Media outlets largely focus on specific moments in time, framing events as singular instances while often ignoring their historical and political trajectory. This emphasis on the flashy often occludes the dynamic, the difficult, and the long-term nature of events—especially of movements that culminate in protest. By moving the emphasis away from the proverbial apex of an event and placing it in a broader context, we hope to capture the unpredictable arc of geopolitical affairs: in this case, protests that have erupted in France and Sudan in recent months.
Large-scale protest movements require sustained energy and persistence. Their roots are manifold and their ramifications far-reaching; as such, they form the model of events we encourage readers to follow this year, beginning with ongoing anti-government demonstrations in France and Sudan and continuing throughout the spring with coverage of movements of varying scale, ideology, and composition in Los Angeles, Venezuela, Brazil, and Sri Lanka.
FRANCE: ON THEIR OWN TERMS
Beginning in mid-November of last year, gilets jaunes have mobilized en masse across France. Their name, a reference to the bright yellow vests many demonstrators wear to protests and are required by drivers to keep in their cars in case of emergencies, is also likely a nod to working-class identity. The demonstrations began in response to the protestors’ disdain for President Emmanuel Macron’s enactment of a fuel tax, which was slated to increase prices up to 25 cents a gallon starting in January 2019. Recent weeks, however, have shown that the scope of the demands is much larger and harder to pin down than previously thought. They chiefly circle around popular discontent for the economic order under Macron, evidenced by the chants shouted at protests like“Macron resign!” and “We are not sheep!” The nature of the movement is largely decentralized and grassroots-based, as protestors have organized mostly through social media with Facebook events and online petitions. The first few weeks of the demonstrations garnered the largest turnout, with an estimated peak of 285,000 people nationwide participating in demonstrations on November 17, according to the French interior ministry. There have been various instances of violence perpetrated by demonstrators and police forces alike. While many of the protests have occurred in urban centers, the majority of demonstrators come from “peripheral France”—that is, small cities, towns, and rural areas that have suffered the brunt of growing socioeconomic inequality that has only worsened as a result of Macron’s policies like the fuel tax. “It’s starting to be only struggle. You work and at the half of the month (sic) you don’t have anything,” said Leila, an administrator of "Gilet Jaune," a Facebook group for organizing that has nearly 170,000 members from across France. “Everyone is struggling in this kind of (economic) situation in France, working in factories very hard 35 to 40 hours (weekly) to only get 1,100 to 1,200 euros a month.”
France under Macron
Macron has attempted to meet some of the Yellow Vests’ demands with little success. Along with agreeing to shutter the proposed fuel tax, he unveiled a significant proposal for concessions on December 11, including an increase of the minimum wage and the creation of certain tax exemptions. However, the demonstrators’ continued dissatisfaction indicates that their grievances extend beyond just immediate fiscal issues and into a general concern with the current political, economic, and social order in France under Macron.
Macron’s widespread disapproval by the French public has shocked many of those who touted him at the time of his election. Last year, Foreign Policy called him “France’s answer to Barack Obama,” with his largely culturally progressive politics in contrast to the far right opponent Marine Le Pen. Yet from the beginning of his presidency, Macron has aligned himself economically with elite and big business interests. “If you want to share the cake, you’ve got to have a cake,” he said last July during a joint session of the French parliament. “It’s misleading to fight for employees if you don’t also defend companies.” As a technocrat and former investment banker, the president has prioritized making France more competitive in the global economy, a move that has oftentimes served to only further inequality within France. In September 2017, for example, the president suspended the Solidarity Tax on Wealth, which had previously taxed all those with assets valued over $1.5 million, after cutting housing benefits for millions of low-income citizens earlier that year. Such policies have contributed to Macron’s reputation as an out-of-touch “president of the rich.” Moreover, the top-down style of governance or verticalité that consolidates power in the presidency and has been a defining feature of France’s Fifth Republic has been criticized as authoritarian. Macron's approval rating is at 27 percent as of January 11 according to a survey by market research firm Ifop, which is only 7 percent higher than the lowest on record for a French president—held by Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande.
Who are the Yellow Vests?
One of the greatest strengths of the Yellow Vests—and perhaps also one of its weaknesses—is that it represents the discontents of many different identities and groups, as much as it does a confluence of demands. Through its decentralized organization, there exists a plurality of socioeconomic, political, and ethnic sectors of French society that have joined the Yellow Vests. While many news outlets have repeatedly speculated about the face of the movement, there seems not to be one—or at least, not yet. Some right-wing American news outlets have emphasized the participation of right-leaning white citizens from rural areas in France with anti-immigrant and libertarian sentiments alike to their British and American counterparts that rallied for Brexit and Trump’s election respectively. For example, The New Republic published an article on January 7 about the movement’s “ugly, illiberal, anti-semitic heart” that strings together an array of isolated incidents involving displays of racism, Islamophobia, and other types of bigotry online and at protests to define the greater movement. But such a monolithic depiction betrays the reality that groups with left-leaning views also have taken to the streets. Political figures and parties from across the spectrum like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left-wing populist party La France Insoumise have tried to co-opt the movement at various times, but have also failed. This lack of political consolidation, unusual in a country with a tradition of protest movements mobilizing from the top down in coordination with powerful institutions like political parties and labor unions, puzzles observers both domestically and abroad who try to categorize the Yellow Vests.
