire. But also, we want to live in a social society. No, we want to live in a society that just treats people better.”
So there’s really kind of free-flowing messy utopian kind of conversation. Again, I don’t want to romanticize that but that’s really the kind of feeling here, and I think that’s exhilarating for a lot of people. It’s the sense of being able to talk about politics and what kind of society you want to live in.
Ford Fischer: Can you talk about the different types of factions that are out there? So like my experience in Act XIII was that there was actually some strife when there’s black bloc plot, anti-Fatahites with kind of communist flags for a march type symbols. And then some of them I had dinner with the night before who was a much more moderate person. He kind of came up to me and was like, “They’re kind of messing it up actually.” His opinion seemed to be that he didn’t agree with their tactics and he wasn’t quite as – he didn’t want it to be quite as far on the call. So that seemed represented of a larger point about their kind of movement.
Cole Stangler: Yeah. No, I think it’s true. There are different factions in the movement I think. So referring back to one of the studies I mentioned by research center in Bordeaux I believe where they talked about – they asked the question to Yellow Vests, this is an academic research center, they asked the question, how do you identify on the political spectrum. Or the first question was, “Do you identify on the left or right spectrum? And then if so, how do you identify?”
And I think it showed that 33% or about 30 people don’t situate themselves anywhere on the left or right spectrum, which is actually a little bit above the national average. So that’s an important I think point to make is that people that are thinking politically but don’t really have a firm sense of political identify whether it’s left of right.
However, if you look at the people that do have – that do feel a connection in left or right spectrum, most of the people, at least according to this study and I think my experience in at least covering it and talking to folks who carry this out is that people tend to skid to the left in terms of protesters. The minute they are talking about I think in a different era, what they have been part of, the communist party or the socialist party that’s working class base that used to fact to the left, things like the tax injustice, the hike in taxes of the rich, increase the minimum wage defending public services.
There is a real kind of classic Lutheran-based even if it doesn’t go by the label left and people reject the left wing parties. The actual idea is I think very emblematic of kind of traditional left wing platform.
But it’s true as well that there is a more right wing, if you want to call it that, kind of part of the movement which is much more about this question of we hear sovereignty a lot in France coming, which I think shouldn’t immediately scare people off the word. I know it’s kind of –sends a little – it can be a little shrill on progressive’s ears in the US and to my ears as well to some extent but sovereignty, this ides of – which in France, refers back to the French Revolution, this idea that the people ultimately have power and that they should be the ones that make decisions.
And this is often contrasted with the government that’s sold out to the rich but also Brussels in the European Union. And you see some kind of frustrations that are being executed there, so against the European Union for defending France and popular vote as almost being the kind of incarnation of France going back to this kind of romantic that they’re Hugo Les Misérables idea, which is – really does exist in France today, the French Revolution being kind of universal idea.
But all that said, that is the mark of if you want to call it right wing or conservative sovereignty as part of the movement. They’re definitely there. We’ve actually seen some clashes between different factions. It was a few weeks ago I think at this point where left-wing parties were actually attacked by fascists, supporters of the Yellow Vests. You have monarchists that are involved, you have communists that are involved, trotskiests, you have anarchist. You mentioned black bloc, they are out there as well.
So it is a fascinating mix of people.
Ford Fischer: So an interesting phenomenon that I’ve seen is that of Americans who are interested in this, I’ve seen a lot of nugget targets. I’ve seen a lot of Trump-type people who are expressing support for the Yellow Vest. Can you kind of contrast it to American politics? Is there an analogy to be made there? Are they analogous to any part of the movement in the United States? I guess what should American be seeing in this?
Cole Stangler: No. I mean it’s a good question. I’m instinctively want to compare and I’m an internationalist and I don’t think borders really are the ultimate end all be all of people’s way of viewing politics. But at the same time, that all being said, the more I kind of watch this movement, the more I think it is a really kind of French phenomenon. I think it’s interesting if you look at like you mentioned, the Yellow Vests kind of sympathizes outside of France do tend to be pretty conservative. I don’t really have a great idea of why that is but it certainly seems to be the case if you like in the UK, the kind of Tommy Robinson’s supporting crowd is wearing yellow vest. In Belgium, it was much more kind of right wing.
So I don’t know if I have a great explanation for that. But I think in France at least, I lost my train of thought there a little bit about the – right. So I think one important point here is there’s a sense that I think if you view it in the American – with American lens and you say, “OK, people are upset about this fuel tax. This is a kind of conservative kind of – to be almost a conservative kind of rallying crowd, big government saying, “You’re going to have to spend more on fuel,” and the people are saying, “Screwed everyone that drive our cars basically.” And I think like that kind of framework I think isn’t really what’s happening. It wasn’t what’s happening.
