In the past months, France has been the stage of a series of heated protests conducted by people wearing “gilets jaunes” or high-visibility yellow emergency vests. You may already know this as the “yellow vest protests”, which have been headlining major newspapers since the 17th of November when disgruntled drivers took to the streets to oppose the raising of taxes on gas, fuel oil and diesel. This new tax was proposed by the French President Emmanuel Macron last December, and it promised increased prices on fossil fuels in order to minimise France’s reliance on them. However, as the unrest grew, protesters began to oppose the Macron government as a whole, seeing it as the culprit of France’s split and slow economic growth. Hence, the protest became deeply anti-establishment.
This problem is neither new nor not talked about, as the globalised economic model brought forward in the 1980s has increased class polarisation and has caused spikes in poverty, unemployment and economic instability. Economic growth has been heavily concentrated in industrial areas as compared to the (and all throughout the western world) peripheral and rural areas, which seem to have taken the hit of it. Populist governments thrive in this phenomenon as is evident by Trump’s rural electors or the Italian Deputy Prime Minister, Salvini’s supporters, who were concentrated in peri-urban areas.
France is no exception and as is evident by the protestor’s complaints; people living in rural areas are likely to have lower incomes and a bigger reliance on fossil fuels to travel. The choice for the symbol of the yellow vest itself can be traced back to that, as the high visibility garment recalls blue collar workers and lower income classes in general. Thus, the rise of fuel prices was not the root cause of the protests but only served to ignite and sustain a pre-existent dissatisfaction with today’s society.
the yellow vest’s job is to ensure the visibility of the wearer and in that the gilets jaunes have succeeded
It is no surprise then, seeing the rising global dissatisfaction, that the yellow vest protests have expanded past France fuel prices protest. The recognisable vests have been employed in protests within and beyond Europe, reaching Canada and Iraq as well as Belgium and Bulgaria and a great number of other countries all around the globe rephrase this. In Egypt, the government has resorted to banning any sale of the vests out of the fear of emulation. What can be seen as truly incredible about the symbol’s global-reach is that, besides a few exceptions, the initial anti-establishment meaning attached to the yellow vest has been kept, swinging from one political extreme to another but asking for better living conditions throughout.
The ubiquitous symbol of the yellow vests now appears wherever the masses ask for lower taxes, better-reaching social welfare, and a higher living standard. Non-related protestors have welcomed the symbol and even tried to adapt the meaning to their own requests, which goes to show the overarching presence of the symbol. As French author Guilluy stated, the yellow vest’s job is to ensure the visibility of the wearer and in that the gilets jaunes have succeeded. Once again, possibly even for the first time since 1968, a protest has spread beyond its citizenship. The working class who first wore the vests is once again part of the conversation, and visible once more.
Cover: Unsplash/ Randy Colas / Final Editor: Ivo Martens