Trepidation and relief in Maghreb over ‘yellow vest’ protests

The protests raised sensitive questions beyond France.
Sunday 16/12/2018
Cri de coeur. A French student shouts slogans during a protest against the government and education reforms, December 11.  (Julien Mattiale Pictorium)
Cri de coeur. A French student shouts slogans during a protest against the government and education reforms, December 11. (Julien Mattiale Pictorium)

The French “yellow vest” protests have grabbed the attention of many in the Maghreb, including those who wondered whether the “Arab spring” had migrated north when television screens showed Arabic writings on walls in Paris reminiscent of slogans from Arab streets eight years ago.

There was relief in the Maghreb once it was determined those blamed for violence during the protests were not young Arabs from Paris’s disadvantaged districts.

“This time the banlieues (Paris districts) remained silent and no politician has dared demonise foreigners or French youth of Maghreb origin,” said Algerian political writer Nidal Alaoui.

Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of Paris’s main mosque, said: “The protests that are shaking France showed the truth which is often denied: France’s Muslims are not at the origin of the French malaise.”

French analysts said protests followed a “diagonal vacuum” cartography of regions most hit by “depopulation” and withdrawal of public services, such as trains and bus lines. They said French in such areas are the most sensitive to the rise in fuel taxes because they rely on individual cars.

However, the yellow vest protests were about more than that, encompassing wider anger about the leadership and policies of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Maghrebi intellectuals attempted to decipher political and economic lessons from the French movement and how they might be used to help the region’s future, including overdue economic reforms and the way political parties and trade unions avoid the “death of political and social intermediation” as they deal with pent-up popular anger.

Other political writers said there were a “revenge of history” and a “boomerang” of the “Arab spring” hitting Paris because French leaders had pointed at Arab leaders over domestic policies.

However, some intellectuals and politicians in the Maghreb shared fears the French protests might be a last cry to save France’s traditional values of freedom and social justice before a victory by far-right forces.

In Spain, the rightists’ election victory in Andalusia to enter a regional parliament has possible repercussions for relations with southern Europe and the Maghreb.

“No specialist will claim he had predicted such development as the powerful media in the West had asserted that mayhem is an exclusive landmark of protests in the Arab land,” said Moroccan political scientist Khaled Fathi.

“The movement is the last cry out for help before Deep France hit the wall and embrace the far right and the chaos. It is the last cry for intellectuals and policy-makers to invent a new French republic before it is too late.”

Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun said the issue in France is not whether there is choice between right and left politics nor it is ideological. It is an economic dilemma.

“The problem in France stems from its welfare system, which is the best in the world but this system has a very high cost,” he added.

For some, the protests raised sensitive questions beyond France.

“What will happen in Algeria when time comes to revise the subsidy system? The opposition also repeats calls for reforms and include them in its programmes but when a reform is launched, the opposition takes advantage of the popular discontent to stop the reform,” said Algerian writer Abed Charef.

Unlike the May 1968 French social revolt that was emulated by elites in the Maghreb with lasting effects for societies, including broadening political and intellectual secularism, only small youth groups expressed intent to take a cue this time.

“We are aware of the violent character of the yellow vests in France, our situation is difficult and cannot bear similar violent protest here in Tunisia,” said parliament member Mustapha Ben Ahmed in reaction to a statement from a newly created youth group calling themselves “red vests.” They said they intend to begin protesting deteriorating living conditions in Tunisia.