One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This time we ask:
What is the significance of the Gilets Jaunes movement?
With responses from: Nonna Mayer, Gabriel Rockhill, Samuel Hayat, Maia Pal, Philippe Marliere, Julian Mischi, Enzo Traverso, Aurélie Dianara, Prabhat Patnaik, Ivan Bruneau, Diana Johnstone, John Mullen, Richard Greeman, Sophie Wahnich, Joshua Clover.
CNRS emerita research professor at CEE, Sciences Po. Her recent publications include: ‘The political impact of social insecurity in France‘, Partecipazione e conflitto , 2019, 11(3) 2018; ‘The ‘losers of automation’: A reservoir of votes for the radical right?‘, Research & Politics, 6(1), 2019 (with Zen J. Im, B. Palier and J. Rovny).
The trigger of the Yellow Vests movement, last November, was the 80km/h speed limit on country- side roads and the ‘carbon tax’ raising the price of the diesel fuel – the last straw in a country where 75% of the working population use their car to go to work. But the deeper undercurrent was social insecurity. The protesters are not the worst off. Most of them have a car, a job, a home, and they pay taxes, yet they struggle to make a living. While the elites focus on ‘the end of the world’, their concern, as their posters say, is ‘the end of the month’.
They don’t mobilise the have-nots and the wretched like the ‘poor people’s movements’ analysed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Rather they express the revolt of a lower middle class at risk of poverty, resenting the rich above, who do not fear tomorrow, as well as the ‘undeserving’ poor below, on social welfare, whose anger finds no outlet. The feeling that nobody hears them, that nobody cares, drives them against mainstream parties and elites, either towards the extremes or away from politics altogether. The same discontent fuelled the surprise victory of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or the record score of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election. However different Brexiters, Trumpists and LePenists may be, they belong to a squeezed middle class afraid of losing the little it has, feeling at the edge of the precipice.
The declining numbers of the French Yellow Vest demonstrators and of their imitators in Europe (Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain), do not mean that the revolt is near its end. Its roots go back to the mid-70s. The end of the post war economic boom marked the return of social insecurity, with the development of mass unemployment, new forms of poverty and atypical precarious employment. Globalisation and then the Great Recession of 2008 exacerbated these trends. And a new risk is developing fast: automation. It first hit industrial blue-collar jobs that could be easily replaced by robots. Now intelligent machines and algorithms are threatening routine white-collar jobs.
These workers, with mid-level skills and education, could be a potential reservoir for future disruptive protests such as the Yellow Vests, and also, to a certain extent, to support the radical Right. Our study in eleven European countries shows that the electoral impact of automation is conditioned by the perceived economic situation. The most likely to vote for radical right parties are individuals in occupations at risk of automation who feel they are still coping financially with their present income, but fear status loss and downward mobility. While those who, facing the same risk of automation, say they cannot cope, do not even bother going go to the polls.
Associate Professor and Director of the Critical Theory Workshop at the Sorbonne
Department of Philosophy, Villanova University. Author most recently of Counter-History of the Present (Duke University, 2017), Contre-histoire du temps présent (CNRS, 2017) and Interventions in Contemporary Thought (Oxford University, 2017). Twitter: @GabrielRockhill
The Gilets Jaunes are significant for at least four reasons. First and foremost, they are a grassroots social movement that has arisen in reaction to the ongoing onslaught of global capitalism. The fact that this movement emerged outside of the representational structures that generally serve to support this system – including the professional political parties of parliamentary pseudo-democracy and the bureaucratised unions – indicates the extent to which these structures themselves, with few exceptions, have not been able to successfully mobilise and empower the working classes, but have instead managed their discontent.
The Gilets Jaunes movement is also conjuncturally important in the sense that it is one more sign of the struggle of working peoples to invent new political imaginaries in a historical conjuncture in which the perceived ‘end of the socialist alternative’ has bled into the very real end of the biosphere in the era of the Capitalocene. While there are certainly significant limitations to the movement, which are largely the result of successful misinformation campaigns and a lack of anti-capitalist political education, the movement nonetheless adumbrates the pressing task of developing a revolutionary ecological socialism for the 21st century.
Given the inordinate level of state repression (which includes at least 800 cases of police violence, 289 head injuries to protestors, 24 eyes shot out, 5 hands blown off, and 1 death), the movement is also significant for the ways in which it has revealed, yet again, the extent to which liberalism and authoritarian fascism are not opposites but rather function in tandem as modes of capitalist governance. If the liberal pageantry of Macron’s grand débat and other such ideological charades are sufficient to govern the bourgeois classes and their acquiescent allies, his bloody assault on legitimate working-class protestors demonstrates the mode of governance reserved for anyone who acts out against the system in place.
