After a woman launched a petition in France to protest the rising fuel prices, it was quickly signed by more than 900,000 people. Thank God it did not take a street vendor to set himself on fire, like in Tunisia, to start street protests. A petition was enough.
The Emmanuel Macron government is being accused of not being able to control the cost of living. Moreover, people believe Macron's tax reforms are favoring the rich to the detriment of the middle classes.
France is the country of street protests and labor strikes, so one may say this is French politics as usual. There is, however, something different this time.
The current protesters, the so-called "yellow vests" because of the high-visibility jackets they are wearing, do not represent any political party or labor union. These people planned their demonstrations via social media, without any help from a traditional political structure. This is a new kind of political activism. Unions and opposition parties announced they are supporting the protests only after they noticed how big the movement was. The absence of traditional players is one of the reasons why the government is puzzled. The authorities do not know how to react, because they do not have a recognized interlocutor, a leader or a spokesperson who represents the demonstrators. People participate as individuals and have found each other on the internet.
On Saturday, an estimated 300,000 protesters donning yellow vests blocked roads at 2,000 points across the country – with millions supporting them on social media. Opinion polls have said that some 73 percent of the French people back the movement. The protests were generally peaceful, although a small group tried to break into the Élysée Palace.
The Arab Spring uprisings were also organized through social media. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya people took to the streets mainly for economic grievances, but the protests turned violent. The security forces tried to stop the protests by putting thousands into jail. When protests started, Arab leaders announced some economic measures and reforms, hoping it would calm the protesters down. But it was too late. The protests had already turned into rebellion and the objective was no longer to express economic frustration, but to demand political change.
The French government, too, is trying to craft new economic proposals to calm people down, yet we do not know whether it will succeed.
It is of course not easy to compare the situations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya with that of France. The latter is a democratic country, while those northern African countries were autocracies. The similarity is in the anger expressed by frustrated, ordinary people. In many countries, people believe the current economic and political system does not offer a remedy to their problems, and they think politicians lack vital responses.
Thanks to social media, individual grievances turn into street protests very easily nowadays. People do not need political parties, labor unions or any kind of organized structure to express themselves anymore. It is so easy to call for a demonstration on a particular topic, and demonstrators – often from very diverse backgrounds – come together very quickly. Those people know what they do not want, even though they do not agree on what they want and how to achieve that.
France's history is full of rebellions and revolutions. The point is, the French have often inspired other people to take to the streets. That is why Macron's handling of the situation is important, not only for France but for the rest of Europe. Perhaps the French will now understand that it is not such a good idea to encourage demonstrations in foreign countries or to call for NATO interventions, as they did in Libya.