Regional differences have also contributed to the uneven development of the movement. Though it has received virtually no coverage by major French and international media outlets, the Yellow Vests have also begun protests in Réunion Island, the French overseas department in the Indian Ocean. Their demands to ameliorate social inequality hold greater resonance with nearly 50 percent of the population living under the poverty line, most of whom are unemployed young people. Likewise, the scale of economic and political crisis caused by the protests has been much larger on the island, particularly since it had already suffered from a weaker economy than Metropolitan France.
The relationship between the demonstrators and established media outlets has increasingly deteriorated. In France, hostilities between protestors and journalists have, in multiple but seemingly isolated instances, devolved into acts of violence; But perhaps more suggestive of the demonstrators’ contempt and distrust, they have not communicated with the media as a means of publicizing their demands.
It is unclear at the moment whether the gilet jaunes’ decentralized organization and the ambiguous identity of its participants will ultimately serve as strengths or as weaknesses in the quest to have their demands met by the French government. On one hand, the widespread decentralization of the demonstrators’ operations without efforts to consolidate the movement, both in logistics and ideology, could potentially lead to a collapse. According to the tallies reported by the French interior ministry, there was diminishing turnout over the course of the three weekends last month. Yet it is still early—the grassroots organization of the movement without a fully devised identity or purpose could also serve as an asset for long-term staying power. It could indicate that rage—held for so longby the French populace—would not concede to any concessions by the ruling elite that would uphold the status quo.
SUDAN: AN UPRISING:
“Freedom. Peace. Justice.” Demonstrators in cities across Sudan have shouted these demands for weeks, protesting an insidiously ineffective regime led by President Omar al-Bashir, a leader who came to power thirty years ago, following a 1989 coup d’état, and has been accused of crimes ranging from corruption to genocide. Those who march seek new national leadership and an end to impossibly high inflation rates, second only to Venezuela. At least fifty people have been killed, hundreds of people have been injured, and nearly one thousand men and women have been arrested as protests have erupted over the past seven weeks. The Sudanese National Security is responsible for most of the violence, making the force demonstrators’ biggest enemy.
These demonstrations are not the first waves of protests opposing the Sudanese government; President al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2010 for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, is widely unpopular. Though he was elected three times, allegations of corruption have clouded election results.
Demonstrations began on December 19 in Atbara, a small city in River Nile State in the northeastern region of the country. In response to a rapid increase in food and fuel prices—the price of bread tripled overnight, from one Sudanese pound to three—students and activists organized mass protests. The movement gained momentum as it quickly spread to larger cities across the country, including the capital, Khartoum.
A key player in the spread of the movement was the formation of the Sudanese Professional Association, a collective of activists, journalists, doctors, teachers, and filmmakers. The group schedules weekly demonstrations in regions across the nation, alerting hundreds of thousands of supporters via Facebook. This method of communication has been helpful only with Virtual Private Networks (VPN) in light of internet shutdowns and slowdowns by the regime. The novelty of social media organizing sets this series of demonstrations apart from past iterations of opposition movements. In 1964 and 1985, popular uprisings were indeed successful in toppling oppressive leaders. Yet the demonstrations today are unprecedented in their duration, lasting many weeks and showing no sign of termination.
As of January 25, at least 50 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch. (Unsurprisingly, exact numbers have been disputed. The official government-reported death toll is 24.) Over eight hundred people have been arrested and incarcerated. Thousands more have been injured in so-called “police clashes,” though only one side yields weapons and video footage explicitly shows State Security forces firing directly at demonstrators. Images of the protests display clouds of tear gas hovering over the demonstrators, many of who are wearing medical facemasks or covering their mouths with clothing, running from the smoke.
One of the people killed was a medical doctor, whose identity remains anonymous, who was found with 14 bullets in his body. Though the doctor was not directly involved in the demonstrations, she was treating injured protesters in a hospital in Bahri, Khartoum. Several days later, government forces reportedly fired on people gathering to mourn the doctor’s death, injuring many more. Several children, also unidentified, are among the casualties as well.