Finally, the Gilets Jaunes are tactically significant. They have been extremely creative in their organising endeavors, and they have, perhaps most importantly, parted ways with the square movements and the occupation of highly visible public spaces in urban centers. Instead, they have focused on weekly days of action across the entire country, which they have combined with a number of other tactics (flash blockades, the occupation of roundabouts, active strikes, the repossession of toll booths, etc.). This is surely what has allowed them to continue for over 6 months, and they are creating unique organising models that are already being reproduced elsewhere. Although the government has yet to make any meaningful concessions, and there is still much work to be done, the Gilets Jaunes are demonstrating the importance of political imagination as a weapon of class warfare.
Researcher in Political Science at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Specialised in political theory and in the history of political thought, author of Quand la République était révolutionnaire: Citoyenneté et representation en 1848 (Seuil, 2014), he has written several articles on the Gilets Jaunes movement.
Important social movements always cause conflicting interpretations. Since the very first Gilets Jaunes demonstration, on November 17th 2018, there has been an ongoing debate about the nature of the movement, and the issue is still divisive for social scientists, journalists and activists. My contention is that this uncertainty has to do with three core features of the protest: its relation to history, its focus on unity and its conception of democracy.
When social movements emerge, they are usually put in a box quite easily by commentators, mostly because activists themselves claim to belong to a certain tradition. But since the beginning of their protest, the Gilets Jaunes have constantly proclaimed their absolute novelty. Their vocabulary, centred on citizenship and fiscal justice, does not relate to any ideology; their symbol is an ordinary piece of clothing with no other meaning than making people visible; most of their slogans come from the world of soccer supporters; they refuse the involvement of all parties, trade unions or politicised organisations. When they refer to past events, they select only the more consensual ones, such as the French Revolution or the Resistance.
This refusal to situate themselves in the history of social movements is linked with their obsession for unity. From the beginning it has been clear that this protest aggregated people from very different political and social backgrounds, from extreme right activists to anarchists, from small entrepreneurs to unemployed workers. This diversity is both what makes the movement so inclusive, and a permanent threat, which requires a constant collective concern for unity, such as not using ideologically-oriented references and not raising divisive questions (immigration, but also unemployment, public service and all forms of domination).
This pursuit of unity is not solely a strategy. It also reflects the Gilets Jaunes’ shared conception of democracy. Against representative democracy, its parties, professionals and divisions (Left vs. Right, liberalism vs. socialism and so on), they want a democracy based on the direct expression of common citizens through referendums, in which elected officials would just be people’s subordinates carrying out their decisions. This citizenism calls for a nonpartisan, undivided democracy from which political confrontation is absent.
All these elements make the Gilets Jaunes difficult to understand through the usual categories of political interpretation, made for deciphering historically-based partisan divisions. But this is precisely why this protest may be prefigurative of a possible future political system – not necessarily desirable but undeniably democratic.
Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Social Sciences, Oxford Brookes University. She was present from the beginning of the Gilets Jaunes movement, form 17th November 2018 to the end of January 2019, participating in activities covering villages south of Avignon at the border of the Bouches-du-Rhône (13) and Vaucluse (84) departments. She is also linked to the Collectif Gilets Jaunes Enseignement-Recherche (Yellow Vest university academics), whose most recent letter and petition is translated here.
The aspect of the movement I find most significant, alongside its originality and emergence in provincial, small scale urban and rural parts of France, is the way in which it managed to group people from an unusually wide variety of political, cultural, and social backgrounds. This new social basis for collective action was largely enabled by an ‘apartisan’ stance, and this is an important challenge for the organised Left.
This is not an easy or necessarily positive starting point for building a progressive and structurally transformative movement that aims to redress social, fiscal and environmental inequalities. This starting point has, for the Left, usually been the workplace. However, at today’s Western capitalist juncture, the traditional shop floor and factory are challenged by more flexible, fluid, subjective and immaterial conditions rendering that space more difficult to define and situate.
The apartisan stance has thus been tested by the Gilets Jaunes as a new basis for action. However, it is constantly threatened by overt and covert attempts at appropriation by political parties, experts, organs of the state, etc. It is also constantly threatened by people’s everyday tendencies to shape and identify problems and strategies for the movement to evolve, and thus to revert to party-form politics. Keeping the apartisan stance – by nurturing its distinction between political action and subjectivity – is therefore a real challenge and one the movement is constantly learning on the spot how to manage.
