France protests: The voices of the 'gilets jaunes'

Image source, AFP/Getty
Image caption,
The protests look set to continue over the weekend

"We are fed up of hearing promises from politicians. The French don't believe in them any more."

Freddie Bouvier, a truck driver from Beauvais in northern France, is one of thousands of "yellow vest" protesters rallying against President Emmanuel Macron and his government.

They first took to the streets to protests against a rising fuel tax - a move since abandoned by the government - but the scope has become far greater.

At least four people have died and hundreds have been arrested in the worst unrest to hit France in decades.

And further nationwide protests are being held on Saturday.

"Whether it's a suspension or a freeze of the fuel tax, it's all good news," Mr Bouvier tells the BBC.

"But these are just words. We want to see action quickly."

Why are people still protesting?

The movement cuts across age, job and region. It includes members of the working and middle classes, all affected by the higher cost of living in France.

President Macron was elected on a programme of economic reform, and there is widespread fury that his new policies have failed to deliver the promised change.

Claude Rigolet tells the BBC his income has dropped by almost a fifth since 2000, and has stopped him from eating out or going on holiday in the summer.

"Everything is more expensive," the retiree from Reims says. "Taxes are going up - housing, heating costs, cars. Everything is going up."

Natacha Perchat agrees. The cleaner from Reims says that the fuel tax was "the straw that broke the camel's back".

"They [the government] are hitting the little people hard. My husband works for a transport company. We're not wealthy. We're already in the red at the beginning of the month," she says.

"Mid-month we have to use gift vouchers for our children to buy food. This can't go on. We don't live, we survive. It's a scandal."

Image source, AFP/Getty
Image caption,
Polls suggest a majority of French people still back the movement

Delphine Notelet, 45, from Honfleur in Normandy told French magazine Marianne she earns €1200 a month after tax for her job caring for the elderly.

After bills, that leaves her with €50 a week. She wants a better life for children, who can see the difficulties for themselves.

"Emmanuel Macron didn't want to listen to us?" she says. "We're proving to him that we are not puppets swallowed under an avalanche of taxes, but citizens."

Despite the deaths of four people and injuries to hundreds more, the French people overwhelmingly support the protests - albeit with reservations.

Hours before the government cancelled its proposed tax rise, a poll conducted for French newspaper Le Figaro showed 78% believed the yellow vests are fighting for France's general interest.

Media caption,
France fuel protests: Who are the people in the yellow vests?

However, nearly half of respondents - 47% - believe it is violent, and 59% admit they are worried by the movement.

"All demonstrations get a bit violent, "Mr Bouvier says. "But the troublemakers are the result of the way we have marginalised people. Today they live on benefits and trafficking, stealing. And this is how they express their anger at the system."

How is the movement spread?

Social media, and in particular Facebook, is at the core of the demonstrations.

According to broadcaster BFM TV, three Facebook groups - La France en colère (Angry France), Gilet Jaune and Gilet jaune - had the most interaction on Wednesday, when the fuel tax rise was scrapped.

Users from across France post memes, images and text expressing their anger and denouncing the government.

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While these pages have come to prominence in recent weeks, so-called "angry groups" have been appearing on Facebook since January this year.

There are such groups for regions across the nation - spaces for people across the political and economic spectrum to share their local grievances.

Their spread and popularity seem to have coincided with a change in Facebook's algorithm.

According to Buzzfeed News, in January this year the site began to prioritise local networks and posts from family and friends - leading to an explosion in popularity for such regional groups.

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What will happen on Saturday?

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has announced that 89,000 police officers will be on duty across France and armoured vehicles will be deployed in the capital.

Popular tourists destinations like the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Palais complex and the Louvre and Orsay museums will also be closed in Paris.

And while a few voices on Facebook questioned the need for further demonstrations now the tax had been scrapped, the overwhelming majority backed further action.

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