Gilets Jaunes: the fire that sparked a debate

Following the prolonged Gilets Jaunes protests, students of Sciences Po Campus du Havre weigh in on the legitimacy of the movement in a deeply divided debate.

With a burning fervour, the Gilets Jaunes protests scream not only along the streets of the Champ de Mars in Paris, but echo along the corridors of Sciences Po Campus du Havre, as students—French and international—exchange opinions on the subject between classes, sometimes amicably, sometimes assertively.

Initiated by student representatives, a debate was held on 4th December in the amphitheatre of Le Havre campus, following a weekend which saw the popularly backed protest spread its way down the streets of Le Havre in fire and fury.

The debate saw a full house of all nationalities of students, eager to put forth their thoughts on the hugely controversial issue that transpired right outside their residences, weighing in on the legitimacy and effectiveness of the movement.

In this article, Le Dragon Déchaîné summarises some of the key issues raised in the debate:


Proponents of the movement, vocally advanced by several French students, opinioned that the protests should not be evaluated solely on the basis of violence inflicted by protestors; rather, one should also consider the systemic violence inflicted on the protestors through systemic socio-economic alienation by president Emmanuel Macron’s “socially and verbally violent policies.” Implied here was that the damage caused by the protests—which is estimated to be €3-€4 million as of 1 December—was incomparable to the damage of systemic inequality.

On the other hand, opponents, largely led by international students, called out proponents with the logical fallacy of “whataboutism”: suggesting that the violence inflicted via unequal socio-economic policies in no way negates the violence inflicted during the protests. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” said one student who counter-proposed that there are many feasible alternatives to violent protests, as seen in other democratic regimes like Germany.

To this end, proponents rebutted that it is the very violence of the protest that captured the attention of the media and of the government, pointing out how peaceful protests gain less attention in France. Perhaps then, prime minister Édouard Philippe’s concession—to suspend the fuel tax rise that sparked the protests—was a sign of the political might of the protest. However, most in the room were unanimous in condemning the violence of the protest.

Nonetheless, there is a long road ahead for both protestors and democratic discourse. Opponents emphasised on the glaring lack of representatives and leadership in the movement as well as the lack of clear, focused objectives. One student commented that there is no end in“protesting for the sake of protesting.”

As with the Gilets Jaunes, uncertainty hung in the air as the debate came to an end, but not to a close. On first principle, there was an irreconcilable difference between the rights-based proponents that focused on the right to violent protest in the face of injustice and an unresponsive government, in contrast to the opponents’ utilitarian argument that focused on the futility, lack of direction and extensive damage of the protests.


Despite the announcement to reverse the rise in fuel tax, protestors have vowed to maintain their movement. The flame lingers and the discursive scrutiny continues in what may be the most consequential lesson in politics yet.


This article does not necessarily represent the views of the editors or Sciences Po.


Author: Le Dragon Déchaîné

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