This has led to various successes and defeats, and also to the various and diffuse nature of the protests. It has also led to strong critiques from the Left, inside and outside France, about the lack of long-term potential for the movement, critiques which deplore the lack of anti-capitalist and structural strategy, its latent individualism and limited consumption-based demands, as well as its superficial and ephemeral spontaneity, and of course its far-right elements and associations.
To what extent these valid questions of the movement would be remedied by a political party form or at least by guiding principles for long-term political identity and strategy remains to be discussed. I would argue for a creative latter position, as well as for acknowledging the success of the Gilets Jaunes in testing, albeit not always successfully or necessarily with the revolutionary aims the Left would want, how to build a major social movement that actually challenges a government and its ruling class rather than just talking or writing about it. I hope the Left can learn from this, rather than being scared by it.
Professor of French and European Politics at University College London, UK. He has published extensively on French socialism, European social democracy and left-wing populism (notably Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise). He is currently writing a book on the republican ideology in France today.
The Yellow Vests’ most fundamental characteristic is their loathing of representative democracy: they despise professional politicians, and describe them as ‘corrupt’ and ‘incompetent’. They also want to stay away from Left parties and unions. In short, they only believe in themselves to carry out major social and political transformations. But how can one achieve such ambitious objectives without looking for allies and concrete political outcomes (for instance, an alliance with organised progressive forces or taking part in elections)?
When two splinter groups decided to run a list of candidates at the European elections, they were immediately ostracised by the rest of the movement. The results were expectedly derisory: one list received 0.7% of the share of the vote and the other 0.5%. When they voted, a majority of Yellow Vests supporters chose Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally.
Is it surprising? Qualitative surveys show that there are in fact two concentric circles of Yellow Vests protestors: the core – which takes to the street on a weekly basis – is economically progressive and culturally rather tolerant. This is the public face of the movement. But there is more to it than this ‘left-wing’ component. A larger circle of supporters, less active in the movement, is motivated by the defence of specific material interests (rise on fuel, speed limit, curbing immigration). The Yellow Vests’ anti-system and anti-establishment rhetoric combined with those material concerns was therefore largely compatible with Le Pen’s anti-EU, anti-migrants and anti-elite discourse.
In short, if the movement has put forward very decent proposals on the social and economic side of the argument, it has failed to appeal to the masses of blue and white-collar workers, as well as the unemployed, the young and racialised populations. The reasons for the eventual Yellow Vests failure are clear today: the idea of a popular rebellion against an arrogant and right-wing president may have been romantic to most French people for a short period of time, but it did not suffice to actually form a political movement.
The people who demonstrate across France every Saturday have ended up representing nothing but themselves. French workers, for the most part, got bored if not impatient with demonstrators who did not offer any proper solutions to the crisis.
The Yellow Vests movement, far from helping a weak and discredited French Left, has in fact further deepened its crisis. The populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon who publicly supported the movement from day one, got severely punished at the European elections. His France Insoumise movement received 6.3% of the share of the vote, down from his 19.6% at the 2017 presidential election. Le Pen is on 23.3% and the beleaguered Macron on 22.4%.
Senior Researcher in Sociology at the Centre d’Economie et de Sociologie Appliquées à l’Agriculture et aux Espaces Ruraux (CESAER), Dijon, France. His books include Mondes ruraux et classes sociales, co-edited with I Bruneau, G Laferté and N Renahy (EHESS, 2018); Le Bourg et l’atelier: Sociologie du combat syndical (Agone, 2016), Le Communisme désarmé: Le PCF et les classes populaires depuis les années 1970 (Agone, 2014).
The Yellow Vests movement has brought rural populations to the forefront of the political and media scene. Mobilisations have been particularly strong in small towns in the countryside. The protest is not limited to these territories, but is in part an expression of the distress of the people living there. The movement began in opposition to the increase in a gas tax, which penalised mainly car-dependent populations in these territories. It should be noted that the French countryside is characterised by an over-representation of the working classes, while the social elites are concentrated in the metropolitan areas, particularly in Paris.
