(from Paris) “Listening to the cries of the poor among the poor. Only by reaching out to the poor will people’s confidence be restored. The situation we are experiencing in France and in all of Europe is due to a crisis in confidence, and confidence is recovered if those in power tend to the needs of everyone – especially those who cry out their sorrow.” Mgr. George Pontier, archbishop of Marseille, President of French bishops, analysed the phenomenon of the yellow vests that is causing concern throughout France, notably in its main cities. After the violent looting on Saturday 16 March, the French Government decided to deploy military units in the square including soldiers from the anti-terrorism Sentinelle patrol force, a total of 7,000 soldiers, 3,500 of whom deployed in Paris. Msgr. Pontier mentioned the “unstable” social and political climate in the prolusion that opened the plenary Assembly of French bishops in Lourdes today. The meeting is particularly important as it is taking place a month after the Court of Lyon condemned Cardinal Philippe Barbarin for failure to report, and because in this delicate moment for the French Catholic Church the bishops will be called to appoint the new President of the French Episcopal Conference. Msgr. Pontier – nearing the end of his mandate – was interviewed by SIR in Paris ahead of the plenary meeting. We started by asking him about the yellow vests protests.
Msgr. Pontier, can you explain what is happening?
Two aspects deserve being underlined. The first is a widespread feeling of inequality resulting from a growing gap separating the rich and the poor in our Country. There are people who despite receiving a regular salary find it difficult to make ends meet, or whose pension is so low that they struggle to survive and feel crushed by a heavy tax burden. There is another element that helps understand the origin of this phenomenon: large areas of our Country are now completely abandoned, this is true for both urban and rural areas. They lack basic services such as post offices, hospitals, maternity health centers.
Large areas of the Country have become ghost towns.
On top of this we see a lack of confidence not only in political leaders but also in trade unions, namely, in all those intermediate bodies – and in my opinion this is serious – that until a few years ago represented the voice of the people.
Every Saturday the protests degenerate into violence. Who are the violent rioters?
The movement took shape at grassroots level and expressed the protest. It was not a decision of institutionalised organisms that gradually came together to stage demonstrations and voice people’s malaise. The outbursts of violence that accompanied the protests of the Yellow Yests gained major media coverage. These acts of violence, rejected by the people that were at the origin of the protest, are perpetrated by far left and far right groups that joined the demonstrations
in an attack against the State (they are anarchists), against the rich and against the police.
At that stage the Yellow Vests were largely considered to be connected with the extreme violence and destructive behaviour of these groups. In reality the Yellow Vests took to the streets to protest against injustices, against social inequalities in our Country.
What is the position of the Church vis a vis the Yellow Vests?
The first thing we did was to create places for public debates. It was clear from the start that what was lacking in the Yellow Vests’ demonstrations were places where they could express themselves and be listened to. Indeed, some of the leaders occasionally take the floor, but they don’t represent the entire movement nor the feelings and the expectations of the people. We are therefore trying (and so is the State) to create discussion groups that will provide citizens with the tools – notwithstanding the respect for the various approaches – enabling them to reach a general consensus on proposals and solutions to the present crisis.
Not only France: all of Europe is afflicted by these problems. Economic and social inequalities are reaping victims and people no longer feel confident about the future. What is your view on this present Europe?
First of all I believe that Europe is a good thing and so is the European Union. It’s a good thing that we are unaware of today, while it has given us – and continues giving us – huge benefits. Take for example the protection from great world powers such as United States and China ensured by the European Union through its regulations. We all form part of a whole that enables us to withstand external influences. But probably these dynamics are distant from European citizens. Feelings of discontent are often exploited by politicians who unjustly and dishonestly accuse Brussels for the ills of their countries and for their own failure to take on the political responsibility to take decisions to combat the crises. However, idealizing Europe is equally wrong. Europe belongs to every Country and the biggest challenge today is ensuring that none of its citizens are left out; that minorities are respected and the needy are embraced.
It’s important for people to know that the inequalities they face in their Countries will not last forever because there is the will to solve them.