Secular-economic radicalization to violence: The  case of the “yellow vests” movement in France – by Maria Alvanou

What started in France during November as just a wave of street protests against rising fuel prices has developed into a mass movement against the government of Macron, riots, injuries, vandalisms, loss of lives and a country in the verge of imposing state of emergency[1]. As the situation still develops, the following are some points to be considered:

  1. One of the easiest ways not to positively address, but actually escalate a conflict between the state and a group of its citizens, is the use of excess state violence. A response that is out of proportion and police brutality are sure ways to ignite more negative and even violent reaction, plus even lose part (or worse all) of the legitimacy the state initially holds in any attempt of crackdown. Unless law enforcement reacts inside the context of the rule of law, human rights and even taking into account the political history and sensitivities of the country, it endangers the state’s democratic position and function. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets is not without problems regarding the conformity to human rights protection[2] and there can be such a thing as disproportionate use of force by the police, even when trying to disperse violent demonstrations. So everyone who is interested in safeguarding the rule of law and order in France should not only worry about the violent acts perpetrated by the «mouvement des gilets jaunes», but also monitor if the repression by the French law enforcement is lawful according to the standards of human rights law and proportionate. The photos of arrested student protesters in kneeling position, with their hands bound behind their heads and some of them facing the wall[3] bring to mind photos of arrested prisoners of war and they cannot (or should not) be considered to show a standard arrest procedure by a democratic police. The impression left about how the French government has used too much violence in order to repress the protests has given the other side actually a new communication card to play, using now the “kneeling protest”[4] as a way to attract the attention of the media and the sympathy of the people. The way the French authorities are using violence to crack down the demonstrations is a “lose-lose” recipe from many points of view.
  2. What started as opposition to fuel prices, now expresses the opposition to the whole set of living conditions in France. This is why people representing different segments of the population are taking part in the protests, trying to bring to attention the negative reality of their lives. This movement has a dynamic that starts from the very core of the French society and if it is seen only superficially, if dealing with it stays only at the repression level, then the effect can be detrimental for the future of the French society.
  3. Both from authorities and scholars worldwide there has been for years now a focus on islamist extremism and generally religion as a leading factor to radicalization to violence. This has been the main orientation of counter extremism policies and the respective measures taken. While this trend can be understood under the weight of the Al-Qaeda and afterwards the Daesh network of terror, it is a one-sided approach to the possible background of extremist/terrorist violence in western societies. Apart from the fact that often religion is just a facade or an alibi, while behind it there are socio-economic reasons that foster violence, it has been a big overlook not to pay attention to what effect the economic policies adopted by the several European governments can have on s Aristoteles was of course a philosophical genius, but his saying: “poverty is the parent of revolution and crime” is actually nothing more than common sense. A common sense that politicians today should also have, because this is a lesson learned throughout history. Whatever police measures the government of Macron takes, unless there is a real concern to listen to and address the grievances of people expressed, there is not much chance of curbing this movement. More and more people will be on the streets, more violence will erupt, more police violence shall have to be applied in order to control the situation and so forth. Unless we are talking about states in other parts of the world (by the way highly criticized by western democracies), a government in Europe cannot withstand prosecuting and sending to prison thousands of its citizens, neither engage everyday in barricade war on the streets.
  4. Of course in a democracy the government that is elected through the constitutional procedures of elections is given the trust and the command of the citizens to run the country. Hence, it is upon the government (and actually the parliament) to decide about the policy and measures to be followed. Reactions and different opinions from the opposition, from groups of people who do not agree with the government’s political line cannot (and should not) annul the power a democratically government must enjoy. Nevertheless, elections are not a «carte blanche» for any government, they are not a “surrendering” of the people. Citizens cannot be expected to “sit back” and will not (cannot and actually won’t) remain silent and absent from the political reality between elections. In a democracy citizens are actually expected to be active participants. After all, the right to demonstrations and civil protests is safeguarded constitutionally in the western world as a sign of democracy. So, although it is the prerogative of every government to apply its policy, this does not mean that citizens are not allowed to protest, or even use legal and institutional means to try and change laws and policies.
  5. Using violence to pursue political demands means passing a red line that should not be passed in a democracy. The constitution, the courts, several institutional organs, the power of the vote and the relationship between the voter and his representative in the parliament are all ways for citizens to safeguard their rights against any policy or law that is unjust and harmful to their interests. Protesters should use their right to demonstration, to go on strike, to express publicly their dismay, to hold accountable their government in the ballot. In the western world the space given to citizens in order to lawfully challenge the decisions of their government is big and it should be exploited for the good of society. From the moment a movement (whatever the causes, just or not) resorts to violence, there is political anomaly and polarization. Violence means victims. Lives, properties are hurt or endangered and society gets split in to two, with solidarity lost. Historically, legally and politically the use of violence (judged of course afterwards….when and if the attempt to overthrow a political status is successful) gets justified when it is used against a dictatorship or an occupation that leaves no peaceful means for resistance. In a democracy, where people don’t get thrown to jail for their political opinion, where there is freedom of press and speech, academic freedom, freedom to gather etc, violence should have no place in political demands by citizens. The minute the “yellow vest” movement resorted to violence (small or bigger in scale it really does not matter), it gave the French democracy a “below the belt” hit. It automatically lost part of the support it could have from people who don’t agree and don’t accept violence as part of any political struggle. While critique should be exercised for the excessive police response of the French state, it should also be exercised for any violent means used by the protesters. There should be no double standards in identifying dangers to democracy. Plus, the people who have seen their properties damaged, as well as the whole destructions caused inside French cities cannot be neglected; they are not “collateral damage”, as such a notion in victimization cannot be accepted in democracies.
  6. France is one of the European countries that has been targeted by islamists. Its free society has been a red flag for the extremist network of Daesh. The current situation serves as a gift for islamists. The European nation embodying liberty, brotherhood and equality is in turmoil situation that puts to question all the above principles. The rhetoric of islamists propagandising a failed French society can reach easier its target group and even create more sympathizers affected by grievances.  Additionally a possible attack organised to take place during the protests cannot be excluded and will make things even worse.

The “yellow vest” movement has spread also in Belgium and the Netherlands, irrelevant in these countries to fuel prices, expressing more of a general protest to government policies[5]. Thus, we should look upon what is taking place now in France not in the terms of a domestic affair, but as a dynamic phenomenon that could become also a problem for other European countries. Austerity and financial measures affecting large parts of the population and existing anti-establishment groups, already challenge many European states. A wave of protests can start anytime and its escalation cannot be predicted. Both citizens and the authorities should take a lesson from the example of the current situation in France and avoid mistakes that lead to violent conflict with no victors, just a hurt democracy.


[2]. On the issue of tear gass and rubber bullets during demonstrations as a violation of Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment) of the European Convention of Human Rights, see the recent ECHR decision KILICI v. Turkey, but also older ones, for example Abdullah Yaşa and Others v. Turkey.