The life difficulties of rural residents, but also the resources they can mobilise to make their voices heard, have given particular characteristics to the movement, far from traditional forms of mobilisation. The gatherings on roundabouts are the symbol of this. The mobilisation was fuelled by a desire to combat the impoverishment of the living and working environment in rural areas: closure of small businesses and public services, deindustrialisation, etc. It expressed the feeling of being despised by distant elites who live in large cities and do not know the daily life of rural working-class families. Far from being specific to the French case, these socio-political processes occur in a set of countries with diverse political expressions. The geography of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the Trump election in the United States also point to spatial and social cleavages with a growing gap between metropolitan areas and the rest of the national territories.
The emergence of this mobilisation outside the traditional militant framework reflects the breakdown of left-wing forces, in line with a trend observed at the European level. It also signals a shift in the social struggle away from the company and traditional workers’ actions: weekend action, rallies at roundabouts, involvement of the self-employed and employees with irregular jobs, orientation of the struggle against the State more than against employers, etc. The Yellow Vests movement clearly underlines the strong demand for political exchanges and the desire to influence the course of events. Synergies have been created around daily mutual aid and demands for tax justice and purchasing power. We can imagine that the informal activist groups resulting from the mobilisation could be reactivated during upcoming events such as class closures or the municipal elections of 2020. But its political translation into an electoral landscape dominated by the far Right remains uncertain.
Teaches at Cornell University. His most recent books include Fire and Blood: The European Civil War (Verso, 2016), Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory (Columbia University, 2017), and The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right (Verso, 2019).
After more than six months of mobilisation, the Gilets Jaunes appear today as an exhausted and declining movement, but many observers foresee its possible rebirth in the fall, insofar as its causes have not been resolved. Almost everybody, including in France, has been surprised by the unusual forms, symbols, and practices of the Gilets Jaunes. They are supported by both the radical Left and the far Right, but claim their independence.
First of all, they do not accept any political representation. In fact, they cannot be interpreted with the traditional categories of interpretation. In a continent shaped by the rise of xenophobia and racism, they do not seek any scapegoat, do not demand the expulsion of immigrants and refugees or the defence of a threatened ‘national identity’. They put forward the question of social inequalities as a major threat to democracy. They do not claim an ethnic or political, but rather a social identity. They do not depict themselves according to their origins, but rather by mentioning their professions and claiming the dignity of common people.
However, they are external to the trade unions and do not belong to left-wing culture. Their symbol is not a red flag but rather a yellow vest: this allows them to become visible in a world that condemns them to public invisibility and social suffering. During the European elections, most of them probably abstained, even if significant minorities of the movement voted for both the radical Left (France Insoumise) and the far Right (Rassemblement National). In short, the Gilets Jaunes do not claim any political identity, but they take some symbols of the French Revolution: the sans-culottes, the rights of man and citizen, and the execution of the King.
On the other hand, they are ‘modern’: they use Facebook as a tool of counter-information against the TV channels, and handle the internet as a collective organiser. We could depict them as a ‘populist’ movement, insofar as they oppose those in power: Macron as the embodiment of a financial elite. But at the same time, they explicitly reject many features of classical populism, notably nationalism and charismatic leadership. I agree with Etienne Balibar, for whom the Gilets Jaunes are inventing a form of ‘counter-populism’: a democratic and horizontal instead of a vertical and authoritarian populism; a populism of actors, not of followers.
The future of this movement is unpredictable, but it undoubtedly carries a serious warning for the Left: they express the same values – notably social dignity and equality – but their languages, cultures and practices remain different. This is why the Gilets Jaunes should be observed more as a symptom than as a model or an example to be exported to other countries.
Paris-based feminist activist and a Research Associate in International Economic History at the University of Glasgow. She sits on the national committee of Potere al Popolo, Italy.
More than six months after the first ‘Act’ of their mobilisation, the Gilets Jaunes are still going. This is quite remarkable in itself and has forced most observers to acknowledge that the movement is probably the longest and most resilient in modern French history. It is still difficult to assess its significance, but one thing is certain: although the movement can hardly be described as victorious, it has panicked the elites and forced the government to make concessions – which no social movement in France had managed to do in the past 10 years. This was probably due as much to the intensity and novelty of the first weeks of mobilisation as it was to public opinion’s support for the movement’s demands. This alone should lead us to engage in a serious rethinking of our traditional forms of mobilisation and of the role and model of trade unionism, and not just in France.
