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“Yellow Vest protests both alarm and provide the government with opportunities”

One of the leading academics specialized in politics in the street as a form of participation, Prof. Ayşen Uysal maintained that with the new steps taken by the French government the protests of the yellow vest (gilets jaunes) movement is on the decline. Uysal contends that these protests both alarm and give the Turkish government an opportunity.

İrfan Uçar

Prof. Ayşen Uysal, who completed her second Master’s Degree and PhD in Paris-Sorbonne University and wrote the book Sokakta Siyaset (Politics in the Street), claimed that the yellow vest (gilets jaunes) movement, which is at present on the wane as the French government took certain steps, is both a source of concern and opportunities for the Turkish government. We talked to Uysal about the protests in France and their repercussions in Turkey.

Ayşen Uysal

Have the Yellow Vests attained what they desired in France?

The Yellow Vests protests managed to snatch some advantages but they have not yet achieved their goals. Though the protests were triggered off as a response to rise in fuel prices they were not limited to the withdrawal of this price rise. What is more, it is not limited to economic demands either: the protests harboured also significant demands pertaining to the critique of representative democracy. The protesters expressed their discomfort with a number of primary issues such as politicians seeing their positions as professions and forming a privileged coterie. The government, on the other hand, failed to take important measures concerning the withdrawal of solidarity tax on wealth and oppression of the low-income groups with heavy taxes and poor purchasing power. Finally, when Macron made promises to put an end to the protests and these promises were passed as legislative regulations in the French parliament only a small portion of the issue was resolved.

How did those “preventive detentions”— arrest of people who have not yet participated in the protests— affect the protests? Are the protests on the wane?

With the sixth Saturday of the protests over, there was a decrease in the number of protestors following Macron’s address. However, this may not mean that the protests will gradually disappear. From the very beginning, there has been a public support for the protests exceeding by far the number of protestors and this support still continues. The support in question comes from both the left and right wing of the political spectrum. For sure, the protests are not to go on forever since every cycle of protest goes through three phases: the escalation phase during which everything seems possible, the radical phase and the decline phase. Protests begin to weaken with the establishment of new organisations, routinization of collective activism, partial furnishing of some demands and termination of activism by protestors themselves. What is more, sustaining protests for 6 or 7 weeks is wearisome and the number of protestors may decrease in time because of the difficulty of devoting time and energy for so long. Sometime oppression and sometime getting your demands fulfilled may lead to the waning of the protests. Or street protests may evolve into other forms of activism. In fact, demonstrations inevitably begin to wane and vanish. However, as long as the problems in question persist there is always the likelihood that the protests may pop up once again some time later in a different form. In short, the Yellow Vests protests, which are at the moment in decline, will vanish one day or another.

And there are no data that show a correlation between decrease in the protests and the “preventive detentions.” As I said earlier, the drop in participation in the protests seems to have more to do with the steps taken by the government.

The Turkish government reacted rather acrimoniously to the Yellow Vests protests. Could this be interpreted as a kind of fear concerning a Gezi-like incident?

The Yellow Vests protests are both a source of concern and opportunities for the Turkish government. The worries of the government increased more and more with the beginning of the Arab Spring protests. The Gezi demonstrations exacerbated and established these worries. Even the idea of demonstrations frightens them now—unless of course they are staged by their own incentive.

The opportunities that the Yellow Vests protests offer the government can be seen in two axes. The first concerns the barrage of criticism that Turkey received from the EU countries mainly France about human rights violations. The repression and violence exerted by the French security forces on the Yellow Vests protestors provided the Turkish government with arguments. Now the Turkish government believe that they have a “counter-argument.” The second opportunity involves the Turkish government maintaining their politics of polarization via Gezi and Yellow Vests protests. In this way the government established a ground on which they could rule the country under the perception of threat. This also gave the government the claim that there are “forces that want to topple us down” before the elections to consolidate its grassroots— a tool which they will probably continue to use in the future. Their campaign based on survival politics places protests as a threat against survival.

Ayşen Uysal

Is the street a space that is solely in control of the government? Is it possible to foresee protests in the future when economic crisis is likely to affect wide segments of society?

Of course, the street is not a space that belongs to the government; different organisations and social segments are struggling to keep the street as an option and claim it as a participatory space and form in the face of increasing repression. Nonetheless, organizing protests is much harder these days; it requires undertaking risks and paying high prices.  Still, repression can never rule out protests, this is something we see clearly in the world history. Yet, the problem concerning the organization of protests is not the government repression only. A series of factors such as the barriers blocking freedom of organization and freedom of information and the condition of the present organizations also hamper the organization of, and participation to, protests.

Economic crises do not bring protests automatically in its wake, yet give rise to them. A series of other sources are needed for protests and social movements to appear. Assuming that protests will erupt simply because there is an economic crisis is a rather simplistic approach. As long as there exist problems with other sources (organizations, access to information, etc.), collective protests seem to be extremely difficult to stage. There may be demonstrations protesting economic crisis in France, Greece, Spain, etc. but it does not necessarily follow that similar incidents will take place in Turkey because the contexts, political systems and traditions are exceedingly different.

Is it possible to see the revival and extending the scope of Gezi lawsuits as manoeuvres designed to forestall probable demonstrations? Or do they intend, just before the elections, to put the blame of the economic crisis on the protestors of Gezi, which they labelled as a “coup d’état”?

I do not think that the scope of Gezi lawsuits was extended with a view to forestall possible protests. As I indicated earlier, I believe that this gives the government a unique tool, enabling them to create new “enemy” profiles in their effort to create a sense of constant threat. In the election period it will act as a profoundly convenient tool for propaganda in the hands of the government.

Translation: Fahri Öz

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