The Yellow Vest Movement: Lessons Learned from a Flawed Government Response
Outcomes of social movements are primarily determined by their success on two levels: public opinion and collective morale. These are the two fronts that government policy must address to mitigate and eventually end protest movements. In the case of the recent Yellow Vest Movement in France, for example, the French government initially played into the hands of protestors, in terms of public opinion, by miscommunicating its own goals. The government also increased the resolve of protestors by dispersing them with excessive force.
Learning from this experience, France should adopt more modern policing techniques on par with its European neighbors. The French government must also improve the coherence of its policy coordination by systematically communicating its intentions to the public and explaining how its policy proposals fit into its overall agenda.
Setting the Stage
The development of the Yellow Vest Movement can be considered in two phases. The first began with the announcement of a new levy on diesel, prompting 280,000 people to wear fluorescent vests and protest on roundabouts, highway junctions and squares in France on November 17, 2018. While 84% of French citizens believed the movement to be “justified” when it first emerged , this number dropped to 55% in early 2019  when French President Emmanuel Macron made a partial concession that provided for 10 billion euros worth of additional welfare and the cancellation of the new levy . The second phase began after this concession and, although minor Yellow Vests protests continue to this day , it ended, arguably more with a whimper than a bang, when Yellow Vest candidates received 0.6% in the European election of May 2019.
Capturing Public Opinion
The battle over public opinion relies heavily on framing. The media, for example, chose to highlight a small minority of far-right groups as well as anarchist sympathizers in the so-called “black bloc” who joined Yellow Vest protests on various occasions . Pro-government observers repeatedly claimed that the presence of far-right groups in the movement, their supposed opposition to a “green tax,” and their willingness to use violence, made the Yellow Vests a “regressive” force . In turn, however, anti-government forces condemned police brutality and branded the government as unwilling to accept criticism, suggesting it is undemocratic . They also criticized the government over the hypocrisy of increasing the diesel levy for supposedly environmental reasons while simultaneously decreasing the budget for France’s transition to sustainable energy .
These mutual attacks via the media aimed to shape the narrative about the movement and therefore the public’s perception of it. As a result, both sides had to address these criticisms. While the Yellow Vests formed “security teams” to better police themselves , the government belatedly launched a massive and expensive public communications exercise called the “Grand National Debate” intended to hear out local grievances.
The French President’s unwillingness to directly address the public, even after his initial concessions, only added weight to the idea that criticisms of the government were justified. This unwillingness by the French President to address the public has been a recurring shortcoming since the beginning of his presidency . The gradual withering away of public support for the protestors during and after the Grand National Debate was therefore a natural consequence of a much-needed shift in communications policy .
Bringing the protests to the government’s supporters
During the protests, the Yellow Vests were able to successfully shock government supporters by protesting in western Paris, close to government buildings, in areas that favor it, and out on roundabouts for everyone to see . This had a documented effect on government officials, including the President himself, who found themselves physically constrained by the presence of protestors . As a result of these tactics, police had difficulties dispersing the crowds. They had to intervene in neighborhoods that support the government, generating even more sympathy for the protestors.
This was particularly amplified by the fact that France remains exceptionally backward in crowd control methods compared to its European neighbors. It is, for example, the only EU country that uses plastic bullets for crowd control. Indeed, as a result of the protests, the Council of Europe has recommended that France bans the use of plastic bullets and retrains its riot control forces . While police tactics did evolve throughout the course of the protests, the changes made did not follow the recommendations of the Council of Europe and had no noticeable impact on the level of violence .
Lessons Learned and Lessons yet to be Learned
Although the government was ultimately successful in breaking the collective morale of the protestors and in turning the tide of public opinion, clearly the government’s initial approach to the protests needlessly amplified them. Police brutality – neither an ethical nor effective tactic – elicited sympathy for the protestors and swelled their ranks. This boosted their collective morale and conferred legitimacy to their struggle negating the potential impact of government policy to address concerns. Simultaneously, the government’s unwillingness to communicate regularly with the public – a phenomenon predating the protests – added to the general feeling that it was disconnected from ordinary people.
The French government must learn from this experience by making two concrete policy changes. First, the government should retrain its security forces to better manage crowds and ban dangerous crowd control tools like plastic bullets, as their use is ethically wrong and can lead to escalating tensions in protests. Second, the government needs to implement a more effective and long-term communications strategy to explain its intentions and objectives to the French people. While the Grand National Debate could be a blueprint for this new communications strategy, its cost is likely to be prohibitive. Instead, the government should adopt an approach akin to the regular “town halls” that take place in the US and UK. Such steps would not only help reduce the frequency of protests by addressing public frustration and confusion about government policies, but also help limit the scope and severity of protests when they occur.
This article received the third prize of our writing competition “Protest Movements – A Vehicle for Change?“
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 The “black bloc” refers to a group of people across protest movements in France who chose to cover themselves in black to avoid retaliation by authorities or other groups.
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