I think what’s – and this is a line I told other people as well but I think when people are protesting against the fuel tax, they’re not saying for the government to get out of people’s lives. What they are saying is they want the government to treat people more fairly. People appreciate deeply in France and the Yellow Vests too the role of the state in the economy in providing a safety net, in providing public services. They deeply support that. What they care for is – what they want is to act more equitably, to act more justly. I think that’s what’s happening here.
And so, if you just see people protesting the state here in the US, you can kind of think of that in kind of a Libertarian or Conservative terms. But in France, people look to the state as a source of – it’s the arbiter of political action and political life. And so, you look to the state to solve problems. When things are not fair then you blame the state. And that’s not a question of people wanting to get rid of the state’s ruling in their lives. It’s the question of how is the state acting? I think that’s an important point here.
Ford Fischer: One of the – I had dinner after I heard with somebody who is involved in the Yellow Vests and his strife is with his employer, which is Amazon. Can you talk about particularly kind of multinational, the kind of gigantic corporations? And this also kind of parallels it to United States where we’re having some strike program. How do they kind of feel about the big corporations? Also, what is the price of gas in dollars if you could put just the price of gas and then what …
Cole Stangler: So I think that the Times did the math on this. This is a figure I’ve cited as well so I hope it’s right. I think it is right. I’m fact-checking it. So the Times said if you translate it from Euros in liters into dollars and gallons, it’s about $6.50 a gallon, which is massive when you think about it. And you have to factor in that French people are making less money overall. Median income is I think around €1,700 a month to give you a sense of things. You obviously have – you’re not paying for health care and you have better public services.
But nevertheless, that’s a big chunk of people’s income. And your question about …
Ford Fischer: Amazon.
Cole Stangler: Yeah.
Ford Fischer: Basically, what is the kind of French view of this big multinational corporation as oppose to small businesses and how they should be treated differently?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. I mean I’m not sure I can give you a great response to that question but I think in France, there is at least compared to the US, I think more of a hostility towards corporations and big business at least. I don’t want to become too broader brush but I think there is an appreciation for small business and local business I think that’s much stronger here. And you can probably see it even just while you’ve been here in the city. There are less corporate establishments that are everywhere. I think that’s …
Ford Fischer: And I’ve noticed that of the – on Act XIII, I saw a lot more property research than in Act XIV and it seemed to me almost exclusively targeted toward banks, banks and few like one luxury lingerie and jewelry and that kind of store. But they were not attacking coffee shops.
Ford Fischer: Yeah, yeah. No, I mean this is a much debated protest tactic in left wing circles and it’s something that the anarchist and what are called the autonomous that do a lot the black bloc kind of types which is targeting Starbucks. There are not many Starbucks in France. McDonalds actually – I’ve seen more McDonalds go up in flames than anything else. Then in a few protests where the McDonalds is targeted then banks as you pointed out as well.
So – and a lot of businesses have been impacted as well by the movement. People were boarding up their shops. I think right around the Christmas – the holiday season when there’s keep shopping season for Galerie at Lafayette, the big department store in Paris. They had to basically shut down in a huge shopping weekend. So this has impacted business everywhere.
Ford Fischer: Why do they see sort of just touching our businesses as a tactic that could be advantageous to them at least for the small portion of them that actually does it?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. I mean you have to talk to autonomous to get the real prospective. I’m not terribly sympathetic to it as protest factor although probably it gets focused on a little too much. But I think the idea is these are kind of insurrectionary anarchists that believe that if you’re going to – by showing how you can destroy a corporation that’s going to rally people their side. I’m not sure it’s that convincing the case, which is why I’m not able to articulate it with my passion.
Ford Fischer: And mentally cleared to my own ambiance so I saw pretty little of that compared to the supposedly active at 50,000 people and I would say a very small portion of people are involved in that kind of …
Cole Stangler: No. Yeah. And I think the bigger question which maybe you’re about to ask her is this question of police violence. I meant that to me …
Ford Fischer: Right. That’s exactly what I was going to ask.
Cole Stangler: I mean that to me is the real when we talk about violence. McDonalds – an empty McDonalds having a window broken I think pales in comparison to the hundreds, I think at this point, more than thousands of people that have been injured coming out to these protests. And when I talk to people, they’re sympathetic with the women that are a little bit older. They don’t want to come to the protest because they know that there is tear gas flying everywhere that you can lose a limb. That has happened a few times. In France, the police use these very specific kinds of grenades that have not used elsewhere in the European Union basically to get crowds to move back. And these things – these are actual grenades that are like military-like grenades.
And it has happened now on a few occasions where protesters have had one of these traffic for them and they would pick it up to throw back or try to get – to kick it away. And they’ve actually lost limbs as a result of these grenade exploding which sounds insane when you think about this is a democracy and a country where people supposed they have the right to protest. But it is exorbitant to use the policy violence. So people losing limbs, the big grenades I think is an important part. But also, just routinely police officers stepping out of balance and beating people. We’ve seen all kind of injuries. I think over a thousand people and actually a few deaths as well from kind of peripheral to the protest.
