March 13, 2019 / 1:58 PM / 2 months ago

Breakingviews - Cox: A Saturday outing with France’s gilets jaunes

PARIS (Reuters Breakingviews) - Techno music from a portable speaker sounded the alarm at 1 p.m. sharp on Saturday, in front of the McDonald’s at Charles de Gaulle airport. Dozens of men and women quickly donned the yellow vests, or gilets jaunes, that have become the uniform of a movement which has for 17 weeks galvanized the French Republic and defied President Emmanuel Macron’s government.

Protesters clad in yellow vests stage a flash mob at Paris-Charles de Gaulle to oppose plans to privatise airports, March 9, 2019. REUTERS/Rob Cox

For an hour the group circled Terminal 1, dancing joyously, waving tricolor flags and banners, and chanting. Their target: Macron’s plan to sell ADP, the operator of Paris’s largest airport. Police, wearing armour that gave them the look of Tin Men from Oz, followed the throng as television cameras captured the proceedings. There were no violent clashes, no Citroëns set alight. The “flash-mob” was a success, according to its organiser Benjamin Elia, because the idea was “to manipulate the media”.

Their work done, most of the gilets jaunes, named after the garb that’s an obligatory staple of every French automobile, dispersed. Many proceeded to central Paris, where protests continued by the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, that enduring symbol of France’s turn from monarchy to empire to republic, to empire again, and eventually to today’s Fifth Republic. The yellow vests want to usher in a sixth by way of a citizens’ referendum.

Well, some do. Others advocate a universal basic income. Or nationalising the banks. Getting rid of the euro, and returning to the franc, is another popular rallying cry. Saturday’s crew wanted to block a sale of the state’s stake in ADP to the highest bidder. And the whole uprising initially began to protest plans for diesel and petrol tax hikes, which have since been ditched. But a lowering of the speed limit endures, provoking yet others to protest.

Yellow-vest fever cannot be easily pinned down, nor are its grievances readily addressed. And nobody’s in charge. Elia pulled together Facebook propaganda. A chap in a Lenin cap, Philippe de Veulle, acted as the group’s lawyer, advising security personnel that the demonstration would be peaceful. But don’t call them leaders: the idea, after all, is to replace the current system of representative government. But that too depends on who’s doing the speaking.

No wonder Macron is struggling to defuse the unrest and keep liberalising the economy. Having ignored the first rumblings over the fuel tariffs, the French leader was caught off guard not simply by the force of the protests every Saturday, but by high approval ratings for the gilets jaunes: as much as double his own lowly standings.

After dropping the planned fuel tax hike, and adding some 10 billion euros to social welfare spending, Macron embarked on a three-month “grand national debate”, criss-crossing France to conduct town hall meetings with local leaders and ordinary citizens. During that time, the size of the protests has diminished. But as the airport spectacle showed, they haven’t gone away, only grown more specific about their grievances.

“Act 18 is going to be huge,” Elia says, referring to this Saturday’s 18th week of protests. Gilets jaunes from across the country will descend on Paris to confront the government, he says, asking, “What’s the point of the big debate now?”

Yet Macron could ask the same question of the yellow vests without receiving a clear answer. What began as a specific set of complaints from motorists in the countryside has mutated into a catch-all for France’s grievances, which sometimes cross party political divides.

The airports fracas is a case in point. Here the gilets jaunes have some common ground with the French Senate, which in February dealt a temporary setback to the government’s ADP privatisation proposals. Those opposed to the plan liken it to selling the family jewels and draw parallels with the past sale of highways to private enterprises, which then hit citizens with crippling tolls. The biggest of those companies, Vinci, owns 8 percent of ADP – and might like to own more.

ADP is, however, already partially privatised. Royal Schiphol, Credit Agricole, individuals and institutional investors, as well as employees (many required to wear yellow vests to work) own 49.4 percent of ADP, which is worth 17 billion euros on the bourse.

Moreover, ADP’s business – and by extension its value to French taxpayers – is partly a function of the decision by other sovereign nations to privatise their airports. Nearly a third of ADP’s 4.5 billion euros of revenue in 2018 came from airports outside of France, including facilities in Macedonia, Jordan, Croatia and 14 in Turkey. A large slice of what the yellow vests call their patrimony derives from Turks, Jordanians and others selling theirs.

As with so many of the gilet jaunes’ gripes, the ADP situation requires nuance to properly resolve. And like the Occupy Wall Street crusade that came – and went – in New York and elsewhere after the 2008 financial crisis, the French movement’s failure to focus and its temptation to spread itself too thinly, may be the establishment’s best weapon against the upstarts. 

- Additional reporting by Willa Juniper.

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