THERE is little consensus among clergy in France on the cause of, or the solution to, the gilets jaunes protests that have swept the country in recent weeks.
The demonstrators, who all wear a yellow high-visibility vest, giving the movement its name, initially took to the streets to object to a proposed increase in the fuel tax.
But now, in its fifth week, the national wave of protests has grown into a more far-reaching, if vague, expression of discontent with living conditions in France, and, in particular, the government of Emmanuel Macron, the centrist President who was elected last year (News, 12 May 2017).
The Chaplain of St George’s, Paris, the Revd Mark Osborne, said on Tuesday that recent concessions made by President Macron seemed to have had no effect. “To me, it feels like the Brexit argument. People are protesting about things that are out of the immediate control of the government,” he said.
President Macron won a huge mandate last year for his programme of sweeping economic reform, but any actual specific changes are vociferously opposed, Fr Osborne said.
A chaplain in the Bordeaux region, the Revd Tony Lomas, also found the protest movement difficult to pin down. “It’s hard to get a real handle on it. Everyone you talk to, their take is slightly different.” But most people in his congregation were “broadly supportive of the complaints”, he said: it was true that the cost of living had gone up, and the government had cut taxes for the rich while increasing them on fuel, which hits the poorest hardest.
The gilets jaunes have no clear set of demands, no organisation, and no leader, which made them difficult to negotiate with or even understand, Fr Lomas said. “There’s a broad feeling that many of us are supportive of the thrust of what people are complaining about, but I think that that is probably being hijacked. You’re beginning to get the sense that what they really want is to bring down the government. That’s no longer a demonstration but a coup d’état.”
The proportion of gilets jaunes who were now hard-left or hard-right militants was going up each weekend that they descended on central Paris, Fr Osborne said.
At first, the protests felt friendly and relaxed, but the most recent ones descended into street fighting outside St George’s. Two cars were burnt in the road, which is close to the Arc de Triomphe, and Fr Osborne recalled watching the marchers. “I was watching them march down our street, and worried they would break our plate-glass windows. But people were saying ‘Don’t worry, Father, we know it’s a church; we’re not going to do anything.’”
The demonstration quickly turned violent, however, and Fr Osborne had to to lower the shutters and retreat inside the building. He and his colleagues smelled the tear gas from outside as the police fought a running battle.
Fr Lomas felt that the problem was more the endless road blocks that the gilets jaunes had established in the countryside around Bordeaux. During a half-hour journey, he could be stopped up to six times, forcing him to add 15 minutes on to every journey to ensure that he arrived on time. “We had a fair amount of trouble in Bordeaux on Saturday, which left a few challenges for our carol services on Sunday,” but nothing was as bad as Paris, he said.
“I have absolutely no feeling about how this is going to end. None of us are sure how it started.” While the public mood was broadly supportive, this would change, he predicted, if they did not unblock the roads quickly in response to President Macron’s concessions.
Both Fr Osborne and Mr Lomas also said that vibrant, and occasionally violent, street protest was an essential part of French political culture, and was often difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
This was echoed in a blog by the Archdeacon of France and Monaco, the Ven. Meurig Williams. “Public protests are nothing new. The fact that most of them happen regularly, without widespread conflict and injury, is a sign of how mature a society France is,” he wrote.
“We know that these protests are voicing genuine concerns, not least for the socially disadvantaged. But there is escalating concern at the degree to which some protests are becoming infiltrated by groups whose intentions are aggressive and divisive.
“The [RC] Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Michel Aupetit, has spoken of French values: how fraternity has an equal place with freedom and equality, appealing for dialogue and the renewal of society. Our Anglican communities in France echo his words.”
In this Advent season, Christians should pray for the government of France and its people, Archdeacon Williams concluded.
The Roman Catholic Bishops in France have made similar comments. “Recent events show that a large part of our people face major suffering that produces anger when they don’t feel they’re heard, and frustration at what can be taken for arrogance,” Archbishop Aupetit said.
“I urge all sides to hold a genuine dialogue, where each one agrees to leave behind their fixed positions and humbly finds ways to rebuild a fraternal society together. To be brothers, we need a common paternity.
“The awareness of God the Father, who teaches us to love one another, has formed France’s soul. Forgetting God has left us disoriented and trapped in an individualism where everyone fends for himself.”
The President of the RC Bishops’ Conference of France, the Archbishop of Marseille, the Most Revd George Pontier, said: “This crisis reveals a deficit of dialogue in our country, the breakdowns and lack of understanding that many people experience, and the growing mistrust of all institutions and civil society. Solidarity should be at the heart of human relations, especially for the weakest.”