Protesters initially organized to oppose the aforementioned inflation rates––nearing seventy percent––compounded by the recent adoption of a new fifteen-month austerity plan which eliminated wheat, sugar, oil, and electricity subsidies, impacting millions of ordinary citizens. Without fuel, issues of food and fuel prices, and economic stagnation more broadly, are not isolated but rather manifestations of underlying problems—explaining protesters’ ultimate goal of ousting the current regime. The economy has deteriorated and inflation has risen since war with and then the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
One employee of the North Darfur office of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) emphasized the impact of fuel price hikes and currency shortage on already vulnerable populations such as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and refugees. Many of his clients have money in bank accounts yet are unable to liquidate their finances. Further, without fuel, water purification systems are useless, and people are being forced to go without water.
The unrest in Sudan has implications for its southern neighbor; rival political parties in South Sudan have been immersed in peace talks hosted by Khartoum in an attempt to end a years-long civil war. An unstable Sudan is less equipped to handle such negotiations.
In the weeks following its genesis, the movement has transformed into large-scale, multi-city operation with broader and bolder demands. In addition to the initial calls for a recommencement of subsidies, demonstrators are protesting corruption; lack of political freedom; unfair elections; widespread poverty; and high unemployment rates, reported Al Jazeera. Ultimately, activists and demonstrators demand the resignation of al-Bashir. Though the protests are explicitly citizen-led and are not tied to a specific political party, members of various opposition movements are joining. Many leaders of opposition parties have endorsed the movement, including former prime minister Sadig al-Mahdi of the National Umma Party and Omar el-Digeir, President of the Sudanese Congress Party. Yet, Security Forces arrested el-Digeir, quelling hope for unity.
The protests lack a centralized leadership but have gained popular support, with thousands of demonstrators on each day, disillusioned by an oppressive regime and accelerated poverty. Journalists and filmmakers involved in organizing the demonstrations have been documenting the movement, working against obstacles such as internet shutdowns and government-imposed curfews in many cities. One clip filmed on January 16 depicts dozens of protesters tossing small stones towards a Security Forces in response to open fire. Tragically, one of the bullets hits a protester, who falls to the ground.
Curfews have been issued, schools have been closed, social media access has been severed, and sweeping promises for (political and economic) reform have been made. Al-Bashir encouraged opponents to challenge him in the country’s next round of “free and fair elections," speaking at a rally in Khartoum on January 9. The president blamed foreign enemies for encouraging the protests, though he showed no evidence for this claim. At the time of the rally, mobile phone networks and internet access were shut down. Al-Bashir has promises to remain in power until the next elections in 2020 and shows no signs of backing down, despite the persistence of nonviolent protests and the sheer duration of the movement. Meanwhile, food shortages and a lack of access to cash remain problematic for a large percentage of the population, and security forces continue to employ violence to counter protests.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern over the “excessive” use of force by Sudanese State Security Forces in a statement issued on January 17 from Geneva. “A repressive response can only worsen grievances,” High Commissioner Bachelet stated. Bachelet urged authorities to release protesters who were arbitrarily detained, and to resolve the situation through “dialogue.” It is unclear what type of dialogue this would entail, or if the international community is likely to intervene. Separately, Britain, Norway, the US, and Canada issued a joint statement condemning the violence against protesters, though the statement is unlikely to make an impact. Moreover, given the failure of the International Criminal Court to convict al-Bashir, the international community has a poor track record in holding the president accountable.
A UN official in North Darfur who wishes to remain anonymous told the College Hill Independent, “All signs indicate that protests will continue. We don’t know what the results will be. The demonstrations will continue, for sure, but it is difficult to tell if they will succeed.”
This uncertainty characterizes the reality of demonstrations in Sudan, but the activists remain hopeful. Despite a litany of arbitrary arrests and tragic fatalities, demonstrators march on, VPN networks close, persevering in their fight for justice and peace.
SOLIDARITY, FROM FRANCE TO SUDAN
Thousands of miles separate these two countries, yet movements in each place are propelled by the ongoing mobilization of ordinary people who are disenchanted by their leaders of the states. Both movements are largely nonviolent, yet each have been met with state violence and have suffered fatalities. And both were instigated by aggrieved citizens in response to higher taxes, in the case of France, and lower subsidies, in Sudan. These financial shifts had far-reaching impacts: hundreds of thousands of citizens were asked for money that they do not have, and they responded accordingly, refusing to pay and demanding more from the leadership. Moreover, in both Sudan and France, the price hikes are emblematic of the more profound issues modern nation-states around the world face in adapting their structures of leadership and representation in order to meet the shifting needs of their populaces. The people have indicated that they will not be placated by empty promises and weak concessions; they have banded together, and they demand more.
JACOB ALABAB MOSER B'20 AND JESSICA MURPHY B'19 say au revoir and ma'a salaama to fascism.