But the government’s concessions were cosmetic and insignificant compared to the core demands of the movement: principally, social and fiscal justice, and greater participation of citizens in politics. In this regard, the government did not move from its initial course: the wealth tax won’t be reestablished, the flat tax and tax cuts for enterprises won’t be revised, public expenses and services will be further reduced, enormous privatisations and a new pension reform are on the agenda. The proposal of a ‘RIC’ (Citizen Initiative Referendum), so dear to the Gilets Jaunes, was simply dismissed by Macron. Considering the recent decreasing mobilisation, and the government party’s not-so-catastrophic result in the European election, one could conclude that the game is over for the Gilets Jaunes.
However, the long Gilets Jaunes movement is the expression of a profound political crisis that is bound to endure. What has really been the core of the movement is the question of popular sovereignty. The acceleration of neoliberal globalisation since the 1980s, coupled in Europe with the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union, has created a growing disjunction between macro-economic policies and social model policies. As a result, some crucial aspects of public policy – such as deficit and debt levels, the model of capital and goods mobility and monetary policy instruments – have been shifted away from national political arenas and insulated from democratic control.
On 17 November, we unexpectedly discovered that the French people no longer consented to this disempowerment and the rationales that have dominated European politics in the past few decades. As they took the roads and roundabouts, people became aware that they were not the only ones outraged by the state of affairs. What is more, they became aware of their collective power. It is safe to assume that this new collective awareness and will to take back control will not fade away magically. The unprecedented and criminal repression that smashed the movement may have forced people to go home; it will not turn off the anger. Quite the opposite. The question is probably not whether it will explode again but when and how.
This is a crisis that is brewing up in all liberal democracies. For now, the far right is proving to be particularly well prepared to take advantage of this fundamental crisis of sovereignty. It is about time we start taking this problem seriously and find a way to restore people’s sovereignty along internationalist lines.
Professor Emeritus of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His books include A Theory of Imperialism (Columbia University, 2016) (with Utsa Patnaik) and Re-envisioning Socialism (Columbia University, 2012).
Movements like the Yellow Vests movement do not directly change the world. They have a most rudimentary organisational structure; they hardly have a clear set of demands; and they lack any theory on the basis of which change can be strategised. These qualities in many ways are their strength; but they also constitute their weakness when it comes to directly changing the world. I expect participation in the weekend demonstrations to decline gradually, until some new provocation arises that once more pushes the people into righteous anger. This actually has been happening to the Yellow Vest demonstrations, where participation has dropped from over 300000 to around 15000.
The significance of the movement lies elsewhere, in keeping alive the people’s anger, in not making them resigned to their fate. It provides a base to build on, for other better organised political forces that can utilise this anger to change the world. Indeed, the reported desire of the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) to have an agreement with the Yellow Vests movement is a positive sign. Other workers’ organisations may also come forward to have such agreements, which would then help them in forging agreements among themselves. This would be a sort of United Front from below, a novel concept altogether.
But no matter how the Yellow Vests movement pans out, it constitutes an unprecedented form of protest, a sort of new theory being produced on the streets. All revolutions are the products of new theory, of theoretical innovations, which is why no two revolutions are alike. What we are witnessing today with the Yellow Vests is the forging of a new theory. As I said earlier, the movement lacks a theory of its own; but it is contributing, not necessarily consciously, to the production of a new theory of revolution by its novelty and the relationships it is forging with other organisations.
I do not expect this movement to have a reach outside of the borders of France, or at best of Western Europe. Other countries must work out their own ways of protest and of carrying such protest to the stage of revolution. But France has shown the need for a state of ‘permanent protest’, which is what the Yellow Vest movement will actually become. As it starts dying out on one set of issues, new issues will arise to keep it going.
Associate professor in Political Science at Université Lyon 2, and member of the Triangle Research Centre.
(Translated by Juliette Rogers)
The Gilets Jaunes movement does not escape the rule that all large-scale collective movements require the conditions of possibility, meaning that the crisis it expresses has deep historical roots. Its main taproots are the crisis of political representation that has typified France (and many other countries) for the last several decades and, at a finer level, social changes in rural areas and the transformation of the living conditions of rural residents over the past twenty years.
In the first case, there has long been a notable deep mistrust of the political class and major parties: the emergence of the Front National in the early 1980s and its rising share of voters, reaching 10.5 million in 2017; a striking climb in abstention over the same period (especially in the working classes), and the steady decline of the electoral bases of the Socialist and Gaullist parties, up through their marginalisation since 2017. The persistent expressions of this crisis have not stemmed the tendency to a heavy overrepresentation of higher social classes in the political field, as members of Parliament are hardly representative of French social diversity.
