Case Study: French “Yellow Vest” Protests

Over the past month or two, France has seen a political uprising thanks in part to “Les gilets jaunes,” or the “yellow vests.”  The Al Jazeera news network referred to the uprisings as “one of the most significant social mobilizations in (its) recent history.”

While these protestors march on for political justice and peace, they have created an interesting case study for police and government organizations. In the following case study, we’ll take a look at the background of the protests and how first responders are working to protect the city and its businesses from destruction and harm. We’ll also take an in-depth look at some of the gear first responders are using to help corral protestors.

The Yellow Vest Protests

Protestors first took to the streets of France on November 17, 2018. Government officials estimate that the first marches contained tens of thousands of people; the numbers have continued to grow over the past few weeks. A majority of the members wore high-visibility neon yellow vests, which is what led to their “gilets jaunes” name. The vests are meant to mock the government, which requires the vests to be worn at all times when driving.

The primary reason for the protests was because of rising fuel prices. Between January 1 and November 17, the cost of diesel in France jumped by nearly 20 percent. Additionally, French President Emmanuel Macron had recently announced a planned fuel tax hike. The Daily Express also reports that the protests have now evolved into a protest against the “high cost of living, low wages, and treatment of pensioners.” The people taking to the streets are upset, as they have:

  • • Burned effigies
  • • Blocked roundabouts
  • • Clashed with police

In the five weeks since at least ten people have died as a result of the protests. A majority of the deaths have occurred thanks to vehicular collisions, primarily caused when protestors block the streets. For instance, the most recent death occurred because demonstrators blocked a roundabout, preventing a truck from moving. A car came up behind the truck, failing to realize the road ahead was blocked. The driver of the car slammed into the back of the truck and died.

The future of the protests is currently quite murky. Nearly a month after the protests began, President Macron issued a public apology in which he declared he would work with them to meet their demands. However, many of the protestors have rejected these calls for peace.

The fact that some French politicians have expressed a vote of no confidence and have moved for the resignation of President Macron. Many wonder if Macron has the leadership ability to quell the uprisings and work toward peace with the growing French majority.

The yellow vest protestors have indicated that they don’t plan to stop any time soon. They recently announced that they intended to hold gatherings for a seventh-straight Saturday, in addition to New Year’s Eve. Protestor Benjamin Cauchy told France 24 also said that if President Macron did not make further concessions, then there would be a “large-scale mobilization in late January.” Polls showed that as many as three-quarters of French residents supported yellow vest protestors.

yellow vest mobilization

Protests Expand Across French Lines

The yellow vest mobilization has also begun to expand into other countries. Government officials in Portugal indicated that on December 21, protestors attempted to stop traffic. The size of the protest was small, totaling less than 100 people. However, that’s not to say that the protestors did not cause a fair share of violence and destruction. Demonstrators in Lisbon engaged with police directly.

Joao Viana is a yellow vest protestor in Portugal. She told Reuters, “The reason why I joined this protest today is because this really is the voice of the people. The movement is not aligned to any political party, and we simply want to tell the government that we are tired of corruption, we are tired of taxes, we are tired of paying to sustain the political class.”

Perhaps most interesting is the fact that Portugal does not have a history of political violence or unrest. Additionally, there is no clear-cut reason why yellow vests began protesting. This is in stark contrast to the yellow vests in France, who were clearly against the tax hikes proposed by President Macron.

There have also been reports that similar yellow vest protests have started to appear in Belgium. It will be interesting to monitor the situation moving forward to see if protests continue to grow across Europe and the impact it will have on things such as:

  • • Governments
  • • Police
  • • Tourists

Planning For Protests

Those that do not have a tactical background often do not realize the planning and strategy that goes into keeping protestors at bay. Police in France have already begun preparing and mobilizing for the New Year’s riots. The riots could be particularly troublesome because of the celebrations that occur each year at Champs-Elysees.

This famed shopping boulevard typically hosts tens of thousands each New Year’s Eve. Police will not only have to keep these people safe, but they’ll also have to encourage the yellow vests to protest peacefully and not cause disruption. However, the Champs-Elysees has been a focal point for the yellow vest protestors, with attacks in the area growing in violence. For instance, demonstrators ransacked the Arc de Triomphe monument at the beginning of December.

Officials created a Facebook event meant to bring yellow vest protestors together, encouraging peaceful dialogue. Unfortunately, it appears that the only protestors remaining are the most violent of the group. President Macron had announced an $11.4 billion package to assist low-paid workers and pensioners. This split the yellow vests into two groups, moderates who were willing to negotiate and extremists who plan to keep wreaking havoc.

The protests have already had widespread effects on businesses in the area. For instance, attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and Louvre museum have shut down for multiple days because of the damage that protestors caused at the Arc de Triomphe. Additionally, officials have also canceled everything from soccer matches to Christmas markets. The United States embassy went as far as to instruct its citizens to avoid any area suffering from protests.

