‘Yellow Vest’ protests rock France


BP Photo by Nathaniel Kukurudz

VIOLENCE: A Starbucks outside the St. Lazare train station was vandalized and looted on Dec. 8, with inscriptions on the store saying ‘Pay your taxes’ and ‘Return us the money’.

By Jolie Wineburgh, Staff Writer

The broken glass and graffiti have been cleared away, but according to Americans in Paris reached by the Boiling Point, the gap between the richest and poorest citizens of France is still growing as weeks of violent protests continue for unspecified economic changes that would reduce poverty and protect the middle class.

The rioters are among some 300,000 people who call themselves “Yellow Vests,” named after bright yellow safety vests they wear, who protest the extra 23 percent fuel tax, added over the past year and three months due to diesel prices in France skyrocketing, by vandalizing monuments, looting shops, and marching.

Emily Seftel, who grew up in Los Angeles and Phoenix and now lives in Paris working for an international organization, said the reasons for the protest were clear.

“The trigger was a general sense of anger toward the government’s tax measures, and toward a president who people feel is out of touch and elite and doesn’t understand the troubles that regular people struggle with,” said Emily in a phone interview.

Police fought back with tear gas and water cannons, and Paris police alone arrested 380 people after the first riot. There had been 12 deaths related to the protests among protesters by the end of 2018.  The protests began on Nov. 17, months after a petition was posted in May by a Yellow Vest protester demanding lower gas prices. It now has around 1.17 million signatures.  

The trigger was a general sense of anger to the government’s tax measures and to a president whom people feel is out of touch and elite and doesn’t understand the troubles that regular people struggle with.

— Emily Seftel

Shalhevet alumnus Nathaniel Kukurudz ‘11 grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Paris. He said people say the gas tax was “the drop of water that makes the vase overflow,” hurting those in rural areas the most because they must drive long distances and generally reducing the standard of living for many groups.

“You have a whole swath of the population which is just upset and tired of the incredible taxation levels in France,” said Nathaniel, who is the brother of freshman Talya Kukurudz. Income taxes in France can be over 45 percent.

“France has a socialist system,” he said. “On the one hand you have a lot of benefits, security, which are given to the population. One the other hand, you have a lot of taxes.”

He said President Emmanuel Macron, who was elected in May 2017 promising progressive reforms,  thought people would be willing to pay higher taxes to combat global warming.

“He thought that people would want to contribute to the ecological transformation of the country–but they didn’t,” said Nathaniel.

According to media reports, a majority of the protestors are in the middle and working class and don’t get welfare benefits from the French government since they are just above the poverty line.  

The riots have targeted wealthy areas and districts in Paris.

Emily Seftel said she doesn’t live in an area that is considered wealthy, so she wasn’t affected by any imminent danger and did not need to evacuate from her home.

But she was expecting to play in a concert Dec. 8 at the American Church in the Seventh Arrondissement, a very wealthy area in Paris, when the protests were at their peak. The concert was cancelled.

“That was the day that the city essentially shut down,” said Emily, who plays in a handbell choir. “This was the first Saturday after the protests got quite violent, and so the police said we should not hold our concert.”

Many museums, stores and restaurants also closed that day in anticipation of the protests.  But she said most people in Paris faced only small inconveniences, such as an unreliable train schedule.

“It’s easy to get a skewed or simplistic view of everything overseas, but honestly it doesn’t directly affect everyone in Paris,” said Emily.

Get the latest from The Boiling Point. Sign up for our news feed.