Turnout at Saturday’s Yellow Vest protests fell sharply, with 51,400 attending demonstrations nationwide as opposed to 69,000 just two weeks ago. The movement is falling prey to deep internal divisions even as it seeks greater legitimacy.
After drawing 282,000 people nationwide during the first weekend of protests in November, less than a fifth of that turned out on Saturday for “Act 13”, according to interior ministry estimates.
The protests – which began in response to the government’s decision to introduce annual increases to diesel and carbon taxes – has since coalesced into a broader opposition against French President Emmanuel Macron’s government, the high cost of living in France and widespread economic uncertainty.
But a movement that has attracted many who are experiencing economic anxiety has struggled to transform popular anger into a real political force. The Yellow Vests have failed to anoint leaders who can take them forward nor agreed on clearly defined goals.
A leaderless movement
Themovement’s lack of any real structure has led to infighting as its most visible members vie for control.
Priscillia Ludosky and Éric Drouet emerged as early leaders of the movement after creating an “official” Yellow Vest Facebook page calling for the first nationwide protests on November 17 in response to the government’s decision to raise a direct tax on diesel fuel.
The idea to create the page came from a popular petition Ludosky posted online earlier in the year demanding Macron repeal the tax. Following the success of the first two Yellow Vest protests, Ludosky and Drouet were among eight representatives of the movement invited to attend a meeting on November 27 with Environment Minister François de Rugy. In the end, they were the only two to accept the invitation.
But the pair soon had a falling out. In the month that followed, Drouet took an increasingly hard line, even calling on protesters to storm the Élysée presidential palace. He was arrested in December after organising an unauthorised protest in Paris.
In January, Ludosky published a statement announcing that she would no longer be working with Drouet, who she accused of “harming” the movement.
“We decided to go our separate ways,” Drouet later said in a video posted online. “We can’t always be in agreement on what to do, and how to do it.”
Enter Maxime Nicolle, another Yellow Vest protester whose online videos have attracted thousands of followers. The 31-year-old, who also goes by the alias Fly Rider, rose to national prominence after appearing as a guest on several popular French television shows. He made a bid to become the movement’s official spokesman in early December.
“I would not decide anything, I would just give voice to what you decide,” Nicolle told Yellow Vests supporters on Facebook Live.
One of the movement’s most divisive figures, however, is arguably Jacline Mouraud, 51, who rose to fame after a video she posted online lambasting Macron’s government drew more than 5 million views. Since then, she has come under fire from Yellow Vest protesters for using the movement as a platform to launch her own political party. She hopes to make headway in the country’s municipal elections in 2020.
“She’s hit rock bottom!” Drouet said of Mouraud’s political ambitions in late December.
Without a leader, the movement has also been unable to clearly define its demands. Disparate voices have emerged, making it difficult to understand what, exactly, most Yellow Vest protesters want.
In a four-page open letter posted in January on the “official” Yellow Vest Facebook page co-founded by Ludosky and Drouet, members of the movement listed a number of demands, including direct talks with the government, lower taxes and social charges, and the introduction of a citizens’ initiative referendum.
>> Read more: ‘Yellow Vests’ open a new front in the battle: Popular referendums
But Drouet and Nicolle have taken a tougher stance, demanding Macron’s resignation.
Mouraud, meanwhile, has called for a “major overhaul” of the French constitution, including an amendment guaranteeing men and women equal pay. She also proposed combining the roles of president and prime minister.
“There’s one person too many at the head of the executive branch,” she told AFP in a statement. “This duality can be a source of conflict, even instability.”
Other figures have sought to shape the movement’s message through the upcoming European parliamentary elections. Ingrid Levavasseur, 31, announced in late January that she intends to lead a list of Yellow Vest candidates in the May vote.
“The European elections are the first opportunity we’ve been presented with, so here we go,” she said in an interview published this month in French daily Le Figaro, adding that France “needs Europe, the European Union”.
Since then there have been other French media reports of several potential Yellow Vest candidates, each with a different platform.
The discord has left the movement with little bargaining power. A first meeting in November between Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and a delegation of eight Yellow Vest protesters ended in fiasco, after all but one member of the movement walked out following a disagreement over whether the exchange could be filmed.
Another attempt to organise talks in December also collapsed.
“No one is in agreement. I spent my afternoon calling people. The organisation is a mess,” Nicolle said at the time.
New divisions arose within the movement when Macron announced a string of concessions in December, including raising the minimum wage and launching a “grand national debate” on government policy. Although many Yellow Vest protesters have dismissed the town hall-style meetings he called for as a political ploy, Macron’s approval ratings have inched upward since the first debate was held on January 15.
And yet the Yellow Vests still enjoy broad public support in France, with 58 percent of respondents in an Ifop poll published on February 4 saying they had a positive opinion of the movement.