'Yellow Vests' And The Limits Of Democratic Force

Yellow Vests protest in Paris in December
Yellow Vests protest in Paris in December
Jacques Follorou


PARIS — So what has become of this France, champion of maintaining order, exporter of its savoir-faire and its materials to other democracies — and to totalitarian regimes anxious to quell burgeoning opposition movements? Just a few years ago, a spokesman for French tear gas manufacturer Alsetex, which supplies to the French police, told Le Monde, "our tear gas formula is the purest in the world, which allows people to be taken before the judge in a good state; our grenade is the marque of ‘French democracy.""

But France has gotten in the habit of seeing, each Saturday, the faces and bodies damaged in clashes between law enforcement and the Gilets Jaunes ("Yellow Vests'). The use of excessive force from the latter have put both police and protesters in hospital. But the growing acts of violence attributed to security forces also drive us to question the capacity of the state to totally master the use of democratic force, of which the rules seem to fluctuate. Since the beginning of the crisis, the public powers have, effectively, revealed a completely relative culture of the theory of usage of public force.

First of all: the unpreparedness, bordering on naivety, of the reaction to the first protests highlighted that if there had been a theory, it was based on an old model from 1968. Since these events, popular opinion rests on the principal of a officially declared and approved protest, which begin in the early afternoon and finishes with a few skirmishes at the end of the day, before nightfall.

An ideological void

With the yellow vest movement, according to the public prosecutor's office of Paris, protests have appeared that are neither declared nor limited, beginning early in the day, with many who have come from the provinces without knowledge of Paris who find themselves infiltrated by groups of very mobile hooligans — or casseurs, "breakers," — sometimes with ties to the extreme right.

These limits of the state's ability to properly respond appeared for all to see on December 6, 2018, near a high school in Mantes-la-Jolie (Yvelines), as dozens of youths between the age of 12 and 21 were forced by the police to kneel, in rows, on the ground, with their hands behind their heads. The image shocked the country: brutal security methods from theaters of war suddenly land inside France's borders. In Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, the French or American armies treat their prisoners like this, to show their superiority and claim victory. It makes them adopt a position toward the defeated that aims not only to immobilize the adversary but also to symbolize their defeat with a form of humiliation.

Police forces in Paris in December — Photo: Karine Pierre/ZUMA

Through this image alone, this Parisian suburb was transformed to a place where pre-existing codes prevailed outside mere clashes between police officers and rioters. Civil power possesses its own codes: It doesn't look to eliminate the enemy, it aims to neutralize it, to restrain it, to block it. It still allows it an exit route so that it can be dispersed. It anticipates, flexing its muscles for the sole purpose of dissuasion. It doesn't treat violence as such, it knows how to distinguish the different forms of threats, of the small, rebellious groups organized into a grand mass of angry citizens. It needs to know how to overcome and modulate strength. It doesn't treat a protester as an enemy to fight, but as a citizen that it must constrain, and one who has rights.

This crossroads of democratic and martial authority drove, on December 1, 2018, the national secretary of the Alliance Police Nationale union, Stanislas Gaudon, to ask the army for reinforcements in the face of the yellow vests, as if civil power could not alone manage the threat without the involvement of the military. Technically, the latter have no more of an answer than the police, but they reassure them. Terrorism has brought us in that direction. The militarization of spirits on national soil has gained traction. Nevertheless, the shift in understanding is heavy with meaning. The soldiers do not know the penal code, which is ultimate the guardian of our democratic society.

Terrorism has brought us in that direction.

On January 15, the director of the national police, Erik Morvan, split with a reminder of the rules, but for "non-lethal weapons," LBD40, known by the name "flash ball," the origin of grave wounds among the protestors. Pierre Joxe, Minister of the Interior under the presidency of Francois Mitterand, had questioned the disproportionate use of these techniques to maintain order: "With Tasers and the flash-balls, there have been deaths in numerous countries. Why? Because a Taser is not deadly, except when it kills. Who does it kill? Someone with a fragile heart, with health problems. The flash-ball is not deadly, except when it kills. When does it kill? When it bashes in a skull."

Lacking a solid position on the use of force, political power faces the risk of allowing practices to drift toward private vengeance. The case of the police commissioner, in Toulon, who meted out justice himself on the grounds that he had been attacked earlier in the same day by yellow vests, was the public expression of this decline in inhibitions that we cannot contain without the firm and appropriate use of democratic force.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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