One would not generally identify the images of widespread street violence with highly advanced nations. But, the reports of the worst riots in a decade ripping through Paris and other cities reflect the deepening social inequalities in the French society. What began as protests against the fuel tax hike have now turned into a mass anti-government movement spreading across France, posing the toughest challenge to President Emmanuel Macron, widely seen as a pro-rich politician. The ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) movement – named after the protesters’ fluorescent, high-visibility vests – has caught the government off-guard. The movement, fueled by social media, now encompasses rising anger at high taxes and living costs and broader criticism of Macron’s economic policies. Support has been pouring in from across the political spectrum, from far left to far right, prompting Macron to accuse his political opponents of hijacking the movement in order to derail his reforms programme. What is of greater concern is that, according to a poll, 77% of French people felt the planned protests across Paris were legitimate, suggesting that the resentment against the governing class is quite widespread. Though France is richer now, post-globalisation, the employment and wealth have become more and more concentrated in the big cities while the deindustrialised regions, small and medium-sized towns are becoming less and less dynamic. This has resulted in the widening gulf and social tensions. It is in this ‘peripheral France’ that the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement was born and spread to the big cities through social media.
The price of diesel, the most commonly used fuel in French cars, has risen by around 23% over the past 12 months. The Macron government raised hydrocarbon tax this year by 7.6 cents per litre on diesel and 3.9 cents on petrol, as part of a campaign for cleaner cars and fuel. The riots have left widespread destruction across Paris, with even national monuments facing the wrath of the anti-government protesters. Thousands of protesters stormed the streets of the French capital, leaving torched cars, smashed windows and looted stores in their wake. One of the most striking images of the destruction shows a smashed statue of Marianne inside the Arc de Triomphe. The icon of Marianne emerged during the French Revolution of 1789 as a personification of the values of liberty, equality and fraternity and in later years came to represent the identity of France itself. Macron, known for his tough approach, has softened his stand and called for dialogue with the protesters to explain his policies. The centrist president has been insisting that his plan to transform France through liberalising labour laws and overhauling the workings of the welfare state would benefit the country.