France and SA: two countries gripped by protests fuelled by marginalisation

In 2018 a record number of service-delivery protests were recorded on our municipal hotspots monitor — one quarter higher than 2014’s previous record. It is significant too that 2014 was when the last general election occurred suggesting that service-delivery protests are likely to remain high on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s agenda (along with ushering in a “new dawn” for SA reinvigorating the economy fighting factionalism and winning the election).

Perhaps he should commiserate with France’s youngest president Emmanuel Macron who faces a similar challenge of civil unrest. Macron could glean some insight from SA into how to manage protests.

For two months French towns and cities have witnessed increasingly violent protests by gilets jaunes (yellow-vested) protesters. The vests are required of all motorists as a safety measure alongside red triangles and initially were worn in protests against proposed fuel hikes imposed by centrist Macron.

The protests have stunned the world with stark images of smart cars set alight in some of Paris’s most iconic streets. A portion of supporters of the protests were shocked by the recent use of a construction-site vehicle to open the doors of a government building in Paris and footage of a former professional boxer assaulting police officers.

Macron’s withdrawal of the proposed tax hike has done little to quell the protests with the list of grievances growing to include issues as diverse as an increase in minimum wages greater benefits for pensioners breaking up France’s banking system environmental measures against plastic and even “Frexit”. Most protesters are united in demanding Macron’s removal.

Macron a former banker is a symbol to many of an exclusionary capitalist system and would perhaps do better to engage former president Jacob Zuma who was also the clear individual target of several protests.

As the French protests pick up an astounding momentum it is interesting to reflect on their similarities to SA’s now well-entrenched culture of service-delivery protests.

At a national level despite periodic claims of “third-force” instigation there is no clear leadership in either set of protests nor even (in the French case) a consistent and coherent set of demands (aside from resistance to the rising cost of fuel and more broadly speaking living expenses).

There is a clear sense of marginalisation in both phenomena. As with the UK’s Brexit and Donald Trump supporters in the US many French protesters are those who feel marginalised and left behind by a global system targeting banks as well as Macron individually as symbols of unjust capital allocations.

In SA protests typically take place in townships informal settlements and villages where there are high degrees of inequality and unemployment and a sense of failed or faltering political systems of representation (through ward councillors and committees). Over the past year the correlation between the number of protests per quarter and GDP contraction has risen.

The use of violence arson vandalism and at times outright lawlessness (including looting) is also noteworthy in both contexts and condoned if not even celebrated by protesters. This is a consequence of the sense of marginalisation and a lack of investment in the prevailing socioeconomic order as well as a degree of “hijacking” by criminal and in France’s case anarchic individuals.

The yellow-vest protests have as in several SA cases spiralled out of control with politicians and police appearing to be on the back foot struggling to quell the phenomenon due in part to a failure to make sense of broad-ranging often impossible demands as well as an inability to identify leadership with which to negotiate.

Notwithstanding the violence seen in France there is (qualified) popular support for the yellow vests. In SA there is a similar culture that respects the right to protest action but it is also likely that when they become too disruptive too anarchic or too violent protests will become unpopular among the general public.

There are of course key differences too: even though they are broad and wide-ranging the yellow-vests protesters have national grievances and co-ordination; they do not take place in the seemingly spontaneous way that SA protests emerge often with a very clear local issue such as an installed pipe not delivering water or a mayor not attending meetings. They also have a clear timetable — Saturdays. SA protests can take place for days even weeks and most commonly begin in the early hours of the morning.

SA protests also mostly take place in marginalised locations (aside from adjoining regional and national roads) whereas the yellow vests have assembled at key sites such as the Champs-Elysees.

Perhaps as a result of this French police have acted in their numbers increasingly arresting those identified as likely to cause violence before protests. SA’s policing is typically reactive containing protests to their epicentre with limited apprehension of those looting especially the premises of foreign-national businesses.

What is to be done? French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has proposed legislation “punishing those who do not respect the requirement to declare [protests] those who take part in unauthorised demonstrations and those who arrive at demonstrations wearing face masks” as well as identifying “troublemakers” in a similar vein to measures against football hooligans and holding these individuals responsible for damage.

This response is understandably rational in the face of an alarming social phenomenon. However the SA experience where portions of the Regulation of Gatherings Act were recently found to be unconstitutional suggests the only solution is to entrench meaningful and constructive avenues for democratic engagement.