Other explanations should be added to these ‘national’ processes, relating to the spaces in which the Gilets Jaunes movement grew. As my colleagues and I have demonstrated (cf. Mondes ruraux et classes sociales), developments in the employment and real estate markets have increased the presence of the working classes in rural areas, and thus the least skilled workers earning the lowest incomes. This reconfiguration occurred in a context of closing public services (schools, hospitals, train stations) and the dissociation of places of residence and work, with the employment crisis making it necessary to accept jobs requiring long daily commutes. It’s no accident that the price of gas was a unifying grievance at the beginning of the movement. Another important factor is that the distance deepened between social groups in rural areas, where local elites barely participate in village sociability, leading to tensions between residents.
Although these conditions undeniably influenced the emergence and development of the movement, are they enough to truly understand it from every perspective? My twenty years of ethnographic research in such rural areas has highlighted their considerable distance from social and political elites, but rural criticism has often come with resignation regarding the usual ways of protesting or any way of speaking out collectively, along the lines of ‘it wouldn’t change anything, anyway.’ That is precisely what we need to understand: the transition from a hodgepodge of dissatisfactions and anger previously expressed in private and professional settings to the composition of demands expressed in public.
Such enunciation work, which so interested Pierre Bourdieu, is even more mysterious in this instance because the movement rallied individuals who were largely not union or political party activists and did not feel qualified to speak on political matters. Research on the movement will help us to understand the decisive factors in the success of this explicit political rendering of the implicit. It will also help us to better identify its consequences on politicisation over the short and medium terms, particularly as it relates to continuing interest in politics and the expression of a class discourse portraying members of the working classes as having common interests.
Long-time journalist and commentator on European and international politics. Her books include Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto: 2002), and the introduction and commentary to the memoirs of her father, Paul H Johnstone, From Mad to Madness: Inside Pentagon Nuclear War Planning (Clarity Press, 2017).
The Gilets Jaunes movement is coming from a deep rejection of the ruling political (and media) class that has lost all interest in the well-being of ordinary people. It is a spontaneous explosion of revolt against leaders too hypnotised by the myth of an inevitable ‘globalisation’ to care about working people, especially outside the major cities, reduced to obsolescent losers in a great planetary casino of financial capital.
Where is it going? Most significantly, it is an awakening. People are fed up watching their world change for the worse through the filters of mainstream media, which praise as modern and necessary the ‘reforms’ that are tearing down public services, social protection, wages and pensions. Coming together on the traffic circles of small towns, on the boulevards of big cities, people talk to each other and exchange experiences, reviving a traditional spirit of political combat that had been dormant since politicians ignored the French people’s vote against the European Constitution in 2005. The change in public consciousness cannot be reversed, although exactly where it will lead is uncertain.
The Macron government has greeted the Gilets Jaunes with open contempt and the most brutal police repression since the Algerian war. Rubber bullets (‘non-lethal’) have been fired directly into the faces of peaceful citizens, causing many injuries including the loss of eyes, with no apology from the authorities. The same police who brutalise peaceful protesters allow ‘black bloc’ vandals to rampage through city streets, smashing windows and setting fires, in order to discredit the movement as violent.
The French context is not exportable. France is conscious of a history of revolution which makes people receptive to popular revolt. The Gilets Jaunes simply demand genuine democracy and probably want nothing more radical than a return to the sort of mixed economy of the 1960s, which favoured industrial development and provided jobs, social protection and public services.
That cherished way of life is being torn down by unlimited international competition, wholesale privatisation and austerity measures imposed by European Union treaties – policies that destroy the policy-making capacity of the nation state. Macron differs from his predecessors mainly by his arrogant disregard for the victims of this policies. Macron is dreadful, but the Gilets Jaunes need to recognise that the European Union is the fundamental cause of the policies they reject before they can define their goals accurately.
Long-standing anti-capitalist activist in the Paris region, supporter of the France Insoumise. Website at: www.johncmullen.net.
The Yellow Vests are an inspiration. Rooted in the small-town working class, traditionally little-mobilised, the movement has transformed many thousands in the struggle. In my working-class French family in the South West, I found that people who before ‘never talked politics’ were enthusiastically involved, and arguing, with all the facts at their fingertips, about tax policy or police violence.
