French Friday: Les Gilets Jaunes

Until last Saturday, most Americans didn’t know about the protests that have been shaking France since late October.

The coverage by the American national news was slow. After all, France is often experiencing protests and strikes. It runs in the DNA of the nation.

But last weekend, as violence escaladed in Paris, I started to receive some texts and emails from American friends expressing their shock.

As you all know, I was born and brought up in France. I left my native land at the age of 30. Many years later, I am no longer a ‘real’ French woman. And yet, France will always stand at the edge of my mind.

So when any significant event happens on my homeland I am naturally ‘there.’

My American friends translated the Gilets Jaunes by the Yellow Jackets. Which made me smile despite the seriousness of the situation.

A Gilet is a Vest in English and not a Jacket, which is a Veste in French. Powerful letter E!

French drivers are required to carry a yellow vest in their car and to wear it if they need to pull over, whether to change a tire or wait for road assistance. The safety protection became mandatory, due to the many accidents involving drivers hit by other drivers as they stood in the emergency lane. The French yellow vests are the American flares or triangles.

The yellow vest seemed then a perfect fit for the people who decided to oppose the increase in France’s fuel tax. If you read, watched or listened the news you likely know that the French government has first delayed the application of the planned tax and then canceled it in response to the violence in and outside of Paris.

I didn’t intend to write about the Gilets Jaunes and won’t attempt to explain a complex movement, but I felt compelled to clarify why a yellow vest and also to add that, as we say in France, the tax was la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le verre or the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Otherwise, French citizens would already have folded their Gilets Jaunes back in the trunk of their cars and the French government would not have required the support of the French gendarmerie and their armoured vehicles to protect Paris tomorrow.

As I watched the French news and heard some of the French citizens last night I was reminded of Strangers in Their Own Land, an important book that attempted to understand the fight against big government, just before the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign. I scanned the post I wrote about this book in May 2017 and had forgotten that I also wrote about my provincial upbringing, a significant keyplayer in the current Yellow-Vest movement.

Although a vast majority of French people understand the reasons behind the movement and support the Gilets Jaunes they also condemn violence, loathe the casseurs who come from the extreme right and left, and call for peaceful marches and protests.

May they be heard.




  1. I have read much in the New York Times about the protests, but I really appreciate hearing your native version, Evelyne. These are tough times in France.

    • The coverage was slow, but by the time I decided to finally write a short post about the movement most American important newspapers has written about it. I read great articles, in fact. Most in the NYT. Yep, these are pretty serious events for sure. Thank you for stopping by.

  2. Thanks for the explanation. I applaud your support for the voices between the extremes. If it works in France, I hope it spreads to our country.

    • Extremes are always the loudest, so it’s hard for moderate voices to get heard. And it doesn’t sound too promising so far in France, unfortunately. When violent people infiltrate peaceful marches it is impossible for the police to sort through the crowd, resulting in massive arrests and thankfully quick release when people have no record. Most French people must wait with impatience for their president’s speech on Monday. Hopefully, it will bring calm and options to consider.

  3. Wow I didn’t know about the yellow vests. I worry the unrest will become accepted and spread in Europe.

  4. Yes, we’re watching closely from nearby in Italy, where it is being covered a lot. The yellow vests are necessary in Italy, too. I believe it was an EU regulation for drivers to have them on board. I think what Americans fail to understand is how heavily gas is already taxed here in Europe. Placing additional taxes on prices that are already strangling the average citizen was always going to be a risky move. If Macron’s carbon tax were implemented here (where gas prices were already higher than those in France), we would probably be facing the same thing.

