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Six weeks after posting a Facebook video calling on protesters to take up the yellow vest as a symbol, the movement is changing French politics. Ghislain Coutard tells DW he's shocked to see how quickly it spread.
Ghislain Coutard is one of the few recognizable faces of the so-called Yellow Vests movement, which has been protesting gas prices in France since mid-November. On October 24, Coutard responded to a call-to-action put out on Facebook by posting his own short video to the social media site. In his video, Coutard suggested that everyone planning to join the first protest on November 17 use the yellow safety vest as a symbol of solidarity. The video went viral, receiving over five million views, and Coutard's spontaneous idea took off, giving the Yellow Vests movement its name, and earning Coutard the nickname "Giletman" — or "Vestman" — among activists.
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In the weeks since Coutard posted his video, the Yellow Vests have gained international attention and shaken France to its core with nation-wide protests, often involving violent clashes with the police. DW spoke to Coutard, who works as a mechanic and serves as the spokesperson for the Yellow Vests in the southern city of Narbonne.
DW: How did you come up with the idea to use the yellow vest as a symbol?
Ghislain Coutard: It was really simple. I was making my video and I saw the vest that I use all the time for work. I thought to myself: it's highly visible, we all have one in our cars because it's required by law. So why not use it as a sort of color code. Just to see if people want to go out and protest. And bingo! That's exactly what happened.
You've said you were inspired by Eric Drouet, a truck driver who called for protests on November 17.
That's right. I've talked to him recently and he said he thinks the yellow vest was the final touch that was missing. So Eric Drouet put out the call and I came up with the symbol and it took off.
You made that video at the end of October. Now it's the biggest issue in France. Are you surprised by what has happened in the last few weeks?
Yeah, it's crazy to me. I drive around France for my job, so I stop everywhere I see the Yellow Vests. I introduce myself and most of the time they recognize me. It's amazing. I had a good idea, you could say, but I didn't think that it would catch on with so many people.
Were you shocked by the violence in Paris last weekend?
I was shocked, but the media only shows the images of the Yellow Vests attacking the authorities. But you can see that the authorities only need a small excuse to launch all their tear gas canisters. That's not right. For me, the tactics of the police have been a total failure.
Recent yellow vests protests in Paris and other cities and roadways around France have turned violent, eliciting a response from French President Emmanuel Macron.
Are you happy with the direction the movement is going in?
Yes, completely. We are starting to see results. The president has already canceled the tax planned for 2019.
Why are you still organizing if you've already reached that goal?
It's not enough. We still have to fight the current taxes, the ones that have been in place for years. We should have woken up years ago, and now we have to make up for the years we missed.
What has to happen for the Yellow Vests to be satisfied?
I think the president has to come out of his hole and face the French people. Not with a press release, but in reality, on the ground. But that will never happen, I don't think. He's too removed. He's so proud of not taking any steps backward. The problem is that he's stubborn and we're stubborn, too. At some point, someone is going to have to cave, and we're counting on him to do the caving.
The movement has resisted taking sides politically or being politically influenced. Is there friction among Yellow Vests activists who have different political opinions?
Yeah, we're really good at misunderstanding each other. We can be easily divided, to be honest. For example in Narbonne, the city where I live, there are three zones of activity. We aren’t able to bring the three together to make one. Everyone wants to manage their own zone, to do it their way. It's one of the faults of the French: We aren't able to agree very easily. That's the main problem of the Yellow Vests: to come to an agreement and move in the same direction. But I think in a few weeks time, we'll get there.
What are your politics?
Me, I'm not political at all. I'd like to have the right to vote on the important laws that get passed. We don't have a right to decide on these things, just the right to choose a president every five years.
Why did you personally get involved in the cause of fighting gas taxes?
The price of gas has become incredible compared to the years before. I can live on my salary. But I have lots of friends whose salaries are a bit less than mine and they are barely surviving. The smallest problem with the car becomes a catastrophe. You have to go into debt and then it never ends.
Are you against Macron's attempt to improve the environment?
No, actually we would all love to drive with clean energy, but the government's plan doesn't stand up. That's not how we're going to achieve anything. We can't even pay for our cars now, so it's impossible to all buy electric cars or hybrids.
What do you think is the future of the movement?
I think it's going to get rough. It's inevitable. In my opinion, the anger is too intense. Macron responded too late. Most people I meet on the street want him to step down.
And it's nice to see that people in Belgium, Italy and Germany have taken up the yellow vest as a symbol, as well. I hope it becomes an international movement. When we're angry, we put on the yellow vest to show it.