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Europe, escalating street riots: Paris’ Gilets Jaunes are no longer alone  

European countries are facing episodes of mass civil unrest often escalating into violence, with protests against high cost of living, anti-immigrant demonstrations, Brexit, welfare and trade union struggles, including the No-Tav /Yes-Tav movements in Italy, which equally herald the recovery of popular activism.  What will happen in the year of the elections for the renewal of the European Parliament?

(Foto: AFP/SIR)

It’s not a resurgence of the 1968 student protests. The present ones lack their vivacity, joyful colours, music, and youth participation. Yet in Europe a new underground river made of street riots, gilets jaunes, flags held high, clashes with the police, is sporadically advancing. It obviously carries with it – in the present era of internet dictatorship – large and small factions that operate behind the scenes, occasionally triggering and fuelling the same protests on Facebook, Twitter and Whattsapp.

In Italy the streets are still relatively quiet. Some demonstrations were seen in Genoa, whose citizenry has been waiting for concrete answers for months, since the collapse of the Morandi bridge and its tragic consequences on the local population:

destroyed houses, shut-down firms, a spell of unemployment and jammed car traffic. Loud protests took place especially in the Susa Valley north of Turin between the YES-TAV and NO-TAV movements (pro and against High Speed Train trans.’s note), where ambitions of modernity clashed against legitimate pro-environment claims. People took to the streets to support or protest against migrants, or fuelled by political parties, notably the League and the Democratic Party (PD), competing to take the reins of the opposing factions.

Paris is the capital of the ongoing protests in the Old Continent. The gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) have become the emblem of the grassroots revolt

against the establishment of yesterday and today, with requests for greater social justice. It all began as a revolt against rising fuel taxes decided by the government as a measure to combat climate change. But as known, people taking to the streets tend to be impatient and cannot wait until 2050, while high gas prices are a burden on poorer households. President Emmanuel Macron and PM Edouard Philippe made a u-turn, admitting they had turned a deaf ear to the legitimate requests – the President said – promising reforms and money galore. Thus the debt-to-GDP ratio will raise above 3% and the EU Commission will be forced to nit-pick the French budget.  From Wednesday to Friday the “Macronian” measures will be examined by Government and Parliament, while the Gilet movement is splitting up. When partisan interests are brought to the streets with differing approaches (the violent faction as opposed to those inclined to negotiate with the government) sooner or later they will be left divided. Thus the movement has lost its impetus and has been overshadowed in the press by the recent, tragic incidents in Strasbourg.

Violence was seen also in the streets of Brussels where past Sunday extra-parliamentary right and far-right groups rallied in the European quarter,

to protest against the adoption of the United Nations’ Global Compact on Migration signed in Marrakesh by several Countries, including the Belgian government led by Premier Charles Michel. The usual scenes were seen: hooded demonstrators, light clashes with the police, tear gas, damaged vehicles, shops shut down for several hours. In the meantime the Flemish ministers have resigned and Michel is now at the helm of a minority Government.

One would expect London to be the most incandescent city in Europe as a result of Brexit, of the unapproved deal on exiting the EU, of the weakness of Theresa May’s government.

Not to mention growing fears over the divorce from EU27, ranging from economic and financial isolation, alienation from the Single Market, fewer tourists, changes in the free movement of people, fleeing multinational corporations, a weakened City… But this is not the case. British aplomb prevails, and until now the political battle has been fought inside the government buildings. Indeed, a few staunch Brexiteers or EU supporters are occasionally seen gathered in front of Westminster Palace, holding banners and posters. But it all takes place within the boundaries of mutual respect and democratic debate. Moreover, over the last period London has been subjected to dramatic tensions caused by acts of terrorism, and now there is great need for stability and peace. Which is what Theresa May is reiterating every single day.

But other European cities are facing unrests. Athens had to confront the outcome of a bomb blast outside television network Skai, on the outskirts of the city.

Police have opened an investigation while the political realm points the finger at anarchist or extremist fringes that are feared to seek to destabilize the Country that only now, after 10 years, with great difficulty and at the price of enormous sacrifices, is starting to recover from a dramatic economic crisis. The Minister for Citizens’ Protection Olga Gerovasili spoke of an “attack on democracy”, while law-enforcement officers and anti-terrorism police are leading the investigation.

In the meantime in Budapest street protests against the new “slavery-law”, are escalating.

Inter alia, the bill promoted by Viktor Orban’s government increases the annual overtime hours that employers can demand from 250 to 400 hours and allows payment to be delayed by up to three years. It’s a veritable Hungarian paradox: in the anti-immigrant Country, that raises walls on its borders, there is a shortage of manual labour. Thus the government decided to increase working hours with lower pay or by delaying workers’ wages. Protestors take to the streets every day. Past Sunday some 10 thousand people marched almost eight kilometers on the streets of Budapest. Clashes with the police broke out when demonstrators reached the headquarters of the national television station. Several MPs from the opposition, who entered to deliver a press statement, were filmed by video cameras while they were being forcibly manhandled out of the TV building. The footage rapidly spread across social media. The protests against the labour law add on to those – criticised also by the EU – on the reform of the judiciary, on tightened government control of the media, on electoral reform, and targeting NGOs and universities.

Signs of upheavals start to be seen in other European cities. 

It happened in Poland where not everyone agrees with the political line of the Law and Justice Government. It happened in Romania, where a government considered unfit and even corrupt,  is set to take the reins of the EU for the next six months. It happened in Bulgaria with protests against the high cost of living. While the situation in the Balkans is reaching a boiling point, with Bosnia overburdened by migration inflows that are being stopped, occasionally with violent interventions, in Bihac, on the Croatian border. For the moment, (almost) everything is quiet in other Countries: Germany, Scandinavia, Baltic Republics, Iberian peninsula. But in the coming year, with the European elections drawing closer, new street riots cannot be ruled out. In the hope that, if it should happen, democracy and citizenry – not violence – will be the protagonists.




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