So I think that’s the real question here. Unfortunately, the government doesn’t want to talk about that.
Ford Fischer: Yeah. So those were the – I think they were the GLI-F4 grenades …
Cole Stangler: Exactly, yeah.
Ford Fischer: … that have 25 grams of TNT in them before they’re of the tear gas. So I was about a hundred feet from the guy that lost his hand a week and a half ago. Sadly. I think there’s much more but I haven’t seen anything like that in United States where I’ve seen a lot of tear gas, whatever, but I have never seen weapons like that being used.
What is sort of the law enforcement’s goal when they are out there? So this is something like really has puzzled me because from an American perspective, usually the police seems to be – they’re trying to protect frees speech theoretically. They are trying to give to protest and then they are trying to protect property and people from getting hurt.
It seems like you’re not much property is protected. People get hurt a lot. And they are not really doing a whole lot of law enforcement. I actually don’t see a lot of arrests. So what are they …?
Cole Stangler: I think there have been a lot of arrests.
Ford Fischer: I guess compared to the amount of violence, like the amount of – it seems like there’s a lot more beating of people than actually arresting of people, at least from what I witnessed. So from your perspective, what is the law enforcement actually trying to do?
Cole Stangler: I think a generous – I’ll start with kind of a generous interpretation which is they want to prevent extremist from coming out and creating property damage and attacking people. I think that’s one element of it. I think there’s the kind of typical approach I think of law enforcement protest. What you outlined, I think that – I think it’s definitely a part of it.
But I think it’s pretty clear as well that the massive use of force here is clearly meant as a factor to dissuade people from protesting. I think that’s the point that’s increasingly common that isn’t even a kind of fringe-view plan. I think it’s pretty clear the government doesn’t want people to continue going to these protests.
First in France, unlike the US, France does have free assembly and free speech. At the same time, those rights were not as guaranteed as they are in the US. France has a complicated system pattern to declare a protest. And so undeclared protest, typically people aren’t arrested for organizing them. There’s a reform we will talk about later. But there is more of a police presence for undeclared protest. So I think that’s part of it as well to dissuade people from getting undeclared protests.
But overall, there’s a clear goal here from law enforcement, to get people not to protest. And worst, like I mention, now you talk to older folks, no one wants to come to a protest where there are tear gas flying and you can lose a limb again. So, I think that’s a clear factor. And I think that’s even blown up by the fact that just recently, so several weeks ago, the government now pursuing this new law basically which they call the loi anti-casseurs. So casseurs in French meaning – it kind of loosely translates to writer but it comes from the verb to break. So basically, it’s the breakers, breaking stuff, which is this kind of catch-all phrase of the government and the police use to describe basically troublemakers and “bad guys” but it’s a really kind of general term.
And so the idea for this law, the loi anti-casseurs which the government is now seeing through and it’s going to be debated in the Senate before it comes back to National Assembly. It has already been passed by the Assembly one time.
The idea of this is to basically make it easier for the police to control people coming into the protest first off. So giving the police more power to have a broad perimeter around protest and having more control of people coming into the protest. Secondly, I think this is the most important part is having – getting power to judges, administrative judges to – excuse me, not judges, local administration, France has a different structure, to prevent people from protesting before they come out to protest. So having – banning people from being able to protest, which sounds insane to American ears and it should.
In France, even I think it’s incredibly alarming. And so that’s exactly the government is taking here, trying to ban specific people from protesting. Now, if that’s not an indication of their intent to dissuade people from protesting, I don’t know what i. It’s clear this is meant as a way to get people to stop going to these protests.
Ford Fischer: I do have a follow-up on that but I have accounts who said, “Great interview. Great command of the history of facts.” So I want to share that compliment with you because he wanted to know which media outlets you write for, your experience about taxes. Can you clarify this?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. So I write for The Nation. I write for Jacobin. I write for In These Times, The Atlantic as well. You can go to my website also, ColeStangler.com.
Ford Fischer: I have another – there’s another comment with a question here. But – in any event, what I was going to get to is it seemed like there was also an anti-masking law statute.
Cole Stangler: Yeah. We’re going to that. So that would make it – right now, it’s technically unlawful in France to put a mask on at a protest. You get the equivalent of basically a citation. So what this new proposal, so it needs to be put into law and approved by the Senate and the National Assembly in its second reading.
What this new proposal will do would turn that into a crime like a full crime, punishable by I think it’s – I don’t want to give you wrong information, but I think up to a year in prison and a massive fine worth tens of thousands of euros, at least over €10,000. Check out the exact figures on that and the amount of prison but certainly a prison time and a massive fine, turning that right now into a citation into an actual crime.
Again, for masking your face in the protest. So pretty frightening. And I think that signals how afraid the government is of this movement. I think that’s another point here, is the way they responded. They are terrified of this because typically in France, when we see people – the way that the government deals with protest whether it’s – it typically tends to be union protests and labor movement protests. That’s what we’ve seen in France. The most – the biggest street moments come from labor.