Every weekend for six months has seen between 20,000 and 160,000 protesting. Macron has been humiliated every Saturday by joyful Yellow Vests and imaginative action, whether blocking motorway toll booths, picketing tax-avoiding multinationals, or forcing their way into a ministerial HQ with a handy fork-lift truck. The movement has had consistently more than 50% public support, about double Macron’s support. They have succeeded in keeping worker poverty and pensioner poverty on the front pages, and government concessions are insufficient but real: more money for minimum-wage workers, less tax for pensioners, re-indexation of lower retirement pensions on inflation, a moratorium on hospital and school closures. Macron’s Grand Debate, in response, was a flop.
The endless queues of naysayers, whether neoliberal elitists, bought and paid-for journalists or tired old leftists, have been comprehensively proved wrong. No, the movement was not close to the fascists, it was not anti-ecology, it was not anti-Semitic. One popular spokeswoman is a Black woman; joint demonstrations have been held with ecological protesters, women’s rights marchers, campaigns against homelessness and with striking teachers; Black groups campaigning against police violence have joined with the Yellow vests. Of course, there were people who had voted for the fascists: but ten million people voted fascist in 2017. Building mass revolt without talking to these people is a ludicrous fantasy. The police, meanwhile, have been more vicious than seen here for decades. At least 14 people have lost an eye, several lost limbs, and I have lost count of the number who say they are too scared to go on demos.
The joint involvement of workers and small businessmen under pressure has led to a tendency to prioritise consensual demands like higher taxes for millionaires and more control of politicians, rather than simpler working class demands like a higher minimum wage. But the movement has transformed French politics, and, if union leaderships have been scandalously cowardly, the radical Left is now drawing strength from the movement through respectful and enthusiastic dialogue. As the popular Yellow Vest song says ‘For the honour of the workers and to build a better world’, la lutte continue!
Has been active since 1957 in civil rights, anti-war, anti-nuke, environmental and labour struggles in the US, Latin America, France (where he has been a long-time resident) and Russia (where he helped found the Praxis Research and Education Center in 1997). He is best known for his translations and studies of Victor Serge (1890-1947), the Franco-Russian novelist and revolutionary.
For more than two centuries, France has been the classic model for social innovation, and the unique, social movement of the Yellow Vests has enormous international significance. Their uprising has unmasked the lies and violence of republican government, as well as the duplicity of representative institutions like political parties, bureaucratic unions and the mainstream media.
The Yellow Vests represent the first time in history that a spontaneous, self-organised social movement has retained its autonomy, and resisted co-optation, bureaucratisation and sectarian splits. They pose a real, human alternative to the dehumanisation of society under the rule of the capitalist ‘market’.
Six months ago, the Yellow Vests burst literally out of nowhere, with autonomous local units springing up all over France like mushrooms, demonstrating on traffic circles (roundabouts) and toll-gates, marching every Saturday in cities. But unlike all previous revolts, it was not Paris-centred. In real life the Yellow Vests are largely low-income, middle-aged folks with families from the provinces whose trademark is friendliness and improvised barbecues.
Tired of being lied to, cheated, manipulated and despised, the Yellow Vests instinctively rejected being instrumentalised by corrupt ‘representative’ institutions – including political parties, union bureaucracies and the media. They eschewed ‘leaders’ and spokespeople even among their own ranks, and are only now gradually learning to federate themselves and negotiate with other social movements.
From the very beginning, the Yellow Vests’ non-violent unauthorised gatherings were met by massive police repression along with a new ‘anti-vandalism’ law making it virtually impossible to demonstrate legally. The media concentrates on sensational images of the violence (to property) of the Black Block vandals at the fringes of Yellow Vests’ demonstrations, never on the human victims of systematic government violence. A popular slogan proclaimed in Magic Marker on a demonstrator’s Yellow Vest reads: ‘Wake up! Turn off your TV! Join us!’
Small wonder that, subjected to increasing violence and continuous slander, the numbers of Yellow Vest protestors has diminished over 27 weeks. But they are still out there and their favourite chant goes: ‘Here we are! Here we are! What if Macron doesn’t like it? Here we are!’
Fortunately, in the past few weeks, the League for the Rights of Man and other humanitarian groups have protested police brutality while committees of artists and academics have signed petitions in support of the Yellow Vests’ struggle for democratic rights. The Yellow Vests are beginning to find common ground with ecologists (‘End of the Month/End of the World/Same Enemy/Same Struggle’) and feminists (women play a big role in the movement). Red CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) stickers on Yellow Vests are now frequent sights at demos and at its recent convention; the CGT has voted for ‘convergence’ with the Yellow Vests.
