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Yellow vests, blue vests and red scarves — Here's why the French are protesting

A police vehicle sprays water cannon at protesters during an anti-government demonstration in Paris on January 26, 2019.
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France has witnessed widespread civil unrest and dramatic anti-government protests for over two months now but a counter-revolution has started.

CNBC explains who the "Yellow Vests," "Blue Vests" and "Red Scarves" are, what they want and why they want it.

What's going on in France?

France has been wracked with civil unrest and anti-government protests for over two months now with yellow-vested protesters taking to the streets of towns and cities throughout France. Demonstrations have often turned violent, leading to dramatic clashes with French riot police.

The original catalyst for protests was a planned increase to a hydrocarbon tax, introduced as part of the French government's environmental strategy, that would push up the price of fuel, especially diesel, from January 1. The protests have morphed into wider anti-establishment action, however.

Why is France protesting?

While the Yellow Vests staged their 11th consecutive weekend of protest last Saturday, and say more are planned for coming weekends, there is a counter-revolutionary wind blowing too.

Last Sunday, counter-demonstrations were held by an alliance of pro-democracy groups, the largest of which being the Red Scarves and Blue Vests. They oppose the violence seen at recent Yellow Vest protests and say they are defending the republic.

How and why did protests start?

It's believed that the protests started in mid-October when an accordionist from Brittany, in northwest France, uploaded a video to the internet in which she lambasted French President Emmanuel Macron, "Monsieur Macron," for his policies and treatment of taxpayers' money.

Listing her grievances in the video, Jacline Mouraud says Macron had been "hounding" drivers since taking office in May 2017, France 24 reported. The video went viral and a petition to bring down the price of fuel went online, garnering thousands of signatures.

Some also attribute the start of the Yellow Vest element to Ghislain Coutard, a car mechanic from southern France. He posted a video on social media in late October calling on people to show their opposition to the fuel tax rises by wearing a high-visibility yellow jacket and calling on them to join a protest on November 17. The video has been viewed 5.5 million times.

Protestors block an access to the A11 and A 28 highways near Le Mans, northwestern France, on November 18, 2018 a day after tens of thousands of people blocked roads across France in a 'yellow vest' protest against high fuel prices.

November 17

The first countrywide demonstration was held on November 17 with over a quarter of a million people taking to the streets of France.

The demonstrations were largely rural or at a small-town level with demonstrators blocking roads, motorways, roundabouts and fuel depots. Despite the localized nature of the protests, 400 people were injured, 14 seriously, over 50 people were arrested and one woman died that day, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said on November 18.

The movement garnered support among working and middle-class people angry about a perceived decline in living standards as a result of Macron's policies and the demonstrations quickly grew into more structured events organized via social media groups.

It quickly spread to urban areas and the capital, Paris, where weekly, weekend protests since mid-November have attracted well over 100,000 people.

Why are they called Yellow Vests?

The Yellow Vest moniker was borne from the fluorescent yellow safety vests worn by demonstrators. French law states that all motorists must carry a luminous yellow vest or face a fine, hence the apparel was readily available to anyone wanting to protest.

People clashes with riot police during an anti-government demonstration called by the Yellow Vest movement on January 19, 2019.
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The protests have become synonymous with scenes of street clashes, violence and destruction to property but the majority of demonstrators are peaceful.

There are various Facebook pages for different "Gilet Jaunes" (Yellow Vest) groups and while many protesters are ordinary working people, ranging from students and farmers, the movement has also attracted wider anti-government activists, anarchists and, ironically given the reason for the protests, environmentalists too. The biggest Facebook group, Compteur Officiel de Gilets Jaunes, says it has 1.86 million members.

Yellow Vests have also become more politicized, calling for a "Citizens' Initiative Referendum" (or RIC, a slogan often seen on protesters' placards) calling for citizens to have the chance to vote on government policies.

A Yellow Vest protester holds a placard calling for the RIC (Citizens Initiated Referendum). For the Act XI of the Yellow Vest movement, more than 10 000 people took to the streets of Toulouse for the anti-governement protest on January 26th 2019.
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Why did protests escalate?

Local demonstrations over fuel quickly morphed into a wider, national movement and the grievances also took on an anti-establishment, and particularly anti-Macron, character.

In the second week of protests on November 24, demonstrators from around the country descended on the capital Paris. Clashes broke out between demonstrators and police on the Champs-Elysees, leading to a number of arrests, and tear gas and water cannons were used on protesters. Similar scenes were witnessed a week later.

The French government initially responded by announcing (on December 4) that it was delaying the planned fuel tax. Just one day later, however, the government said that it was scrapping the tax rises altogether. But protesters were not placated and the unrest continued.

In fact, the protests became more violent and culminated on December 8 with scenes of street violence and damage to buildings, monuments and shops in Paris. Cars were trashed and set on fire, as were barricaded with wooden pallets. The Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum were forced to close.

Interior ministry tweet

Armored vehicles and tens of thousands of riot police were deployed to the streets of Paris and across France for the protests, often resorting to deploying water cannons and tear gas. In total, France deployed 89,000 police and gendarmes (part of the armed forces) for December 8.

