The Yellow Jackets, Protest and the Crisis of Representation

Zoe Smith - Writer

The yellow jacket protests in France saw an online petition spark mass demonstrations, beginning on the 17th November and spanning several months of collective action as protests were held, blockades were implemented and riots were instigated. Though the protests were in direct response to proposed fuel tax increases by Macron and the incumbent government, the movement came to represent a more general desire for economic justice. This encompassed discontent towards the political favour economic elites witness and demands for Macron to resign as president of France. The fluorescent yellow jackets were chosen as a symbol by protestors due to their accessible nature; French legislation implemented in 2008 deemed the jackets as mandatory for all motorists in case of an accident. However, the jackets also represent the factory oriented industries which they are associated with and thus enforces the working class character of the protests.

The gravity of the yellow jacket protests as an isolated incident should not be downplayed, and it pays to analyse the theoretical implications of such events. To successfully amass hundreds of thousands of French citizens and spark scaled down replications across the globe is no small achievement, especially for a movement without hierarchy, a recognised leader or institutional frameworks. However, it's is also valuable to assess the broader contribution the events in France make to an understanding of the crisis of representation present in liberal democracies globally, and how protests can provide an alternative method of political participation given the context.

The Liberal Democratic Crisis of Representation
The yellow jacket protests are an expression of discontent with the French government, but they are also symptomatic of a broader crisis of representation that threatens contemporary liberal democracies. In accordance with the theory of Bonnano, capitalist driven globalisation causes disunity between community and government. Post-Fordist dynamics produced a globalised political sphere in which the expression of political will is hindered. Bonnano's definition of the crisis of representation can be aptly applied to the situation in France. His particular emphasis on the political neglect of rural workers in liberal democracies mirrors the predominantly rural, working class character of the yellow jacket protests. The fuel tax that evoked the protests would have disproportionately affected rural France due to their reliance on cars as a reliable form of commuting to cities for work.

This emphasis on rural exclusion exemplifies the ineffective quality of representation in contemporary liberal democracies. Macron's campaign success can be attributed in part with his close involvement with the electorate, as La Republique en Marche! associates embarked on door-to-door campaigns in an attempt to capture the authentic voices of French citizens. However, having achieved power, Macron quickly pursued a top-down style of governance that failed to encompass the voices his campaign had previously catered to. With the ballot box being the most prominent and accessible form of political participation within liberal democracies, passages of time between elections can deter effective representation of the electorate. Electoral success may not bare the policy fruitions originally promised during campaigns, and the opportunity to vote is unavailable for the passage of several years until elections roll around once more. Therefore, turning to protest as an alternative form of political participation is well founded.

Protest as a Vilified Alternative to Voting
Though protesting strays from more conventional methods of political participation, the act of expressing collective disapproval is a historically prominent style of engagement. Encompassing global campaigns such as the Suffragette and Occupy movements, this form of participation provides an alternative way to influence state politics where conventional methods are ineffective. Therefore, the act of protesting could be viewed as a logical course of political action for citizens. However, the response of the French government in the case of the yellow jackets protests goes far from depicting protest as something legitimate and endorsed by the establishment

The repression of the protests in France presents itself in two forms. Firstly, the vast number of police and military forces deployed to respond to the protests appeared to act with the intention of suppression. Oftentimes, these forces initiated conflict or enhanced the violent tendencies of the protests. The use of tear gas, tanks and rubber bullets were commonplace as a response to the escalations that occurred in Paris and other parts of the country. It is not untypical of large scale protests to draw out a violent minority that unfortunately hinders the delivery of the intended political message. Yet while the ethics of the use of violence in protest could form another essay entirely, it is likely that the violence and subsequent response by the French police and military is one way of deterring the use of protest as a political act.

Protests in France were also vilified by Macron's government and the French media. Macron stated that he sought to turn 'anger into solutions', diluting the complex message the protests were attempting to communicate by simplifying the protests as emotional and enraged. Many media outlets in France took a similar tone, depicting the protestors as not only violent but uneducated. This claim was built upon the fact that the rural workers were protesting a policy that would have assumed positive impacts on climate change in France as fuel prices would increase, disincentivizing travel by car. However, this depiction of the protestors and the policies fails to account for the nuanced rejection of Macron's policy. Despite the drastic change in fuel prices proposed, the French government did nothing to prepare for the increased burden that taxation would impose upon working class French citizens. Faced with the absence of potential changes to infrastructure, the policy would have negatively affected the quality of life for many members of the electorate. Without the ballot box as an immediate method of collectively vocalising public grievances, protest provided an instantaneous and forthright response to the policy.

Concluding Remarks

As this article is written, the yellow vest protestors embark on the 15th consecutive week of protests. Sparked by a fuel tax, protest was opted for as an alternative method of political participation in an impromptu attempt to account for the crisis of representation in the French liberal democracy. Despite attempts at police repression and media vilification, French citizens continue to demand recognition from the establishment through unconventional means. Though the momentum of the protests are inevitably waning, the longevity and success of the protests suggests that the disillusioned participants of liberal democracies found a method of engagement that resonated with them. As liberal democracies continue to operate with democratic deficits, the act of protest will likely provide citizens across the globe with a powerful tool of political expression.



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