    • I agree with you, Kimberly. When my dad visited us the first time he was surprised to see the cost of gas in California and shocked when he understood it was per gallon and not liter, as it is in France. Each gallon was at least four times cheaper than a liter there. I also remember when gas skyrocketed in the U.S. after 9/11. People spoke about it all the time and lines were endless at Costco where gas a little cheaper. So yes, the cost of gas matters.
      It was probably not a smart move from the French government to announce the tax increase so close to the holiday season. And also to forget that most public transportation has been shut down in smaller towns throughout France. Something that started when I was a college student. Old cars and diesel are big pollutants and if France wants to switch to clean energy they must start somewhere, but it is unfortunate that most people who live paycheck to paycheck can’t afford to buy a new car and often have to drive away from where they live since the cost of housing is also increasing in larger cities where most jobs are.
      It’s certainly a tensed situation so close now to Christmas. Thank you for your comment, Kimberly.

  5. A couple of thoughts, Evelyne. One is on gas taxes. I don’t know about France, but what drives the price of gas up here is oil companies limiting supply to artificially increase prices so they can maximize their profits on the backs of people who drive. Or oil producing governments that limit supplies so that the world will pay their bills. Gas taxes make sense if the money raised is used to build and maintain the highway network that is necessary for automobiles. There is a direct correlation between how much you drive and how much you pay. Often, people want good roads, but they don’t want to pay for them.
    The second thought is that the proposed gas taxes were merely the straw that broke the camel’s back, as you noted. Again, I don’t know the situation, but possibly it justifies the action. –Curt

    • France doesn’t produce oil, so the country relies exclusively on foreign oil, which explains the high cost in general. What the new president and his government want is to limit pollution in France and switch to clean energy, including for cars. Old cars, particularly running on diesel, are big pollutants. The goal was to remove them from circulation early 2019. But most people who own old and diesel cars are either retirees or people with modest means. These planned measures triggered the beginning of the yellow-vest movement. Behind, there is a deeper feeling of social injustice, which is more palpable away from Paris that remains the capital on all levels.
      Let’s hope for calmer days as Christmas approaches.
      Thank you, Curt for another thoughtful comment.

      • Appreciate the background, Evelyne. Gas has always seemed so high in Europe as a whole. Eventually, it makes sense to move to more efficient, less polluting cars that are less expensive to operate. But how to make the transition is always the challenge. I’m reminded a bit of the black riots in the America of the 60s and 70s which were understandable on one level but did more damage to their own communities than elsewhere. (Wonder if Putin and Russia are helping to encourage the violence?) –Curt

      • On your last comment I heard that some people have rumored the possibility of Russia pushing to the disturbance. Frankly I think that French people do not need to be pushed a lot to strike and protest:)
        Locals have shared their mixed feelings about the gilets jaunes. For them the people who need most are still absent from the debate. The more vocals are not really poor. They are not wealthy for sure but not on food stamps either.
        So it’s time to calm down and embrace the extended truce offered by the government, I think.
        But again I do not live in France:)

      • Wake up calls are good when they lead to positive action, Evelyne. As Thomas Jefferson used to say, a little rebellion now and then can be a healthy thing. –Curt

      • Agree!!!!

  6. France has a long history of rebelliousness rather more than most nations. I’ve always respected that quality in the French, their unwillingness to sit still in the face of tribulation.

    • It is so true, Marilyn. Sometimes I wish we could be more vocal here, never violent, though. It’s a paradox to witness our American gun violence in comparison to the French street violence. What surprises me, though, now is to see people who protest only on Saturdays. The French Revolution or the more recent May 1968, which were built on a deep feeling of social injustice and a need for change, didn’t follow a calendar 🙂

  7. You give some fascinating background on the protests Evelyne, I hope it’s resolved peacefully soon.

  8. I no longer live in France as you know and do not feel the right to judge the protest and its actors. It is certainly almost impossible to understand from a standard American point of view and perhaps from a British point of view too. French citizens can be excessive and also a little unaware of their privileges in comparison to others. But, as I often remind my American friends who believe that health care and education are free in France, taxes are high. So when more taxes are added, the ones who already struggle fight back.
    Like you, I hope for a peaceful resolve. The French president is addressing the nation on Monday and he will likely want more than truce.

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