And a typical way of dealing with that in France is you sit down and you make some confessions and you negotiate. You know exactly who to negotiate with. You can clear off the union or two, You know what they want and you can talk to them. What’s terrifying about the Yellow Vests is there is no official – seemingly no official negotiating here. And we saw that at the very beginning I think in December where the government wanted to sit down with a few different leaders, people that have put up these calls on Facebook. But again, these are unofficial leaders. And that attempts did not work.
But there is a real kind of sense in the government that they didn’t know who to talk to. And again, I should also say that we are at a point in the movement here where it’s I think back on the decline. There was a peak I think in November or December when the government made those concessions. So the government were appealing that fuel tax are – saying that we’re not going to implement that fuel tax hike that got everyone upset in the first place, so they did that.
Macron also in December expanded a wage subsidy for low-income workers. And they de-taxed overtime pay effective in 2019. So a bunch of concessions in December. That was the peak in the movement. It declined a little bit around the holidays and then people thought it was going away. It peaks up again at the beginning of January. Now, we see kind of a decline and I think it was last weekend was one of the smallest turnouts if I’m not mistaken that we’ve seen since the beginning of the movement.
We’ve also seen public opinion correspondingly decline. At the beginning of the movement, around 70%. Today, public opinion is around 50%. I think the latest poll I saw from IFOP which is a good polling. So it’s 70%, 50%, 30% support the movement around 30% opposed and the rest don’t have an opinion so 50%.
At the same time, Macron has about 30% of the poll. Yellow Vests are more popular than monumental Macron. In French terms, 50% support for any political party movement I think is significant because there’s such a backlash and hostility towards all kinds of political parties at the moment that 50% is impressive even.
Ford Fischer: On the masking kind of face issue, I’ve seen that a – a comment that I’ve gotten from people particularly as we’re up there with the camera is they are worried about their face being seen because they feel like they could lose their job. I’ve spoken to one person who did lost their job because of their participation.
Can you kind of talk about that issue? And do you feel like the state is intentionally using kind of anti-masking stuff in order to leverage people’s jobs against them to destabilize protesting?
Cole Stangler: I’m not so sure about that. I don’t have – that’s my opinion on that. But it’s true. I think we saw with Amazon laid off at 10 to 5 workers for supporting Yellow Vests. And one of the good things about France is that labor laws are a little bit more equitable and fair towards the workers so there are much more hoops you have to go through to be able to fire someone in France for cause. And that’s a good thing.
But yeah, I think we’ve seen a few isolated cases of employers trying to target their employees because of their support to the movement.
Ford Fischer: One person encounter and this isn’t exactly related but it could be, they ask does college charge tuition or is it free in France? What is kind of the situation and do the Yellow Vests have demands related to education?
Cole Stangler: The tuition in France is not free but it’s for an American term, it’s basically free. I think – so for undergraduate in a public university is you’re paying about I think a little bit over €100 per semester. Yeah, about €100 per year. So if you spent three years undergrad, that’s – you can do the math.
Ford Fischer: That’s not nothing anymore.
Cole Stangler: I don’t want to say it’s nothing. People shouldn’t be spending that much but it’s true. That compare to the US, it’s basically effectively great.
And then the one element we have that we came up in the Yellow Vests Movement is that recent reform among the many I think unfortunate and ultimately bad reforms being pursued by this government is to hike the cost of tuition for foreign students that are coming from outside the EU. So I think also interesting to see how Macron who is painted as this kind of liberal champion who support immigrants and migrant rights against the bad and evil Le Pen. Macron the great liberal now actually trying to hike tuition for foreign students outside the EU which in France means basically people from North Africa, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa, French speakers from Algeria, from synagogue, et cetera. Those are the kinds of students that have been impacted by this great hike. And it’s really significant in French term.
So hiking tuition rates from right now which is they are paying basically the French cost and it would be going up to thousands, a little bit over – the Masters I know moved up to around €2,000 per year. It’s really significant. And the undergrad is a little bit less than that.
And we’ve actually seen as a result of that some intense from universities who try link support for the Yellow Vests to solidarity with foreign students. And we now talked about it but the student movement also has in certain universities been providing more support to Yellow Vests than others. And that definitely is a component in the movement.
Ford Fischer: Yeah. I actually went to Act I of the protest in Voli that was on specifically that is your tuition hikes from migrants. So actually getting into that exact subject, this seems to be an issue where the nationalism versus globalism or what have you seems to be an also different factions within the Yellow Vests. Where do they stand on the issue of migration?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. I think – I think I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, there are basically to my knowledge two major academic studies done about the Yellow Vests. I was mentioning one, the Bordeaux one. There is another one a little bit before that where they asked people what their main concerns were. And if you look at those concerns, basically you have this question of purchasing power where they talk about [0:39:02] [Indiscernible], so the ability to buy things. This sounds consumerist but basically purchasing power. So concern about the rising living standards, concern about being taxed too much, concerns about wealth distributions, about public services. Those are really the main issues.
