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‘Yellow vest’ anniversary: What happened to the movement that shook France?

A demonstrator in tear gas during a yellow vest demonstration marking the first anniversary of the movement in Paris on Nov. 16. (Kamil Zihnioglu/AP)

PARIS — Protesters waged hit-and-run clashes with police Saturday on the first anniversary of the “yellow vest” movement — the impromptu, amorphous uprising against social inequality that caught France off-guard and startled observers worldwide.

The movement’s shifting cast of caretakers had vowed to re-energize the demonstrations, which gripped the country last year but have dwindled in size in recent months.

The anniversary brought a boost in support on the streets in central Paris — and sporadic violence and tear gas. But the numbers of protesters fell short of the outpouring last year.

And the provinces, once seen as the soul of the movement, were relatively quiet.

Still, the conversation — or rather shouting match — that the yellow vests started is now part of the country’s political calculus. Social inequality has emerged as the central domestic policy issue of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, whether he acknowledges it or not.

Initially launched in response to a proposed hike in fuel taxes, the yellow vest movement took its name from the high-visibility jackets French drivers are required to keep in their cars for roadside emergencies.

Much of the protesters’ anger was aimed at Macron. They denounced him for being monarchical, arrogant and uninterested in the difficulties ordinary people face. They called for his resignation — even though he had been elected in a landslide little more than a year before.

Instead, the French president offered a very French response: talk.

He conducted a two-month listening tour, a “grand debate.” Macron, always in a crisp white shirt and spotless tailored suit, endured up to six hours of personal attacks in town halls and school auditoriums across the country.

The result of these sometimes painful encounters, and of the protests in the streets, was that Macron — a former investment banker who had styled himself as “Jupiter” — humbled himself, at least a little bit, enough for his approval ratings to recover.

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On Saturday, most of the unrest took place on the Place d’Italie, a major intersection in southeastern Paris, where a small group of violent protesters smashed store windows and set trash cans and a few cars on fire. Police responded with tear gas.

“Even if the images are spectacular on the Place d'Italie, the fact remains that the rest of the rest of Paris is calm,” Paris police prefect Didier Lallement told reporters.

At least 105 people had been arrested, Paris police announced.

At the height of the protests last year, marchers clogged the grand boulevards of Paris. Demonstrators smashed shop windows and ransacked beloved national monuments, such as the Arc de Triomphe. In their crowd control efforts, French police were accused of going too far, firing rubber bullets at participants.

‘Yellow vest’ protests damage Paris monuments, shops and Macron’s presidency

In April, Macron hosted a rare news conference, where he announced a number of conciliatory measures: middle-class tax cuts, a crackdown on tax evasion schemes and reinvestment in local administration across the country.

The fuel tax that had incited so much anger was also abandoned.

“In a certain way, the gilets jaunes were very good for me,” Macron told Time magazine in September, using the French term for the yellow vests. “Because it reminded me who I should be.”

Can Macron’s ‘grand debates’ address yellow vest concerns in France?

But while the yellow vests slowed some of Macron’s agenda, they didn’t deter him. He continues to seek to overhaul sectors of France’s famously generous welfare state — persisting where previous French presidents have caved. And that promises to produce further clashes.

Central to Macron’s plans are changes to France’s retirement system. The main proposals include pushing back the full pension-eligible retirement age from 62 to 64, and streamlining 42 different pension plans into a single points-based system, meaning that certain workers who already have particularly generous pension benefits, such as police officers and public transport employees, stand to lose out.

Those proposals have already generated protests. And the unions that represent transport workers — including the Paris Metro, national railway conductors and airport ground crew staff — have vowed a major demonstration beginning in early December.

Separately, on Thursday, several hundred hospital workers demonstrated in Paris, decrying budget cuts that they say have inhibited their ability to provide quality care, particularly in emergency rooms.

As Le Monde newspaper put it in a Friday editorial: “The street, once again, is poised to take revenge.”

The yellow vest movement, Le Monde insisted, represented more than a predictable resistance to an unprecedented policy change: “It revealed the social impasse that combines the ecological transition, the lack of public services in a large part of the territory and the muted resentment among some of the French who feel left out of the democratic game.”

After the hospital staff protests on Thursday, Macron immediately promised to take the outrage seriously.

“I have heard your anger over working conditions that have become impossible at times — diminished salaries, ceaseless workflows, and material difficulties,” he said.

But while Macron’s government has indicated a willingness to give a little on some of its reform proposals, he has shown few signs of backing down altogether.

In France, the pain behind the ‘yellow vest’ protests is felt mostly outside Paris

Priscillia Ludosky, a cosmetics worker from the Paris suburbs whose online petition against Macron’s carbon tax launched the yellow vest movement last year, said in an interview that Macron has yet to take the sentiment behind the movement seriously, even if he offered a number of concessions last year.

“I don’t have the impression he will change things,” she said, noting that Macron has refused to see the yellow vests for what she believes they are, which is an expression of the popular national will. “He doesn’t recognize the movement as representative of the population.”

Macron promises ‘significant’ tax cuts but denies some ‘yellow vest’ demands

Sixty-nine percent of French people continue to find the yellow vest movement “justified,” according to a poll conducted for the newspaper Le Figaro.

But the movement has come under criticism for representing the interests of just one segment of French society. Although Ludosky herself is a black woman, most yellow vest demonstrators are lower-middle-class whites. The movement struggled to gain traction in heavily immigrant suburbs on the outskirts of virtually every major French city, which remain the country’s poorest enclaves.

And there have been occasional flare-ups of intolerance among the yellow vest protesters. In one episode, conservative intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, a popular radio host and a household name in France, was heckled with anti-Semitic slurs as he got out of a cab near his Paris apartment — even though he had been one of the few intellectuals to have initially supported the movement.

Ludosky dismissed that incident as isolated. “There were also beautiful things that happened at roundabouts around the country, with people supporting each other and bringing food, but those don’t get ‘buzz,’ ’’ she said.

France’s minorities are angry, too. But they’re mostly sitting out the yellow vest protests.

After a year, political analysts say the movement is largely symbolic, and that it had little impact on an electoral landscape that remains dominated by Macron’s nominally centrist party and the extreme right faction of Marine Le Pen.

Yellow vest candidates fared poorly in the European parliamentary elections in May, and few are discussing the prospect of a yellow vest ticket in France’s March 2020 municipal elections. Ludosky insisted that the movement’s power remains its refusal to participate in mainstream political life.

“[The yellow vests] showed that the fractures that existed in French society, and in a symbolic manner, we can say that they brought a form of a return to class struggle in France,” said Jérôme Fourquet, a political analyst and senior pollster at IFOP, of France’s leading polling agencies.

“This was the periphery against the metropole.”

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