The “Yellow Vest” protests gripping France reflect justified anger and frustration that can only be overcome by sincere dialogue to rebuild a society that benefits all citizens, French bishops have said as the country prepares for a fourth weekend of violence in a row.
While denouncing the street clashes and property destruction that paralysed central Paris last Saturday, they stressed that communication between the government and the governed had broken down amid the profound economic and social changes of recent years.
The government, stunned by the sight of protesters battling police and defacing monuments, will close the Eiffel Tower and main museums in Paris and mobilise thousands more riot police across the country to avoid a repetition of the unrest on Saturday.
“Recent events show that a large part of our people face major suffering that produces anger when they don’t feel they’re heard and frustration at what can be taken for arrogance,” Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said on Wednesday, after the government responded to the protests with halting concessions that protesters promptly rejected.
The government’s evident confusion, highlighted by silence from President Emmanuel Macron, has encouraged other groups to announce they would join this weekend’s protests. The announcement that the controversial rise in petrol taxes that sparked the protests would be scrapped did nothing to stop the opposition momentum.
“I urge all sides to hold a genuine dialogue where each one agrees to leave behind their fixed positions and come to a real assessment of a harmful situation and humbly finds ways to rebuild a fraternal society together,” Aupetit said.
Marseille Archbishop Georges Pontier, head of the bishops’ conference, echoed those sentiments on Thursday.
“This crisis reveals a deficit of dialogue in our country, the breakdowns and lack of understanding that many people experience and the growing mistrust of all institutions and civil society,” he said.
“Solidarity should be at the heart of human relations, especially for the weakest.”
The sudden fury of the “Yellow Vest” protests has caught both the political establishment and social institutions — including religious communities — off guard and many were initially cautious at commenting on a movement they had difficulty understanding.
As in many countries, globalisation has widened the gulf between France’s prosperous main cities and the towns and rural areas that increasingly feel left behind. Macron, a dynamic former banker elected last year, has proven tone-deaf to growing complaints about market-friendly reforms he has vowed to push through.
The bishops were initially hesitant to speak out, held back both by the protests’ unexpected violence and a general reluctance to comment on political events in highly secularised France.
In several initial tweets, bishops’ conference spokesman Mgr Olivier Ribadeau Dumas criticised the violence of the protests but said they showed “the profound split between the elites and those who feel left behind”.
Archbishop Aupetit, in his statement on Wednesday, said the state’s primordial duty was to guarantee a living wage and social peace for its citizens.
“Our country suffers from widespread incomprehension. Individualism has become the absolute value, to the detriment of a common good centred on attention to others, especially the weakest,” he said.
France’s values of liberty and equality “are sometimes hijacked by influential networks that demand new rights without any regard for the most vulnerable,” he added.
“To be brothers, we need a common paternity. The awareness of God the Father who teaches us to love one another has formed France’s soul. Forgetting God has left us disoriented and trapped in an individualism where everyone fends for himself.”
Like his Paris colleague, Archbishop Pontier indirectly criticised the government for not accompanying its reform drive by more dialogue with all citizens. “Poorly understood political choices accentuate the feeling of exclusion,” he said.