Is France facing a rerun of the ‘yellow vest’ protests?

French President Emmanuel Macron's move to force through his pension reform by short-circuiting parliament may well rekindle social unrest reminiscent of the Yellow Vest movement, experts have warned.

Is France facing a rerun of the 'yellow vest' protests?
A protester wearing a hood stands next to a burning new kiosk beside the Place de l'Opera in Paris, on March 23, 2023. Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP

Protests against the government’s use of a special constitutional provision, known as article 49.3, to sweep aside parliamentary opposition to the reform have been angrier than anything seen over the past two months.

Since the article was used last Thursday, France – and especially Paris – has seen trouble flare nightly, with small groups of black-clad demonstrators smashing windows and setting fires.

Thursday, March 23rd saw another day of nationwide strikes and protests that ended in violent clashes in Paris, Bordeaux and Rennes. In Bordeaux a fire was lit at the town hall.

In total 457 people were arrested and 441 police officers injured, according to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

Unions, united in coordinating their protests, have called for a tenth strike day on Tuesday, March 28th, but many expressed fears they could lose control of the protests as more radical demonstrators set the tone.

“Yes, we are worried,” Cyril Chabanier, the head of the moderate CFTC union, told AFP.

Commentators have begun to wonder whether the hardening of fronts could herald the return of the Yellow Vests, a grassroots movement that started in 2018 as a protest against rising fuel prices.

It snowballed into the biggest social action against Macron in his first term, the protests often marked by clashes with security forces and damage to property.

“It’s a social law of physics,” said Jean-Marie Pernot, a political scientist specialising in trade unions.

“If you don’t respect any of the channels meant for the expression of dissent, it will find a way to express itself directly,” he told AFP.

Protesters in France

Protesters march through Paris during a demonstration against the government’s proposed pensions overhaul on March 15th, 2023. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

Early Yellow Vest action was marked by strikes, weekly demonstrations, the blocking of roads and fuel depots, and the worst clashes with riot police in decades.

The weekly Saturday protests continued for months before gradually fizzling out – losing momentum after Macron agreed to many of their demands.

‘Tougher action ahead’

“There may be tougher action ahead, more serious and further-reaching,” warned Fabrice Coudour, a leading energy sector representative for the hard-left CGT Union.

“It may well escape our collective decision-making,” he said.

The Yellow Vests prided themselves on having no designated leaders. They resisted attempts by left-wing politicians and unions to harness the movement’s energy for their own ends.

READ ALSO: ‘Two fingers to the French people’ – what the papers said about Macron’s pension decision

But one of their more prominent spokesmen was Jerome Rodrigues, who lost an eye to a police rubber bullet during clashes at one demo.

Within hours of Macron’s pensions move on Thursday, Rodrigues told an angry, cheering crowd outside the National Assembly that the objective was now nothing less than “the defeat” of the president.

At the same time, protests erupted in many parts of France, some demonstrators destroying street furniture, smashing windows and setting bins on fire. 

Those protests continued on a smaller scale through the week, before the serious violence on Thursday night.

Demonstrator in Lyon

A man holds a placard reading “who sows misery, sweeps away pieces of glass” as demonstrators clash with policemen in Lyon during protests against the government’s planned pensions reform. Photo by Jeff PACHOUD / AFP

The unions have already put the responsibility for any future trouble at the government’s doorstep.

READ ALSO: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

“Obviously, when there is this much anger and so many French people on the streets, the more radical elements take the floor,” said Laurent Escure, boss of the UNSA trade union federation.

“This is not what we want, but it’s going to happen. And it will be entirely the government’s fault,” he told AFP.

For weeks, Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT union, has been warning the government that there could be more trouble if protesters got the idea that the Yellow Vests achieved more with violence than established unions with their recent, mostly peaceful, mass demonstrations.

“What is the democratic outlook for a country that fails to respond to 1.5 or 2 million people in the streets on three occasions, but that did respond to a violent movement with a fifth of that number in the street?” he asked in an interview last month.

Macron made a number of concessions to the Yellow Vest movement.

Among other measures, he scrapped a planned carbon tax and boosted salaries for minimum wage earners, for a total estimated cost to public finances of €10 billion.

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France court to rule on Macron pension reform on April 14th

France's highest constitutional authority will rule on President Emmanuel Macron's controversial pension reform on April 14th, it said on Wednesday, a verdict decisive for the future of the changes.

France court to rule on Macron pension reform on April 14th

The reforms were passed by parliament on March 16 after the government used a mechanism to bypass a vote by MPs,  inflaming nationwide protests.

They were considered adopted by parliament when the government survived two no confidence motions on March 20.

But the reforms can only come into law once they are validated by the Constitutional Council, which has the power to strike out some or even all of the legislation if deemed out of step with the constitution.

The council’s members — known as “les sages” (“the wise ones”) — will give two decisions when the ruling is made public on the legislation, whose headline measure raises the retirement age from 62 to 64.

The first will be on whether the legislation is in line with the French constitution.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember


And the second will be on whether a demand launched by the left for a referendum on the changes is admissible.

In line with government practice for contentious new laws, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne asked the council to rule on the changes on March 21.

But leftwingers in the lower house National Assembly and upper house Senate also asked the council for a ruling, as did far-right MPs in the lower house.

If a referendum was ruled admissible, backers would need to get the signatures of a tenth of the electorate — almost five million people — for it to be called.

The president of the council is Socialist Party grandee Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister who also served as finance minister and foreign minister in his long career.

Its verdict will be a critical juncture in Macron’s battle to impose the legislation, which has seen 10 days of major strikes and protests since January, most recently on Tuesday.

READ MORE: OPINION: In France even riots used to have rules, now political violence is spiralling

New clashes between police and protesters erupted in a movement that has been marked by increasing violence since the government used the constitution’s Article 49.3 to bypass a parliamentary vote and pass the legislation.

Unions have announced a new day of strikes and protests on April 6, just over a week before the council’s decision is announced.

“The absence of a response from the executive has led to a situation of tensions in the country which seriously worries us,” the unions said on Tuesday.