The Yellow Vests legacy lives on amid discontent over pension reform
Metin Koca, ERC PRIME Youth Project Post-Doc Researcher, European Institute, Istanbul Bilgi University
March 28, 2023
French President Emmanuel Macron has recently proposed a new pension reform that has sparked controversy and protests nationwide. The proposed reform aims to create a universal pension system that will replace the current 42 different pension regimes. The plan includes setting a minimum pension amount of 1,000 euros per month and gradually increasing the retirement age from 62 to 64.
This is not the first time the pension system has become a hotspot in France. Beginning in November 2018, the Yellow Vests movement organised the most widely supported uprising in contemporary French history. The movement protested against the then-proposed pension reform among other grievances, including social inequality and high living costs. Contrary to the government reducing the movement to one of “thugs” who want to break, burn and kill, my recently published study argues that Yellow Vests’ legacy goes way beyond violent extremism and will persist as long as the demand for re-socialising French society survives.[i] Among the atomised groups whom Yellow Vests may socially integrate are those who back Radical Right movements or openly identify as Muslims in the French public sphere.
Socioeconomic grievances behind the movement
Macron’s pension reform and the government’s broader economic agenda have become a shared concern for many different groups that stay in their gated communities, ranging from trade unions to far-left and far-right political parties. Many workers and unions vehemently oppose the reform, arguing that it will reduce their benefits and make them work longer. They also fear that the proposed changes will not consider the specificities of some professions, such as teachers, nurses, and firefighters, who have physically demanding jobs and should be able to retire earlier. Crosscutting the existing ideological positions in the political landscape, these concerns are shared by the otherwise-polarised groups. Yellow Vests served as a roundabout for them, both figuratively and literally.
While the extent to which Muslims participated in the first wave of protests remains a matter of speculation, I address this question with empirical evidence based on the PRIME Youth interview data. Accordingly, many Muslims—i.e., those who self-identify as Muslims in the French public sphere—supported and occasionally joined the protests. In doing so, crucially, they did not interpret the movement based on a religious particularist vocabulary, which they often introduced in the rest of their narratives (e.g., on Islamophobia and discrimination, democratic deficit, citizenship and migration, and religious freedoms).
The group boundaries are imprecise but not incomprehensible as the government suggested in order to undermine its legitimacy or, at the very least, its negotiating leverage. Yellow Vests’ spontaneity, leaderlessness and anti-normativity in the compartmentalised French society signified a productive social context for our interviewees to break free from their bounded identities. Our Muslim interlocutors did not expect their parochial identities to be in the driving seat to self-identify with the movement—instead, some proudly told how “we,” universal French citizens, became an example for the rest of Europe as “a country of revolutions.” Meanwhile, our interlocutors who supported Radical Right movements, from Zemmour’s Reconquete to Le Pen’s National Rally, seemed careful enough to distinguish between the particular nativist grievances and the broader discourse of the movement. Overall, the movement appeared in the interviews as one of the few mutually-appreciated reference points regardless of the baseline Muslim/Native polarisation.
Limitation: managing the imprecision
Yellow Vests had limited success in their first appearance, beginning in November 2018 and continuing into 2020, with arguably imprecise strategies, goals, and demands. This limitation is associated in general with Neworked Social Movements, and in particular with Yellow Vests. However, the pragmatic combination of precision and imprecision is often ignored in the making of these relatively new organisations. In my view, the imprecise identity demarcation of the Yellow Vests movement does not make it vulnerable to the solidified cultural polarisation. The imprecision keeps the hope for a shared future alive in the French political landscape preoccupied with such tensions. That said, sustaining the ideological (e.g., nativism and Islamism) and methodical diversity (e.g., violent and non-violent radicalisms) requires managing this imprecision.
Before losing steam with Covid, a series of issues brought the movement to the edge of precision--i.e., a counterproductive one. Among them are the organisational issues (e.g., miscommunication between violent and non-violent radicalisms), explosive ideological clashes (e.g., the domination of white supremacists or the Antifa), and structural limits (e.g., the urban-rural divide). Accordingly, many of our interlocutors were convinced that (1) the movement was taken over by violent radicalism; (2) it was dominated in due course by the “white vests” (i.e., racists) or “red vests” (i.e., communists); and (3) its activity was far away (i.e., requires a car) or surveilled closely (i.e., a deterrent factor particularly for Muslims in the context of the securitisation of their religious affiliation). The success of the movement, or its successor, in the coming period will be measured by its ability to deal with these issues.
Conclusion: new protests on the horizon
The protests in March 2023 against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension plan are evidence that the discontent that fueled the Yellow Vests movement still exists in France. With over 1 million people protesting, including high school students who are there for the first time, the protests are the biggest domestic crisis of Macron’s second term as president. The postponement of a state visit by Britain’s King Charles III highlights the severity of the situation. As new protests continue to emerge, it is clear that the Yellow Vests movement has left a lasting impact on French society, and the legacy of the movement lives on.
The proposed pension reform by President Macron has reignited the discontent and protests of various groups, including trade unions, far-left and far-right political parties, and many who are known as “Muslims” in other contexts. The movement served as a platform for these groups to come together and voice their shared concerns about social inequality and economic policies. However, the movement’s imprecise identity demarcation has also created challenges in managing its ideological and methodical diversity. Despite this, the imprecision of the movement is what keeps the hope for a shared future alive in a polarised French society. As new protests emerge on the horizon, they rely on a new wave of social and political activism that the Yellow Vests made possible.
[i] Koca M (2023) Networked social movements and radicalisation: yellow vests’ cross-ideological horizon for underrepresented groups. Journal of Contemporary European Studies. Routledge: 1–15. DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2023.2177839.