Demonstrators wearing yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) stand in front of a LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE store during protests in Paris. (Photographer: Anita Pouchard Serra/Bloomberg) 

France’s Yellow Vests Might Enter Politics—If They Can Unite

(Bloomberg) -- France’s Yellow Vests may have peaked as a protest movement, but they are contemplating a next step: presenting candidates in next May’s European elections to provide another outlet for voters angry at President Emmanuel Macron.

The limited amount of polling so far suggests a Yellow Vests campaign wouldn’t impact Macron’s party in selecting legislators for the European Parliament. Instead, it would splinter the populist opposition. Any decision is far away, partly because the movement is made up of local branches and partly because many participants reject any form of politics as usual—including cooperating with each other.

France’s Yellow Vests Might Enter Politics—If They Can Unite

“The movement is very divided over this issue but some of us don’t want to spend the rest of our lives hanging out on roundabouts,” said Christophe Deriaz, a 49-year-old night watchman in Auxerre in Burgundy, who manages a Facebook page with 10,000 members that coordinates the local protests. His chapter is setting up an organization that will elect representatives as a first step to taking part in the European vote.

Hayk Shahinyan, a 29-year-old salesman who is a Yellow Vests organizer in Normandy, said in a Facebook posting Monday that of 8,000 people who voted in an online referendum, 83 percent were in favor of taking part in the elections. Next comes choosing candidates. “We want to invade the political field,” he said, adding that he wants “normal people: workers, unemployed people, office workers.”

And Francis Lalanne, a singer who has backed various causes in his career, told reporters Monday that he’d secured an 800,000-euro ($910,000) loan to start seeking candidates. “We are aiming for the European elections, the regionals, the municipals, to paint the country yellow,” he said.

France’s Yellow Vests Might Enter Politics—If They Can Unite

The grassroots movement, named after the vests motorists must keep in their cars for emergencies, began in early November to protest rising gasoline taxes, then morphed into a wider protest against the high cost of living and Macron’s perceived aloof style. Protests mostly involved roadblocks at roundabouts and toll plazas, but turned violent on weekends in cities across France. While the city protests have weakened, Yellow Vests have been demolishing and burning toll booth plazas around the country in recent days.

Macron last week presented a series of tax cuts and pension payments to try to appease the protesters. While most Yellow Vests dismissed his offer as too little, too late, public opinion has shifted toward calling for an end to the protests.

“There are serious issues we’ve raised and we’ve gone as far as we can with the blockades,” said Deriaz, the Auxerre night watchman.

The European Parliament vote will be held next May in 27 countries, with France selecting 79 deputies in the 705-seat assembly. Running would require the Yellow Vests to show a unity and organization they’ve rejected so far: Because France’s seats will be filled by national vote, with seats apportioned proportionately, each party must agree on one platform and one list of candidates.

That’s a straightforward task for Macron’s party but a major headache for a disparate and eclectic movement like the Yellow Vests. Various groups have called for a higher minimum wage and pensions, more taxes on the wealthy and corporations, more local services and lower salaries for politicians. The most recent demand has been the introduction of national referendums that can be called by popular will.

Deriaz said it’s way too early to talk about platforms. Lalanne said he doesn’t even want one. “We are not trying to create a political party, but to represent the people,” he said.

Only one poll has so far tested electoral support for the Yellow Vests, saying they could win 12 percent of French votes in the European elections. Almost all their support came at the expense of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed.

France’s Yellow Vests Might Enter Politics—If They Can Unite

Macron’s Republic on the Move would win 21 percent regardless of what the Yellow Vests do, according to the Ipsos poll, reported Dec. 8 in Journal du Dimanche. But the option to vote for the Yellow Vests would cut Le Pen’s party to 14 percent from 17 percent, and Melenchon’s to 9 percent from 12 percent.

The greatest challenge for a Yellow Vests electoral campaign could be the movement’s own base, which has rejected previous attempts to create a leadership.

“Presenting themselves at elections would certainly splinter the movement, unless a charismatic leader emerges,” Marc Lazar, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris, said in a note for the Montaigne Institute. “In three weeks they’ve burned through more leaders than a classic party does in 10 years.”

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