How Are First Responders Controlling Rioters?

First responders must use any means necessary when dealing with unruly protestors. For instance, The Guardian reported that French police fired water cannons and tear gas as a means of crowd control around the first week of December. Other reports indicate that police used rubber bullets as well. It appears that these methods worked. Near the beginning of the protests, it seemed that the riot police were not nearly as effective.

Around November 24 and 25, protests grew as large as 30,000 people. The mob started fires in the streets and threw objects at riot police. There were also reports that protestors attacked police with metal barriers, ramming them into the lines of police. Fortunately, first responders were able to yield off these attacks thanks to their riot shields, dragging protestors away in custody.

In total, there have been thousands of arrests as a result of the protests. The arrests seemed to grow as protestors grew more violent, shattering the windows of storefronts and helping themselves to the goods inside. When rioters engage in reckless behavior like this, it creates an interesting dilemma for the police. Violent events are unpredictable, and first responders must protect citizens and businesses who are nothing but innocent bystanders in the chaos.

What Equipment Do First Responders Use?

As mentioned, French police used things such as rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons to contain crowds. One of the other pieces of equipment that have likely proved integral to police’s success at keeping crowds under control is Tri-Fold Disposable Restraints, such as the ones offered by Galls. Typical first responders carry one set of handcuffs with them.

However, riot police must have the ability to arrest yellow vest protestors quickly, load them into a transport vehicle, and return to the front lines. Riot police are similar to zip ties, making it easy for them to carry multiple units at once. The restraints are pre-looped so that police can put a protestor’s hands through smoothly. This is also critical in a protest situation because protestors are unruly and challenging to handle. Police can then “zip” the restraints tightly and securely.

Pepper spray, such as the Sabre Red MK-IV Crossfire Spray from Galls, is also essential in a protest situation. Riot police can spray the substance up to 15 or 20 feet, allowing them to prevent protestors from advancing toward them. Riot police also carry electronic immobilization devices with them. Inserting pepper spray canisters into these devices make it significantly easier to spray the liquid.

Pepper spray is not flammable. It can disorient protestors by causing an intense burning sensation. Pepper spray will inflame mucous membranes to non-lethal levels. Demonstrators may also have temporary blindness and severe burning in their eyes. Pepper spray is considered a humane method and form of crowd control.

Lastly, riot police must arm themselves with a wide array of tactical equipment to keep them safe. As mentioned, protestors have gone as far as to throw objects at riot police while also ramming them with metal barriers. Riot police need to prepare for the worst of situations. One of the most vital pieces of equipment used by riot police is a shield. Riot shields are often made of thick polycarbonate.

Riot police can adjust the straps on a shield easily. It’s also easy for them to switch between right and left-handed users. Furthermore, the best riot shields feature breakaway straps. This is a critical safety feature, as it prevents electrical pass-through. A riot shield is one of the more massive pieces of equipment that police will carry, as they can weigh anywhere from 15 to 20 pounds. However, in a violent, unpredictable situation, it’s a piece that is necessary.

You may also see riot police using a gas mask, especially once they begin dispersing pepper spray. The gas masks used by riot police tend to have a polycarbonate lens that is scratch-resistant and distortion-free. This is especially critical in a volatile situation when objects are being thrown at the police. The gas masks also allow police to see through a pepper spray haze.

If you don’t see riot police with a gas mask, you can rest assured that they are still carrying one with them. Riot police tend to carry their masks in a special pouch. Many of these bags feature Velcro closures, making it easy for police to rip the bag open and put their masks at a moment’s notice. Responders may attach this to a vest with a D-ring, helping to maximize the amount of equipment that they can carry.

French riot police were also wearing chest protectors when working to control the yellow vest protests. We’re willing to bet that the chest protectors were quite useful when protestors began to ram the metal barriers into police. Today’s tactical chest protectors contain a lightweight EV foam pad design that allows riot police to mobilize quickly. They also have a neck roll made of high-density sponge foam, which helps to prevent an attack from behind.

Chest protectors also come with Velcro attachments, allowing the police to secure things such as nameplates or other equipment. They may also enable police to attach a hydration system. Protests typically last for hours, and there’s no way of knowing when police will have a break. A hydration system provides them access to a couple of liters of water to help keep them hydrated and focused while in combat.

Moving Forward

It will be interesting to monitor the yellow vest riots moving forward. Hopefully, the protestors are willing to negotiate with French government officials, reaching a resolution. If not, further protests may continue to rise throughout Europe, disrupting numerous industries. We hope for the safety and protection of all first responders and riot police tasked with keeping citizens safe and hope that a peaceful solution comes soon.


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