That day over 1,700 people were arrested across France (at least 920 of the arrests were in Paris) and 179 people were injured. After the events of December 8, Jacline Mouraud, credited with starting the Yellow Vest movement, denounced the violence and said the revolt had become like a "dog without a leash" and taken over by extremists.

Plain clothes police officers with riot shields, batons and rubber bullet guns police the Yellow Vest movement protests for the tenth week running on January 19, 2019 in Paris, France.
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French police have come under fire for using Defense Ball Launchers (LBDs, or flash-balls as they are also known) against protesters. LBDs are classed as "sub-lethal" weapons that fire rubber-ball projectiles. There are numerous claims of serious injuries as a result of LBDs used by police in France during the demonstrations — including lost eyes, maimed hands and broken limbs, according to France 24, although there are conflicting accounts of how many people have been affected.

Injuries sustained by protesters in recent weeks have only served to fuel Yellow Vest groups more. Many groups are calling for justice (and more protests) for victims of what they see as police brutality. One Facebook group solely dedicated to those injured in the protests calls for the banning of flash-balls and grenades.

A poster child for injured protesters has been made of one yellow vest, Jerome Rodriguez, who claims he was seriously injured in the eye by an LBD. The government refutes this.

Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the figure of yellow vests seen badly wounded during a demonstration against macron policies on January 26, 2019.
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So, who are the Red Scarves?

Yellow-vested protesters have become synonymous with anti-establishment feeling in France but the public shows signs of wearying of weekly protests, disorder and violence and a counter-protest movement has sprung up in recent weeks. Last Sunday, around 10,000 people marched against the violence seen in Paris, according to French media.

The most prominent counter-violence, protest group is called the "Red Scarves of France" (or Foulards Rouges). Calling for a stop to blockades and violence, the Red Scarves group says it "aims to relay the exasperation of a silent fringe of the population confronted with the blockages and violence perpetrated on the sidelines of demonstrations."

The 'Red Scarves' stage a counter-protest on Sunday 28th January, calling for an end to violence that has erupted during 'Yellow Vest' protests.
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"We demand respect for citizen freedoms and campaign for the return without further delay of the rule of law," the association noted in a statement ahead of last weekend's protest. The group said it sympathized with "the malaise and suffering expressed by our compatriots" over the last two months but denounced "violent groups" that had exploited protests.

What about the Blue Vests?

The Red Scarves marched in Paris last Sunday in a "March for Republican Liberties" along with other allied groups, including the "Blue Vests," or "Gilets Bleus."

The Blue Vests also call for an end "to all forms of violence and hate" and the group's founder Laurent Segnis wrote on the group's Facebook page in late November that "we want to show that there are more and more of us refusing these blockages, refusing these violence, these obstacles to freedom, these attacks our freedom of opinion." He argued that road blockages would only prompt more unemployment and insecurity.

"We denounce this insurrectional climate created by yellow vests," he said.

What has the government done about protests?

The French government was initially slow to react to the Yellow Vest protests in November, with Prime Minister Edouard Philippe vowing not to "give in" and stick to the fuel tax rises.

Then, the government offered to delay the fuel tax increases but the protests got worse and so on December 4 the government said it would suspend the increases for six months. A day later, all increases were scrapped although Macron refused to reinstate a tax on higher-earners.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) flanked by Interior Minister Christophe Castaner (2ndR), Paris police prefect Michel Delpuech (R) and French Junior Minister attached to the Interior Ministry Laurent Nunez (L) walks in a street of Paris on December 2, 2018, a day after clashes during a protest of Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) against rising oil prices and living costs. 

After Macron surveyed the damage done in Paris in the Saturday December 8 protests, the government's attitude changed.

In a televised address on Monday December 10, he promised to raise the minimum wage by 100 euros ($114) a month and said a tax hike on pensions would be scrapped.

The concessions are expected to cost 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) and mean that France will overshoot its budget deficit limit of 3 percent of its gross domestic product.

How is Macron doing?

Anti-government protests are widely seen as a revolt against Macron whose policies have been seen as pro-business, pro-urban and pro-wealthy. He has struggled to live down a comment he made after his election in May 2017 when he said he would govern France like Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods.

Needless to say, Macron hardly endeared himself to the people and his popularity ratings have fallen during his tenure.

Macron, a former economy minister, has struggled to shake his reputation as a president of the rich, particularly amid a reform drive to shake up taxation, the labor market (reforms criticized for making it easier for firms to fire staff) and a complex pension system.

Plans to streamline France's public sector (and Macron's pledge to cut 120,000 jobs before 2022) have also made him unpopular with state workers and France's influential unions.

French President Emmanuel Macron listens as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo delivers her speech during a ceremony at the Hotel de Ville in Paris.
Charles Platiau | Reuters

It's no surprise then that Macron's popularity remains low, although in January it saw a rebound from December, according to the latest opinion poll in mid-January by French institute Ifop for newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

Macon's approval ratings stand at 27 percent in January, up 4 percentage points from December. Among the 1,928 adults who were polled online and by telephone by ifop, however, only 4 percent of those surveyed said they were "very satisfied" with his performance and 72 percent remained dissatisfied.