And I think in the [0:39:18] [Indiscernible] I mentioned, it was less than 5% said they were motivated by hostility towards immigration. So I think to me, it’s a pretty marginal concern of protesters, either one way or the other. And that’s not to kind of cup out of your question here but it just to my knowledge, that hasn’t been a major factor of the protest.
You certainly have some kind of nastier far right supporters of the movement that kind of sovereigntist wing that I was talking about earlier that want to limit immigration in France. And we’ve seen some supporters, prominent supporters of the movement talking about someone in particular. And again, I want to emphasize before getting to this pretty marginal part of the movement but we’ve seen this kind of outcry and we saw them in the US as well a little bit. But with this Marrakech Pact or this UN Migration Pact that was signed by a bunch of countries and the US did not sign. I believe Donald Trump pulled out of the declaration as did Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro.
And it’s a very one of these kind of international pacts that’s basically harmless and doesn’t have really much binding power but nevertheless people saw this France, some supporters of the Yellow Vests saw this in France as this is the UN and the European Union encroaching on France’s ability to protect its borders and look now, we’re going to have waves of migration coming from Africa and the Middle East, and we need to stop this immediately. We need to give power to people to let them to decide. And if you give French people power, they would never allow those basically.
And we saw some hostility towards the Marrakech Pact on Yellow Vests Facebook pages. And some of these discussions in the Facebook groups can get pretty nasty. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. If you read these groups, it’s getting conspiratorial, anti-Semitic, racist, just flat out racist I think at certain points. So that’s rendering there on the internet. But again, if you go to the protest, people aren’t waving banners to stop immigration. It’s clearly not part of the main agenda of what people are protesting.
Ford Fischer: Yeah. To the end, you mentioned the anti-Semitism, which has been brought into the kind of forefront. I think two days ago, I was at a rally that the Prime Minister and two former presidents had dealing with that. I’ve seen it used as an attack against the Yellow Vests that they’ve been anti-Semitic but I haven’t personally witnessed anything that implies that on the street. What have you sort of seen on that subject?
Cole Stangler: I mean I personally haven’t seen really clear anti-Semitic acts from Yellow Vests supporters but that definitely seems to have happened in more than a few occasions. The most recent one which has sparked of an outcry and is being recognized but nevertheless did happen. I think it’s important to condemn this provocative philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, was walking around his neighborhood, in this Le Puech [0:42:13] [Phonetic] near Puech, I think it’s the 14th if I’m not mistaken or near Montana [Indiscernible]. And he was called dirty Zionist. He wasn’t called dirty Jew but he is called dirty Zionist, and clearly insulted in a really anti-Semitic kind of way. That has been the cry.
But it’s not only that. We’ve seen other accounts. I think on Twitter, one that got a lot of attention at the beginning of the movement was someone chanting anti-Jewish slogans at the Metro and a woman getting up, older women saying, “I was living in France at the time of the deportations and the Holocaust. This is disgusting. And basically no one coming to our defense in the Metro.” And we’ve seen people talking about anti-Semitic views.
And so again, I think this is part of a movement. It’s not the majoritarian part but it definitely is there. And I think this goes to – the Yellow Vests Movement is a messy movement that’s coming from the grassroots. And this is not to excuse any xenophobic or anti-Semitic parts of the movement but when you’re talking about a grassroots working class movement that’s coming up without support from political parties, people are saying what they are thinking and they are saying how they feel. And that’s a problem in France. I think we should all be really concerned about anti-Semitism. But this is – it’s there. So it’s not a good response but it’s there and it’s a learning. So I think it underscores the need to address hate and xenophobia and anti-Semitism because I think they’re all connected.
I was talking to someone last night who is a Turkish immigrant in France talking about how anti-Semitism is a problem. And if you could get in the neighborhood we’re in right now which is actually one of the more Jewish neighborhoods, it’s a problem.
Ford Fischer: One of the only I guess nationalist, the right-wing type things that I’ve seen on the street because I have seen some signs calling for Frexit, the idea of exiting the EU and that kind of thing, how much of a role has that kind of had in their coalition? Does that seem like a popular opinion?
Cole Stangler: I think the Frexit again, pretty – I don’t think the Frexit is a majoritarian position. I think it fits into this battered question of sovereignty and giving power to the people and giving French the ability to decide the future of their country as opposed to Macron is going to the rich and also by connection, the European Union which Macro is not in good terms with. I think the biggest kind of rally.
We see some support for Frexit but we see I think the closest – the single greatest demand I think that’s shared by protesters is not Frexit but it’s this thing, it’s this question of the citizen referendum initiative, so the RIC. And this is basically a proposal to give citizens the ability to propose their own legislation and to vote on it via referendum, via national referendum, the ability to repeal laws that they don’t like and the ability to also repeal legislators that they don’t like, so people from the Assembly.
