From Occupy Wall Street to the 'yellow vests' – unrest is evolving

Published 13.12.2018 01:39
Updated 13.12.2018 08:00

The current situation is threatening to weaken Macron's authority at home and reduce France's influence in Europe as the protests come at a time when Macron's popularity has fallen to record lows

Since mid-November, France has been experiencing significant social mobilization as thousands of protesters have been rallying against the government. While the history of France is familiar with large-scale political protests, this one, which has become known as the "gilets jaunes" ("yellow vest") protests, has led to some of the worst rioting in Paris in decades. The movement, which reacts against the country's social problems, increasing inequalities lack of social justice and elites, forced authorities to shut down parts of the city.

Also President Emmanuel Macron is being forced to take a step back on a policy decision for the first time since he became president. The French government announced on Dec. 5 that it would scrap the controversial fuel tax increase that sparked demonstrations in the first place. The current situation is threatening to weaken Macron's authority at home and reduce France's influence in Europe as the protests come at a time when Macron's popularity has fallen to record lows.

Protesters were furious about the almost 20 percent increase in the price of diesel and the planned fuel tax hike. Macron says the tax was necessary to protect the environment and combat climate change but it looks like he doesn't understand what people are protesting. In fact, his first reactions reminded us the day he upbraided an unemployed gardener who said he couldn't find a job in September during a public open house at the Elysee Palace. When the young man said, "I'm 25 years old, I send resumes and cover letters, they don't lead to anything," Macron answered, "If you're willing and motivated, in hotels, cafes and restaurants, construction, there's not a single place I go where they don't say they're looking for people. Not one – it's true."

"Completely disconnected from the reality of the French," one user wrote on Twitter among many critics when this conversation started to circulate on social media, and another asked, "How can someone show that much contempt, lack of empathy and ignorance in just 30 seconds?"

As in this case, when he has claimed that the measures are for the sake of environmental precautions, the French protesters say that it is another sign of that the "arrogant" and "privileged" president out of touch with the common people who are struggling every day.

On the other hand, it looks like the far-left and far-right groups have united through the yellow vest movement. The numbers of the Mélenchonist [supporters of La France Insoumise, the far-left party] among the protesters has been growing, while the reaction of Marine Le Pen's party (renamed the Rassemblement National) was enthusiastic about the movement since the beginning. If the French elites keep seeing the yellow vests as "banlieu" looters or "white trash," the movement possibly can be extremely popular, more unstructured and maybe violent.

Even more, Europe has a serious concern, as there is possibility of that Macron's crisis would be a danger to the entire continent. It has already spread to other European countries like the Netherlands and Belgium. The leaders of the leftist parties in Germany have uttered their support to the yellow vest movement.

Occupy Wall Street

To be honest, we witnessed an example of this seven years ago. The Occupy Wall Street movement, that began on Sept. 17, 2011, in Zucotti Park in New York City, was a protest against inequality and the lack of democracy worldwide. The movement quickly spread, motivating thousands to voice their anger at financial and social inequality. On the Day of Rage in October 2011, demonstrations took place in more than 80 countries. From Munich to Seattle, Brussels, Tokyo, Seoul, and even Alaska, there were street protests and grassroots campaigns, and especially in Europe. The widely used slogan everywhere was, "We are the 99 percent."

European cities were already hit by anti-austerity protests in 2010. Tens of thousands of people from around Europe marched across Brussels to protest spending cuts. While Spain held a general strike, protesters in Barcelona clashed with police, other protests against austerity measures held in Greece, Italy, Spain, the Irish Republic and Latvia. Even the U.K. saw major demonstrations throughout 2011. However what most of the European governments and the Brussels did was to target the working class cutting wages and pensions, laying off thousands of workers, while big businesses, banks were going unpunished which avoided paying taxes, although the main reason for the financial crisis and the subsequent recession worldwide was their greed. Unsurprisingly, the left-wing in Portugal, the populist left-wing party of Podemos, the socialist Solidarity part in Ireland, Syriza in Greece and the Five Star Movement of Italy were the principal protest parties.

When the Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi lit himself on fire Dec. 17, 2010, he sparked a domino effect in another continent, and all eyes turned to the Middle East. Maybe the Occupy Wall Street influenced the Arab Spring or otherwise; however there is no doubt that both were caused by global economic crisis, and based on inequality, unemployment, discrimination, poverty and the privileged 1 percent of the world.

Thanks to the terror of Daesh and al-Qaida, the U.S. and the Europe silenced their protesters and united them against their common enemy. The Western protesters were alienated from the Arab world and non-white demonstrators. The Western governments stand side by side with the dictators in the Middle East and even supported the coups, such as Egypt. Making Turkey a scapegoat, and misinterpreting the counter-revolutionist Gezi movement of far-left groups and terror organizations in 2013 as if they were environmental protests, they paused the anger of middle class of the regular people in the West. Of course, that helped the extreme parties continue to rise.

So while we are talking about the yellow vest movement in Europe, we should not forget that it is a reflection of ongoing tension in Europe, and it cannot be seen as the public's rejection of the green transition. Of course, the states should combat climate change but the powerful companies, which are responsible for the pollution in the first place for the pollution, should carry the burden, not the average people.

And again, we can't dismiss the entire yellow vest movement as "extremists" but we should keep in mind that almost 11 million people in France voted for the far right only a year ago. The young, shining French President Macron is recently acting like a hipster as the former U.S. President Barack Obama was in his second term, acting as if he knows everything but was completely unaware of the realities of the world outside. Macron doesn't only have enemies inside France, but also Britain's hard-line Brexiters (both right and left), Italy's populist strongman Matteo Salvini, Hungary's Viktor Orban, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Trump are chasing after him. He should gather himself and stop making the same mistakes of old liberals. Otherwise, he will be more weakened, more isolated and in the end, he will be defeated.

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