Yellow vest protests erupt in Iraq, Bulgaria and beyond – but don’t expect a ‘yellow wave’

Protesters wearing reflective safety vests have unsettled France for months, halting traffic, chanting slogans and at times clashing violently with police.

Promises by President Emmanuel Macron to raise worker pay and cut taxes have not quelled the French demonstrators’ anger, which was originally triggered in December by a proposed fuel tax hike. Nor has the cold of Paris in winter chilled their outrage.

Beyond voicing the economic concerns of the French working class, their demands now include everything from Macron’s ouster to the abolition of the French Senate.

This powerful movement appears to be spreading. Protesters in Iraq, Bulgaria, Israel, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and other countries have taken to the streets in reflective yellow vests, too.

Activists in these countries say that they sympathize with the French protesters and are inspired by their powerful grassroots movement.

But appearances can be deceiving. France’s signature yellow vests may have been adopted by protesters elsewhere – but that’s where the similarities stop.

International activism

Our academic research on protests indicates that France’s yellow vest demonstrations have probably not inspired the recent unrest abroad.

For one, many of the so-called yellow vests protests abroad are not actually new. Bulgaria’s gas protests began on Nov. 11, a week prior to the yellow vest protests in France. Activists only donned yellow vests in December, after French protesters shut down Paris with their marches.

In Iraq, protests against unemployment, corruption and poor public services date back many months. Iraqi protesters, too, began wearing yellow vests in December after the French protests became iconic.

France’s yellow vest protests spread across France — but they probably didn’t spread abroad. Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier
The same is true of the yellow vest protests in Taiwan.

Furthermore, many of these yellow vest protests make demands that are very different from that of their French counterparts.

In the United Kingdom, everyone from pro-Brexit groups to anti-austerity organizations have sported yellow vests at their protests. So have far-right, anti-Muslim protesters in Germany.

What has spread beyond France aren’t its working-class protests, exactly, but the props of those marches: Those iconic traffic vests have become a symbol of discontent.

Their original meaning, however, has largely been lost. In France, all vehicles must carry yellow vests in case of traffic emergency. That’s why workers angry about fuel hikes decided to wear them to marches.

Protests don’t spread

We found that it is exceedingly rare for protests in one country to actually trigger unrest in another country.

When we analyzed 282 pro-democracy protests in 87 countries between 1989 and 2011, we found that 236 protests occurred in isolation, with no unrest in contiguous countries in the following days, weeks or months. That means 84 percent of protests did not spread.

Protests – especially in the era of social media – might inspire activists in other countries. But they do not fundamentally change the domestic conditions that, history shows, generate protests: domestic discontent over economic problems, fraudulent elections, food prices or other triggers.