And the idea is, this is the magic bullet or something close with it’s going revitalize France through map and seeing restore power to the people. I think that’s the clearest kind of single demand we’ve seen at the moment right now. I see that much more than I see calls for Frexit. Sometimes they overlap but I think the RIC, the Citizen Referendum is really the biggest demand.
Ford Fischer: I’ve seen a ton of signs about RIC but something I’ve had a hard time getting an answer for is like what exactly do you want voted on? Like they love the idea of the very direct democracy and it seems very hard to flip the Yellow Vests’ positions into like clear questions. Have you seen a more specific answer on that?
Cole Stangler: No, I think you’re right. You mentioned that ambiguity of it. I think it goes back to this idea which – a lot of the imagery and the discourse around the French Revolution is mobilized around this idea of giving back to the people. But you’re right, they haven’t said exactly what thought is going to be used to implement. It’s more a question of I think people responding to this lack of a sense that they have no control over the government, a sense that the government isn’t serving them, and that they want to have the ability to make decisions that impact their lives and their friends’ lives. I think that’s – and their families’ lives. I think that’s really what’s underlying it. But no, I think you’ve absolutely touched on the kind of ambiguity here.
Ford Fischer: I’ve had a couple of commenters now asking about – it seems like this issue probably isn’t so much of an issue in France because it’s already settled but I’ve seen some people asking about health care. In short American terms, I guess, how is the current health care system in France and is there any Yellow Vests demand on the subject or is it kind of already where they want it?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. I mean health care hasn’t really surfaced that much. I think it comes up in the context of we’ve seen parts of protesters talk about the decline in public services and the problems in public services. But let me try to formulate here. I think the central question of health care in France is it’s largely government-provided and Social Security reimburses a big chunk of health care cost. Costs are much lower and some people have an additional private insurance in addition to their social security which everyone gets to cover some of the cost.
But in general, health care costs are pretty low. So we don’t see that much frustrations as I have in about the cost of health care. What we see more is a frustration about public services and the state of hospitals and the lack of funding for hospitals. This idea that the government is withdrawing from hospitals the same way they are withdrawing from funding schools and funding the post office.
And it’s I think connected to a bigger discussion around this investment in public services. That’s how we see it come up. And especially these protesters that are coming in – that are from parts of the country that might only have one hospital or a couple of hospitals in their vicinity, in their department of France and see the conditions there and think it’s unfair that they are not being funded more. The same way that they may only have a post office that’s 10 miles, 15 miles away or seeing their post office closed. I think that’s the way it has come up more. It’s less about the cost and more about the quality of hospitals and investment in hospitals.
Ford Fischer: There’s a question that makes an assumption that I’m not sure is true but somebody asked, why aren’t unions in support of the Yellow Vests Movement? I’m not sure if that’s accurate but how are you going to answer that?
Cole Stangler: No. I mean it’s true that organized labor in France has been – was very reluctant at the beginning of the movement to put their support behind it. And I think that was also because at the beginning of the movement, so going back to November 2018, when this first call went out to blockade the country against the fuel tax and against taxes, and I was explaining how that’s not exactly right-wing – how the movement isn’t exactly right-wing when you think about it in American terms but at the same time, to unionist and to left-wingers in France, when you hear that kind of call to blockade the economy against taxes, it’s not a super progressive kind of demand.
I think it wasn’t only until a couple of weeks later that we saw that this clearly was a broader working class movement that was pushing for something bigger that I wonder how difficult it is to explain what they want responding to this deeper frustration with the rising cost of living. And that’s was when unions are I think interrogating themselves more.
We’ve seen in the local level unions supporting protests in a number of different cities. And other cities where unions have tried to support protest, they’ve been booed and moved away. And we’ve seen I think union headquarters in a few places tagged with graffiti but we’ve seen also coalition in other cities working. In Paris, I’ve been in protest where you have trade unionists from hospitals, from teachers, from schools coming out and supporting the protest. So it’s a mixed bag.
And then finally, on the national level, we did see the beginning of this month in February, February 5th I believe the CGT Union France, the second biggest union there, a sort of communist union actually having a day of action and support.
Other movement on Tuesday calling – it was on a Tuesday in the middle of the week so breaking with this Saturday protest of the Yellow Vests Movement in every act. Going back to November, calling for a strike on Tuesday, interrupting the work week to support the movement. And that drew I think tens of thousands of people across the country. In France, about 18,000 people – excuse me, in Paris, about 18,000 according to the police which means it was probably a little bit bigger than that.
But – so we have seen some efforts. And unions in France I think were reluctant to support the movement because they didn’t know where it was going. It was difficult to kind of get a read on and I think it was a mistake. And they’ve been feeling backlash from members on the national level. And then on the local level, it’s a little more competent. It really depends on where you are.
