On two Sundays this month there have been Yellow Vest demonstrations in France organised by women. As one of the leaders explained to the media, they’re not ‘feminist’ demonstrations but ‘feminine’, a chance for women to have their voices heard in a movement that, since its formation, has been predominantly patriarchal.
These women don’t want their movement to be hijacked by bourgeois Parisian feminists, those who care more about making French a gender-neutral language than reducing childcare costs for single mums struggling to make ends meet. Changing grammatical rules so that the masculine form of a noun no longer takes precedence over the female is probably not the issue that preoccupies the million working women living below the poverty line.
Men are free to march in the female Yellow Vest demonstrations (although not in the front ranks) but on the understanding that they’re to behave themselves. Nothing, not even abuse, is to be hurled at the police. While the women’s yellow vest protestors are more mellow than the men’s they are just as white. A slim seam of diversity runs through the movement but generally France’s ethnic minorities have not mobilised in any significant number, particularly those from the banlieues. Nevertheless the banlieues are broadly supportive of the Yellow Vest movement. Unemployment and poverty are endemic in many inner-cities so why wouldn’t they back a protest that seeks to ameliorate the conditions of those on the lowest rung of society?
Which is those in the banlieues, after all – not the Yellow Vests and certainly not the middle-class ones whose chief gripe is about the cost of petrol for their 4×4. Many inhabitants of the banlieues don’t even have a car, so why fret about such issues? That explains in part why they weren’t protesting in November when the fuel tax rise galvanised hundreds of thousands of people across France. The movement has subsequently grown to encompass a general dissatisfaction at the way life has changed for the worse. But it hasn’t for those in the banlieues; they had it bad before globalisation began to bite, so unlike the Yellow Vests they’re not raging against a lost way of life; they never had it in the first place.
The Trente Glorieuses, that period of economic boom in France in the three decades after the war, wasn’t experienced by the country’s Muslims, who began coming in significant numbers in the the early 1960s. Approximately 85,000 arrived from Algeria, soldiers and their families whose loyalty had been to France in the bloody war of independence. Their reward was to be shunted off to the periphery of cities, from where they were also kept on the fringes of French society.
There’s a feeling among some in the banlieues that the protesters’ cry of despair is more a whine of entitlement. Emmanuel Macron alluded to this last week in a speech when he said that some in France had forgotten that success requires effort. His words were twisted by his political enemies, but in essence they were spot on.
The despair felt by the Yellow Vests is nothing compared to what has been experienced for decades in the banlieues. Last year a row erupted after Macron dismissed an official report that recommended a £4.3bn (€5bn) investment programme for the banlieues, saying that it was a waste of yet more money. He was right. Similar initiatives have failed to achieve anything in the past. As Macron identified, education is the priority if the cycle of poverty and unemployment is to be broken. France’s out-of-date school system (which is being reformed) nurtures the high achievers but neglects the rest; approximately 100,000 children leave school each year without any qualifications.
Even if they pass their baccalauréat, those from an ethnic minority background often face prejudice in the workplace. A 2015 investigation found that job applicants with Muslim surnames were four times less likely to be hired as their Catholic counterparts, even if they shared identical CVs. That helps explain why unemployment in the banlieues is 25 per cent, 15 per cent more than the national average, and why 40 per cent of people live below the poverty line.
‘Stigmatisation’ is another reason why the Yellow Vest movement has failed to pick up momentum in the banlieues. “The problem is the image of these areas portrayed in the media,” said one young woman. “In order not to be treated yet again like a thug or a delinquent, the young, but also others living in the banlieues, dare not protest.”
But other banlieusards (the name given to those who live in the estates) believe that they should be more active in their support of the Yellow Vests. A rapper from Metz called Mysa whose songs describe the bleak life in the banlieues has participated in some of the protests and believes the presence of more Muslims would help break down barriers. Most of the white working-class, particularly from the provinces, know little about the reality of life in the banlieue other than the one-dimensional portrayal they see on the TV. To meet some of the people from these housing estates would help them understand that they have more in common than they realise.
It was François Mitterrand who coined the phrase ‘Vivre Ensemble’ in the 1980s and subsequent presidents have exhorted the working class to ‘live together’ in community harmony. The cliche is the closest that France has come to officially endorsing multiculturalism, but it’s been a spectacular failure to date. Perhaps that will change with this unprecedented protest movement and a sense of social injustice will bring the impoverished together, whatever their sex, religion and colour. France, not so much a Rainbow Nation as a Yellow Nation.