Economics Human Rights Social Issues

Years of French Protests Have No End In Sight

French protests during COVID-19 have been one of the only constants the country could expect in this unprecedented year.

At the beginning of 2020, many countries looked forward to another prosperous year; but for France, with or without the COVID-19 pandemic, unrest was assured. The Macron administration has been plagued with protests over unjust economic practices and dwindling social welfare, which have seen escalating use of force by police that has received international condemnation. Making matters worse for Macron: a surge in protests over harmful policing of minorities is expected to be a significant challenge he will have to address. That said, Macron seems poised to win the 2022 presidential election, even after rising concerns of France inching towards becoming a police state. From there, whoever wins the 2022 presidential election faces an up-hill battle in putting France back together. 

Protests began in 2018, when the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) gripped France as rural citizens flocked to the cities in the tens of thousands to denounce President Macron’s new green tax on fuel. The rural working-class were especially affected since their daily commutes to urban centers depend heavily on affordable gas prices. The protests went on for over a year and morphed into a symbolic referendum against the administration’s economic policies, as the cost of living in France was increasing and social programs were dwindling.

It is unsurprising that Macron, who decisively won the 2017 presidential election, saw his approval rating hit its lowest point since he assumed office, with many demonstrators calling for his resignation. Macron was able to crawl back to stable political ground after a year of public relations campaigns, such as the ‘Grand Debate’, and dwindling support for the Yellow Vest movement due to a stalemate in demands and escalating unrest. That being said, the protesters aimed an important spotlight on French neoliberal policies and were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and assault by police, which was a black-eye for the administration.

Last year French protests surged again when austerity measures took aim to overhaul their post-war pension system, seeking to merge forty-two private and public sector regimes into a universal point-based system and increasing the retirement age by two years to sixty-four. Supporters highlighted the potential to decrease costs and increase fairness within the pension system; however, opponents argued that pension recipients would see a loss in benefits. Among other unionized workers were teachers, firefighters, and railway drivers who launched France’s largest strike in decades and turned out to demonstrations in the hundreds of thousands to keep the existing pension system afloat. Firefighters at the forefront of the protests, engaged in infamous clashes with police which were filmed and widely circulated. Growing unrest and popular support for these protests caused pension reform talks to be postponed to this year, but they could be taken into 2022 following the Presidential election.   

While protests were quelled due to the administration’s acquiescence to their demands, ultimately, the long-term effect was the concession of the moral high-ground to protesters. This carried over to this past summer when George Floyd’s death gave protesters credence to address their own systemic issues, advancing standardization of body cameras within the police force by the summer of 2021. Protesters also pointed to France’s long history of racial-profiling, resulting in young Black or Arab men being twenty times more likely to be stopped by police. This is a contentious issue in French politics, as the country sees large influxes of African and Arab immigrants seeking a better life in Europe. However, the immigrant path is a hard road, leaving many in destitute conditions in urban slums, which in turn, makes them more likely to lead a life of crime. 

French unrest didn’t cease to escalate when this past November a security camera captured footage of a Black music producer being beaten in his studio by police, sparking international outrage and leading hundreds of thousands to take to the streets in protest of police brutality. Heightened tensions have caused French policy makers to weave-in the prohibition of filming police activity in their recent global security bill (Article 24), which stipulates that violators would risk a 45,000-euro ($53,000) fine and one year in prison. As a result of the measure, protests engulfed the nation in December. The security bill, initially set to pass in March, will likely be delayed because policy-makers have vowed to completely redraft the proposition. 

The measure would have been a large step towards efforts to cover-up police abuse and lower the need for accountability in a historically discriminatory police force. Proponents of the bill argue that police have become victims of attacks and targets on social media; however, many have speculated that Macron proposed Article 24 to placate police unions that were outraged by proposed reform after the George Floyd Protests this summer. Others have argued, Article 24 is yet another attempt by Macron to appeal to conservative constituents and maintain his centrist standing. Nonetheless, French citizens were outraged at the suggestion of a policy seemingly aimed to provide the police with immunity. 

The years of protests pose interesting ramifications for France both in the upcoming presidential election and in national cohesion once COVID-19 has been sidelined. Early electoral polls have forecasted far-right candidate Marie Le-Pen to win a run-off election against Macron in 2022, but these figures are likely to change as the election looms closer. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the current French administration’s neoliberal policies have not been accepted by the public and a shift towards nationalistic rhetoric could be an appealing response to the years of unrest. Although Macron’s approval rating is currently stable at 41%, this could alter depending on how the government handles the economic recovery from COVID–19 lockdowns. In other words, Macron’s reelection heavily depends on his administrations’ response to COVID–19 but protests throughout his administration show signs of decaying support that could be capitalized on by a politician like Le Pen.

With all this in mind, whoever wins the 2022 presidential election faces a road to economic recovery that will likely add gasoline to the ongoing fire. A significant aspect of the European Union’s economic policies in the time leading up to the COVID–19 lockdowns, was maintaining a positive budget deficit (where revenue outweighs spending). That being said, the lockdowns have forced nations in the EU, France included, to spend billions of euros nationalizing payrolls, suppressing bankruptcies, and avoiding mass unemployment. Estimates show that the French deficit increased by around 10% this year alone which warrants concerns that the EU will try to curb deficits once pandemic relief can be eased. However, this will likely result in decreased social services and/or increased taxes to catch up with the deficit, which in essence was the prescription for Greece’s deficit in 2010.

With measures such as these likely to be put in place, public resentment to systemic pension reforms, increased taxes, and police overreach in France would be dwarfed by outrage aimed at reducing overall government spending during the COVID–19 recovery. Recent meetings in the European Parliament discussed post-pandemic recovery which focused on maintaining expansionary fiscal policy in the near-future. Having said that, the indefinite nature of lockdowns measures create concerns of European deficits and their long-term economic and social consequences for countries like France. 

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By Ryan Saffarian

Ryan Saffarian is a junior at UCLA currently pursuing a B.A. in Political Science with a concentration in International Relations. He is a Staff Writer at the Journal on World Affairs UCLA.

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