Ford Fischer: And so, can you tell me also about the red scarves these people kind of co-protesting the Yellow Vests? What are they all about?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. That was a protest we saw a few weeks ago. And at this point, they had been called for by a Macron supporter who is saying, “This is enough. These protests are causing too much damage to cities, to businesses. They are not reflective of what the majority wants, just kind of call for the silent majority to rise up and defend law and order and these protests basically.”
And we saw I believe some deputies from Macron’s party partaking in the demonstrations unofficially. So in France when deputies come out to protest, they typically have these kind of, I don’t know how you call these, like sachets or I don’t know if that’s the word, these kind of like bands, the red, white, and blue to indicate they are deputies. They went to those protests without wearing those so unofficially in support of the protest. But that happened, it kind of fizzled out. There hasn’t been a call to have another one of those.
I think the bigger offensive, if you want to use that word, from the government is this Great National Debate is what they’re called. So this debate which was originally, one of the concessions that Macron made in December along with cancelling the fuel tax hike and along with the wage subsidy and the de-taxing of overtime pay, Macron said, “OK, we understand you’re frustrated. We’re going to address this deep [0:52:59] [Indiscernible] with a Great National Debate taking place in the beginning of 2019 where we’re going to be going talking to majors and having assemblies throughout the country to discuss what it is you really want.”
And we’ve seen those debates began and Macron having these town halls where he speaks for hours and hours on end and really shining as a politician I think as much as I’m not particularly – as much as I’m not fond of Macron, I think he has been able to do this well. But there has also been a lot of oppositions that are great today, seeing it as a kind of a ploy to detract from people’s anger.
And I think another key critique for me that this single greatest critique of the Great Debate is there’s no binding mechanism in there to say that whatever comes out – whatever grievances that come out of the date, were going to be actually translated into policy. The government is not saying, “We’re promising to pick the top 3 grievances and then acting on them.” They are saying, “Give us your grievances and we’re going to dissect them and we’re going to issue a report and potentially do something about it.” So it’s very vague. I think the lack of a real accountability mechanism I think really shows what the debate is about.
Ford Fischer: Yeah. I’ve seen a lot of street signs talking about the Great Debate, mostly basically calling it BS. I’ve seen a lot of people say that basically they just think that it’s an opportunity for Macron to talk and make it seemed like sympathizing but it is not actually …
Cole Stangler: I think a lot of people have got that opinion. Yeah.
Ford Fischer: Has there any other concession by the government? Have there been – other than not doing the tax and then the debate, has Macron done anything to respond to them in their favor?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. So we’ve seen – so the first thing, the very first concession was OK, the government was not – the government decided to cancel that, the planned tax hike in 2019. And then in addition to that, a few weeks later or I think I believe a week later, Macron has kind of humiliating speech he had to give because he didn’t want to respond to – he didn’t want to make concessions to the movement. He made a series of concessions which I mentioned. So expanding the wage subsidy, it was initially unveiled in a way that suggested he might be increasing the minimum wage but ultimately not. Ultimately, he is expanding a state program that gives a sub – that basically subsidizes people that are making pay below a certain level, so up to a €100 a month and then boost their pay through that.
We’ve seen the de-taxing of overtime pay. So basically, you’re not paying social charges, contributions to France Social Security pay above 40 hours, 35 to 40 hours a week. The official work is 35 hours a week. People often work more than that.
And then we’ve seen also the third thing which I hadn’t mentioned of those three concessions in addition to fuel tax hike being cancelled was a plan to decrease a new tax hike that was affecting – a new tax hike that was affecting retirees on their pension benefits. So those three things in addition to the fuel tax hike being cancelled, in addition to the Great National Debate. That’s where we’re at today.
And I think one just kind of important commentary I think about those concessions is that Macron was somebody who I think – to me, it was such a classic Macron move because although those three concessions were all coming out of state coffers, it was all public money. This is someone who talks a lot about – who supported European budget rules that prevent countries from spending – from having their debts go above a certain level, so the 3% rule preventing government from spending more than 3% of their – having deficit to go beyond 3% their GDP. Macron has supported those kinds of Austeritarian rules in EU and yet at the same time, he is willing to make these expensive concessions to the protest. And I think it shows you to what extent he will not ask the rich to pay more money. He will not ask Bezos to pay more money. He does not want the private sector to make the concessions.
He will say, “Fine. You’re angry. The state will be able to address these concerns.” But God forbid he considered repealing the – excuse me, re-implement the wealth tax. That has just been a no go. And that’s one of the demands that we’ve seen continue as well.
Ford Fischer: Right. So one person comments and they are saying if he is opposed to these increases in gas price or taxes, what’s the alternative to increase government [0:57:30] [Indiscernible] like they’re basically be more progressive taxes on upper, middle class, and rich people? So it seems like you kind of just answered that.
