Economy, dialogue calm ‘yellow vest’ movement

By Zhao Yongsheng Source:Global Times Published: 2019/9/17 18:08:40

Yellow vest protesters gather at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, Feb 23, 2019. Photo: IC

Paris has been hit by anti-government protests opposing pension reforms in recent days. The scale of the fresh demonstrations, however, is smaller than the November 2018 "yellow vest" movement that was sparked by a planned fuel tax hike. The "yellow vest" movement tapered off over the summer. 

A social movement of such large dimensions that lasted such a long time has now faded away. One of the main reasons is that the French economy, which has experienced crises and stagnation, entered a period of recovery in the second quarter this year. 

The current French government has benefited from former French president Francois Hollande's reforms, which together with President Emmanuel Macron's reforms yielded results in the second quarter. 

The "yellow vest" movement also lost steam because of France's economic structure characterized by a strong industrial system, flourishing agriculture and a consolidated tertiary sector, topped with high-tech innovation. 

Many export-oriented economies have suffered downturns amid the China-US trade war. Germany, for example, is the first to bear the brunt of this trend as its GDP declined by 0.1 percent in the second quarter compared to the previous quarter, but France has not been as badly hit. Its GDP rose by 0.2 percent in the second quarter compared to the first.

To deal with "yellow vest" protesters the French government also strengthened the rule of law. Advancing with the times is the real basis of the rule of law. In France, demonstrations need government permission. The number of participants, time and route of the demonstrations also need to be approved by the government. In Paris, which is a famed tourist attraction, the "yellow vest" movement affected the sector, so the French government decided to ban protests at key tourist attractions in the French capital.

When former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was in office, France also imposed a ban on face coverings in public. In the "yellow vest" movement, France's National Assembly approved a law banning the wearing of masks at protests. After all, if there are masked people in the crowd, it is hard to detect who they are. 

As the protesters became more violent during the "yellow vest" movement, police tightened law enforcement with more advanced deterrents. Unlawful protesters getting hurt is normal. 

Violent protesters seemingly had their bottom lines. I have seen some "yellow vest" protests, but did not come across egregious acts like assault of senior citizens.

This is also very important: French police are very sensitive to whether the protesters are aided financially. Indeed, it is citizens' lawful right to participate in lawful demonstrations, but they should not be subsidized by other institutions. I participated in demonstrations in Paris on April 19, 2008 to support the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. I was impressed by how strict the French police were in investigating the source of funds of the protesters.

Macron launched a great national debate in January, which also played a role in weakening the "yellow vest" movement. The debate almost covers all classes, and each side has a right to make a statement. The French government can agree or disagree with the protesters' appeals. If the protesters are not satisfied after the dialogue, they can apply to hold further demonstrations. Then there will be dialogues again. Thus, more French people can fully understand the two sides' real purpose. This has been the French experience of dealing with social movements.

In France, a conservative country, the cost of social welfare is high and the interests of all parties are complex. It is easy to trigger public outrage. But to resolve deep social disputes, reform is a must. As the "yellow vest" movement fizzles out, Macron has his own reasons for launching pension reform. 

In fact, pensions are a sensitive topic in almost every country, because it covers so many aspects of life. One important reason Sarkozy failed to get re-elected was his controversial pension reforms that delayed retirement age. During his 2017 presidential campaign, Macron pledged not to touch the current legal retirement age of 62 for most workers. 

However, during the G7 summit in August, Macron said he prefers "agreement on contribution period rather than age" as the basis of the pensions system. After his statements, there was a public outcry. 

Macron dared to take a plunge because he believes that the French economy is on the rise, but his reform drive still faces big challenges.

The author is director of the French Economic Research Center and professor of finance at University of International Business and Economics.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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