Maybe you’ve come across mentions of them in the news. Les Gilets jaunes – the yellow jackets – who wear their high visibility vests, that all motorists by law must carry in their cars, as a sign of solidarity with workers who spend hours on the road. Their movement began as a protest about the government’s policy to increase taxes on petrol. And it kicked off with a bang.
The second weekend we were here the roads descended into chaos. Gilets jaunes took over almost every major road intersection across the whole of France. There were around 283 000 protestors in over 2 000 locations. And there were plenty around here too. We’d been caught up in it all on the way to our local Saturday market, but thankfully I’d misunderstood “Henriette,” our GPS, the week before and had stumbled onto a back road into town. It proved a very handy alternative route that day, and saw us into and out of Thann without a hitch.
I’d expected it to be a one-off event – make a big hoo-hah so the government takes you seriously and then get down to discussions to tackle the issues. But instead, the Gilets Jaunes have become a new part of daily life. I gave them a wave coming back home from school today as we passed their regular Cernay roundabout haunt. They seem pretty innocuous to me as they wave their tricolour flags and say a friendly “Bonjour!” to any driver who catches their eye. They’ve even installed a Christmas tree on the roundabout next to the brazier that they keep alight to stay warm. And according to the local paper, last weekend some of them around here were handing out free “tarte flambée.”
I can’t reconcile my experience of Gilets jaunes with what I’ve been reading in the newspaper. Apparently there have been violent demonstrations in Paris. 10 000 police were out across the capital last Saturday responding to a Gillet jaune protest that got out of control. Cars were torched, shops were damaged and even the sacred Arc de Triomphe was scarred.
But this bears no resemblance to the jolly Gilets jaunes I see at the Cernay roundabout each day. Sure, I swear under my breath sometimes if we encounter them when we’re running late. And I really wasn’t happy to see their ubiquitous yellow jackets appear through the mist as I neared the roundabout the day Silas threw up in the car. But I’ve never found them unpleasant. In fact, the other day, one of them apologetically assured me that the wait would be no more than 5 minutes.
These are everyday people. A mix of men and women of all ages. And it’s not really the price of petrol that has brought them all together. Although that was the starting point. It’s a broader malcontent about rising inequality. There’s a sense the minimum wage is insufficient to match the cost of living, that services are being cut, particularly in the regions, and that the government isn’t listening.
It’s all been organised by social media. There’s no coordinated roster to schedule shifts at the roundabouts. People just turn up. There are some spokespeople but there’s no real central control so the government is having a hard time getting a hold on the movement.
I’ve been asking the locals around here what they think. There’s a diversity of views. My next door neighbour is aghast
“This is absurd behaviour. Sure, I’m disappointed in Emmanuel Macron but this is all completely nonsensical.”
Then there’s the thoughtful after-school care lady:
“I can understand people being upset at the rising cost of living. Many don’t feel their salaries are keeping up. But at the same time, we’ve got to do something about the environment and climate change. And that’s what raising the tax on petrol is about.”
And the smiling man who sells me pesticide-free pears at the market:
“Ever since the financial crisis, everyday people’s wages have stayed low. But those at the top have gone up. People are angry at the injustice. It makes sense that they’re protesting.”
I haven’t made up my mind. I feel pulled one way by my concerns about climate change and pulled the other by a sense of solidarity with those who challenge rising inequality.
But what I do know is that this movement is clearly tapping into deep emotions. So for now, while I hold my judgement and take time to reflect, I will respect these people who don their gilets jaunes. They stand out in the cold, wet Alsace autumn for a cause they believe in.