But a few people have been commenting about and I’ve only seen this come up once in the questions but they were asking about marijuana laws. Has that been an issue for Yellow Vests? It doesn’t seem like there’s as much as a single law.
Cole Stangler: I haven’t seen that at all.
Ford Fischer: Yeah. So I’ve seen literally one time but later probably, there …
Cole Stangler: I’ve seen people smoking in protest but I haven’t seen any demands really for that.
Ford Fischer: Is that really even a political issue here of what is – it seems like …
Cole Stangler: I don’t think it’s as organized as it is in the US. I think people around our generation think of it probably should be legal but I don’t think it is. I don’t think there’s much of an organized political responsive law like the one we have in the US right now.
Ford Fischer: And the current state in France is that it’s kind of [0:58:21] [Indiscernible] about decriminalization like it’s a citation but not arrestable is my understanding.
Cole Stangler: I’m not sure with that. I shouldn’t give my opinion on things that I’m not sure about.
Ford Fischer: Yeah. Yeah. I find it to be mostly irrelevant. I only asked because I’ve seen a ton of people commenting about that for some reason.
Cole Stangler: Yeah.
Ford Fischer: I guess going forward, what direction do you see all of this kind of taking? It seems like eventually somebody has got to either conceded that things aren’t changing or the government has got to change something to get them to kind of stop. I guess what direction is this all going? What direction could it go?
Cole Stangler: Well, I mean I don’t want predict too much because I think anyone that has tried to predict this movement has been proven wrong because no one expected this to happen and no one expected the government to concede. No one expected it to continue to go on. So I think you’d be a fool to try to say you know what’s going to happen.
All that being said, I think what to look for is this debate, the Great National Debate as it is being called, how is that going to turn out? The government is continuing that process until March. In April, they have to issue this report. So the question is, how are they going to act with these grievances that come up? Are they going to propose some kind of referendum? Are they going to make another concession? Probably not but potentially. And I think we will see how people respond to that. I think the Great Debate is one element.
Other than that, the protests had been continuing to decline at the moment, so that could continue. I’m not so sure. I think the big thing is the debate honestly. And I think what’s clear here at least now for the rest of Macron’s presidency whether it takes the form of the Yellow Vests or not is that Macron portrayed himself as a president who unlike previous French presidents was – he was not going to concede to the pressures of the street. This was someone who was going to stand firm, who was going to implement his reform agenda. He used this word reform like it’s a magic word. He’s like, “I’m going to reform the country. Reform. Reform. Reform.” And he said that he was going to continue that regardless of public opinion and regardless of the opposition.
And the single biggest thing of the Yellow Vests I think is they have shown this government will be moved and they had made this humiliating set of concessions that they never wanted to make and that they basically had to concede to regular ordinary people rising up and saying, “We don’t support your policies because you don’t have proper mandate.” And I think that’s the thing that’s going to be hanging over Macron’s agenda for the next three years now, until 2022 when he is up for reelection.
Regardless of his big majority in the National Assembly, regardless of how many seats his party wins in the European elections coming up in May, I think that’s going to be looming over the presidency and that’s a signal too to other grips of the population and also the labor movement of the left who have been kind of sidelined and weakened for years now especially under Macron. But actually, if you organize enough and if you make enough ruckus, you can get this government to move. I think that’s the takeaway.
Ford Fischer: I did have one question that I forgot about which is, it seems like hiking up the minimum wage is a really big demand. In kind of American terms, where is kind of the baseline wage for and where would they like it to be? In American terms, we think of like the “fight for 15” is kind of I guess equivalent policy question.
Cole Stangler: Yeah, I know. I think it’s like €8 or €9. In France also, people think of wage mostly in monthly terms because people’s paychecks come in in terms of the month. I think it’s about €8 or €9. So a little bit more than the US but still not as strong as it should be. So that’s definitely the minimum that we’ve seen.
Ford Fischer: Do you know about how much they are trying to rise it for?
Cole Stangler: I think it depends on the US. I think the unions have talked about I think €12. We’ve seen that demand come back. I think if you look at the union. I think unions also just call for a general hike in the minimum wage. But I think 12 is the record, €12 an hour.
Ford Fischer: So I think I basically asked everything that I’ve seen in the comments and then what I had on my mind. But is there anything else that you want share particularly understanding that it’s mostly American audience looking at this issue in Europe? Is there anything else that you would want them to kind of know about what’s happening here?
Cole Stangler: Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s a messy movement. I don’t want portray it too positively either because as I was pointing out, there are all kinds of nasty underlying parts about anti-Semiticism, about anti-European and anti-immigrant kind of rhetoric that’s circulating. Again, not majoritarian but still part of the movement. So I don’t want to universally celebrate it. All that being said, I think it’s a clear reminder that people have the ability to organize however messy they want to do so and get governments, powerful, powerful governments to concede and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do. So that’s the realization here like any other big social movement is that ordinary people when they organize and rise up, they can accomplish things.