Why has Ireland’s “yellow vest” movement failed to take off?

Through political, cultural, and social differences, the translation of France’s activist revolution can’t seem to empassion any support in Ireland

It’s a scary time to be an exchange student in France. With rising political tensions, there are weekly unavoidable protests right on our doorstep. Many Trinity students studying in France have come face-to-face with the gilets jaunes or yellow vests, and some have had some alarming experiences. These include being warned to stay inside by accommodation offices because of protestors out with “the intent to kill”, being stuck on buses in traffic for hours while protestors stole tyres from cars to use as material for bonfires, getting tear-gassed, and witnessing an attempt to blow up a Métro station. The civil unrest in France is at an all time high, with the yellow vest protestors shaking the country.

The yellow vest protests started in October 2018 when an increase in petrol tax was announced. There was a feeling that this tax, among many others in France, placed an unfair burden on working class rural communities, compared to wealthier people living in bigger cities. Despite the government’s decision to cancel these tax plans, the protests in France have escalated significantly. Since October, the protests have progressed into something else, with many different political groups from both ends of the political spectrum joining in on the protests. The goals of the protestors have evolved greatly, with some demanding better job opportunities or support for pensioners, and others wanting to demolish the political system in France. New aims have emerged on behalf of those protesting, including some to take down capitalism and parliamentary democracy. But the general goal of the protestors is clear; they all want Macron and his centrist policies out of power.

“It’s surprising that in this political climate there are headlines about yellow vest protests in Ireland where only “dozens” of people showed up.”

Regardless of the violence connected with the yellow vest protests, the support of the protestors among the French population is mind-blowing. According to a poll by Elable, 67% of French people are in support of the protests. There is large support for these protests from both ends of the political spectrum; 81% of supporters of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing party, Rassemblement National, formerly known as Le Front National, also support the yellow vest protests, while a staggering 88% of supporters of the left-wing party La France Insoumise have expressed their support for the protests. It’s hard to know what the French government can do to bring an end to the protests, with so many of the protestors having differing views and desired outcomes. It is clear that the people of France want change, but the precise changes are yet to be determined.

Ever since his election in 2017, there has been a long history of hatred for Macron from both the far-right and far-left, and Macron’s hold on his voting group has always been weak. In the 2017 election, Macron had the least loyal voters, with only 56% of them saying they voted for him because he was their preferred candidate, as opposed to just voting for him as a tactical vote or because he was the “least bad”, according to the Financial Times. Comparing this to the statistics on the right-wing candidate Le Pen and the left-wing candidate Hamon, for whom 80% and 90% of their voters respectively said they voted for them because they were their preferred candidate. It’s no surprise that Macron’s presidency has been greeted with this unrest, with the French people being dissatisfied with him from the start.

“It’s the lack of solidarity behind one common cause that has led to the failure of the yellow vest movement in Ireland.”

In examining the case of the yellow vests in France, we can see an interesting contrast with the situation in Ireland. The country is highly politically charged at the moment; from the Repeal movement last year, to movements to fight against homelessness and the housing crisis, and movements in support of nurses and midwives, the population is more politically active now than it has been for years. So with all this political activism in Ireland; why have the yellow vest protests been so unsuccessful here? It’s surprising that in this political climate, headlines report that only “dozens” of people showed up to yellow vest protests in Ireland.

Let’s first compare the difference between political activism in Ireland and in France. In France, there was a specific cause that the protestors got behind first, which allowed the protests to grow. Here in Ireland, while the population seems to be politically charged, there is no singular cause that the yellow vests have to get behind. A quick Google search of yellow vests in Ireland will show you pages working against homelessness, but it will also show you videos of anti-immigration protests. Many different groups with different goals are trying to start their own yellow vest protests, but it is the lack of solidarity behind one common cause that has led to the failure of a mass yellow vest movement in Ireland.

“It is important to remember that these might not be the kind of protests we want.”

For the yellow vest movement to really take off here, protestors need to gather behind one goal to make a big impact, and then other issues can be tackled through different groups. While French yellow vest protestors are now setting their sights on general political change, the protests started out with a specific movement, which is what made their activism so impactful.

In addition, despite the number of marches that are happening in Dublin and all over the country, Varadkar’s approval ratings are not low. Of all the main political party leaders, Varadkar has the highest approval rating of 51% according to the Irish Times, compared to only 39% for Micheál Martin and 40% for Mary-Lou McDonald. Varadkar is generally less hated than Macron and seems to have stronger support, which could mean that there would be less nationwide support for a big movement like the yellow vests in Ireland, and it certainly would not approach the level of support that there is in France.

While it is interesting for Irish people to hear about the yellow vest protests from afar and wish for a movement on the same scale to take place in our country, it is important to remember that these might not be the kind of protests we want. With so many conflicting movements between the different groups of protestors, it’s hard to believe they will bring any political change to France. There is nothing the French government can do to satisfy all of them. French cities are being turned upside down and the historically romantic reputation of France is being tarnished by the violence and uproar. The right to protest is an important one, but perhaps it is better for the political growth of Ireland if we keep our protests peaceful, and with clear and certain goals in mind.