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Gilets Jaunes face big decision as Macron fights back

 Protestors attend a nationwide general strike in Montpellier, France, 05 February 2019. Image copyright </span><br />
                 <span class= EPA

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Thousands of yellow-west protesters joined forces with a left-wing union for the first time this week

After almost three months of protests, France's yellow-vest movement, which rejected any formal leadership or political affiliation, has split over the question of whether to enter electoral politics.

first policy climb-down. So far, five separate groups have emerged with plans to contest upcoming elections ̵

1; either the European parliamentary elections in May, or the French local elections next year.

One recent poll suggested a single list could garner 13% of French votes for the European elections – mainly drawing voters away from the far-left and far-left parties of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Why fight elections?

"We know we can't stay on the roundabouts forever, "said Come Dunis, a candidate with one of the newly formed parties, the Citizens Initiative Rally.

"We can't demonstrate every Saturday. We have to enter the electoral system."

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Media caption de la République in Paris

Mr Dunis is second on the party's list for the European elections. The transformation from protest movement to political party, he says, is about "turning the page on a political elite that has despised us for 40 years."

"We will show that unemployed people and forklift truck operators can sit alongside technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels, "he told me.

Without recognized national leaders, a cohesive set of demands, or even agreed political outlook, it was a difficult movement for France's government to negotiate with – and Mr Macron ended up offering more concessions than many had initially expected.

So why change the formula?

The yellow vests were forced to be organized or, according to Olivier Costa, research director with France's National Center for Scientific Research.

"They were cornered," he told me.

"Participation [in the protests] was declining, and the government will not agree to their main requests for new elections or more referendums, so they found themselves continuing to protest – without knowing what for, or where they are heading."

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The protests started out on roundabouts but have gradually expanded


But Mr Costa believes the same performances on their streets will hamper them in electoral politics.

" gilets jaunes leaders have the knowledge, qualities or resources to become a strong [political] ] leader, "he said. "They are not good at talking or writing, they are not rich like Trump, they do not have the network or the connections."

They are discovering that outside the system it is difficult to have much political impact in France, he believes.

Will Macron be the ultimate winner?

The diversity of movement has caused problems in organizing itself into a single political bloc. And few of the groups have a coherent list of policies.

But even if yellow-vest candidates just won 7-8% of the vote in the European elections, Olivier Costa argues the real loser would be the far right, for whom it would be a "disaster"

"The main winner would obviously be President Macron," he says.

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Far-right leader Marine Le Pen's National Rally is seen as the biggest opposition to Mr Macron's party


"His big task is ahead of the far right in those elections – and with the gilets jaunes running, he will be."

The risk of inadvertently helping President Macron is one reason why some gilets jaunes are boycotting plans to enter traditional politics. Others believe it would weaken the movement itself.

"These lists will only serve the executive's power," said Benjamin Cauchy, one of the founders of the movement who is based in Toulouse.

"on the roundabouts, there are people from the left, extreme left, right, extreme right – all united in a common desire to have more fiscal and social justice – they can not agree on issues like migration.

"If you want to make a list they must choose a political page, and this will lead to a division of the gilets jaunes ."

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President Macron has traveled the country taking part in lengthy debates to assess people's grievances


Another of the gilets jaunes who has come to national prominence, Jason Herbert, says he has refused two requests to join the new party lists.

He believes the protesters do not want to commit to politics and their goal is instead to persuade France's existing representatives to take certain political decisions.

How Macron has responded

President Macron has tried to vote the sense of disintegration in the country with what he's calling on "grand debate" – Will Macron's Grand Debate tackle yellow-west crisis?

His poll ratings are up and he has ruled out the one reform that unites many ] gilets jaunes : making it easier for citizens to trigger referendums on key issues.

But he has suggested that he may "ask our citizens if they agree" to a few constitutional changes selected by the government, such as s reducing the number of MPs in the French parliament, or limiting the number of terms they can serve.

"There's a risk the debate will create frustrations," said Said Ahamada, an MP for Mr Macron's party, LREM, in Marseille . Image copyright
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Said Ahamada says the electorate is losing confidence in MPs


"We were able to answer the expectations of the French people," he admits. "And 18 months after the elections, they are impatient. French society believes less and less in its political leaders."

So that means that French leaders should be fearful of movements like the gilets jaunes Who seeks to change the country from outside its established political system?

Olivier Costa says not.

"France is an old democracy and people are critical of its institutions," he told me. "But this is not the Arab Spring and this is not a dictatorship."

"There were polls at the beginning of this movement saying that 80% of French people thought it was positive and interesting. That doesn't mean 80% of French people are ready for gilet jaune to be the next president. "

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