The gilets jaunes in France give us a very important lesson about Brexit

Politicians can turn to people with the ideas, energy and entrepreneurial spirit to do something about the urgent and pressing concerns facing the country

Kajal Odedra
Saturday 16 March 2019 11:25
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Students protest in Westminster over environmental concerns

The hi-vis vest was once the “must-have accessory” for politicians in the UK. You’ll have seen them. An aspiring cabinet secretary, on your local TV news. They were probably visiting a construction site, surrounded by cameras and an entourage. They are there, they say, to connect with ordinary people.

Well, as is so often the case, the French had their own take on the place of the yellow vest in politics – and theirs involved a lot more passion and a rebellious twist (before being hijacked by more sinister and unsavoury forces). Now, as the gridlock at Westminster grinds politics to a halt, it is perhaps to France our politicians should look for lessons on how to get out of this mess.

It began with a campaign on the petition platform Change.org. What followed was truly extraordinary. Some 1.2 million people added their names. And they organised, so much so that not only did president Macron scrap tax rises and announce new reductions in taxation for ordinary people, he did something more. He made commitments that politicians in the UK have neglected to do with Brexit: to open up and listen to people.

It is an intriguing coincidence that The Independent’s petition for a Final Say on the Brexit deal has now reached that same number. And so, 1.2m people in the UK have tried to make their voices heard, but the government is yet to respond.

While some have questioned the sincerity and motivations of Macron’s approach (and the French people will no doubt judge him on his actions following the so-called Grand Débat National), the basic merits of politicians facing the public are lost on too many of our leaders here in Britain. A survey of over 100,000 Change.org signatories found that only 7 per cent reported feeling they had been given a chance to be heard on the Brexit deal since the 2016 referendum.

Although the French petition was about tax rises, the campaign movement was about more than just that. It was about a deep sense of frustration at not being listened to; a situation in which we find ourselves in the UK.

As the national debate in France wraps up and as the Brexit saga rumbles on instead of another round of head-in-sand politicking, our country’s leadership could do worse than look for solutions outside of their comfort zones.

They can turn to people with the ideas, energy and entrepreneurial spirit to do something about the urgent and pressing concerns facing the country.

So France may be the benchmark, but there are plenty of young people with the courage to lead from the front in the UK.

Take 15-year-old Bella Lack, currently studying for her GCSEs. Bella joined thousands of young people in a national school strike to demand action on climate change. Bella wanted to be in school but instead she went on national TV to talk about the climate emergency, compelled by her sense of outrage at the lack of leadership.

We could look to Amika George, who helped to put #PeriodPoverty onto the political agenda. In response to the 270,000 people who backed her campaign, this week the government has announced funding for free sanitary products in secondary schools.

And then there are the amazing women demanding the curriculum in schools be brought up to date and winning. Like Alice Smith, who has been campaigning to have endometriosis included in sex education. Like Laura Darall, with her campaign to get mental health education into the classroom, and Nimco Ali who, alongside young activists Pink Protest, have succeeded in placing female genital mutilation (FGM) on the curriculum of all secondary schools

Not only are these young people and more often than not, young women getting issues on the national agenda, but they are also doing something to create a change that they, and so many others, want to see.

For many people right now, the national outlook can seem quite bleak. But day in, day out, ordinary people are raising their concerns and creating unstoppable forces that so many of our politicians just haven’t been able to keep up with.

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Perhaps the lesson from the continent is not only that we now know how to say "high-vis vest" in French but that the power of the people is about controlling the agenda in the way governments once did. Despite the frustration many will feel when watching the inertia in Westminster, we can take hope from the role models before us. Not the Punch and Judy players in Westminster, but rather Alice, Laura, Nimko and others.

The issue for those politicians wondering if they can still don high-vis vests and hard hats at the next election is this: if you wait too long before you start listening to people, events might just pass you by.

Kajal Odedra is UK executive director of Change.org

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