The crisis in France is far from over. If and when the other oppressed and angry groups in France – the organised workers, ecologists, North African immigrants, students struggling against Macron’s educational ‘reforms’ – also turn off their TVs and go down into the streets, things could change radically.
Director of Research at CNRS, Social Sciences School IAS Princeton. She is author of In Defence of Terror (Verso, 2012). Her last book published in French is La Révolution française n’est pas un mythe (Klincksieck, 2017).
The Yellow Vests, however many they were, were able to make themselves very visible and produce a feeling of understanding and even of solidarity. In December 2018, 70% of French people thought they were right.
Elections often play a role of photographic revelation. Currently, within the political options opposed to Macron and the classical Right, solidarity with the Yellow Vests is supported by 85% of voters in the ranks of France Insoumise, 45% by the Greens and 69% by the voters of the National Rally. But in the recent EU elections, support for the Yellow Vests did not determine the vote, and in fact the National Rally did not increase its share of the vote.
This impossible identification of the Yellow Vests as a political camp on the Right/Left spectrum is the result of their will. The Yellow Vests offer a symbolic presentation of demands for fiscal, social and ecological justice, for the consolidation of public services, health and education, and for effective democracy, that is, institutions that would make the voices of the small people heard. But the Yellow Vests wanted to invisibilise the usual political fractures. Everyone knows that there is no real unity, but any specific issue that can divide is denied.
This refusal of division, is it a rejection of politics? I do not think so because their programme is heterogeneous and shows a capacity to negotiate within the group. With the criticism of the French presence in Africa, the will to regain power to at least co-define foreign policy, including on immigration, and the hope for more ecological and social tax fairness, the politics unfolds but without reference to parties. The rejection of ideological purity produces composite primary assemblies, because the Yellow Vests no longer want to artificially and unnecessarily divide the popular voice. Division will come only after the consolidation of the common ground of this united struggle.
The Yellow Vests’ significance is probably there, in the return to the scene of popular actors who ask to be legitimately heard in democracy and who have a moral intuition of justice that can create common ground. It involves a normative intuition of the equity and justice necessary to reshape the political regime that gives the people its political voice, with reference to the French Revolution.
‘We don’t want to be billionaires, we just want to live off our paycheck.’ ‘End of the month, end of the world, same fight.’ Basically this irruption is that of a struggle not only between two classes but between two conceptions of happiness. What happiness will there be tomorrow? Here is the question asked on roundabouts and in assemblies, on the list of grievances and in demonstrations. In what world will we live and how should we be happy? The happiness of the rich does not look like ours, but we value ours and we will defend it. This affirmation has no borders.
Professor of English as UC Davis. His most recent book is Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016).
Arising beyond the hegemony of bureaucratic unions, distinct from student uprisings and suburban rebellions, the Gilets Jaunes movement has appeared to many as a new phenomenon. And yet its initial demands and tactics – setting prices in the marketplace and blockading commercial traffic – recapitulate with perfect fidelity what was arguably the most popular form of social contest across centuries: the bread riot. Why did we not immediately recognise this ’image of the past which unexpectedly appears’, as Benjamin says, as it flashed up at a moment of danger?
This is a great mystery. Or perhaps not. The political successes of the Left for a century were found so decisively in the trade union and the mass party that these forms’ moribund legacies have blotted out other modes of struggle. The significance of the Gilets Jaunes for other countries in the overdeveloped west is thus not to reproduce their approaches. It is rather to affirm that, amidst global recompositions of class and the end of an economic dispensation premised on absorbing labour inputs at pace, the norms of political organisation developed largely in the short twentieth century must no longer bind us.
One can hardly object to a strike; people fight where they are, and we will need all tactics to hand. But there will be no organised labour renaissance, no more workers’ parties. Moreover, Gramscian wars of position are now incompatible with the temporality of climate collapse; in the long march through the institutions, the last several kilometres will be under water. So we might say the Gilets Jaunes are a sign of, and demand for, clearing the ground to make way for other strategies. At this point, asymmetrical war on fossil fuel companies, or the direct breaking of the state monopoly on violence, seem far more plausible as survival strategies than the Neroism of electing social democrats.
I suspect that we have seen images of this already. Movements like the Standing Rock encampment, arising out of indigenous struggles against the infrastructures of dispossession and ecocide, are the necessary other of the colère du peuple embodied by the Gilets Jaunes. Such political antagonisms, which unify circulation struggles against capital with communal arrangements for social reproduction, will be found not just in the immediate past but in the immediate future and at a larger scale, if we are to survive.