Yellow Jackets in Movement: Understanding the Gilets Jaunes
by Gabriel Bristow
5 December 2018
The gilets jaunes (‘yellow jackets’) movement is widely misunderstood outside of France. This is unsurprising given that the movement is poorly understood in France itself. And this, in turn, is understandable given the sheer novelty of the yellow jackets, as well as its rapid and volatile growth. Drawing heavily on the excellent and thorough analysis written by the Platforme d’enquêtes militantes published on 30 November, as well as my own experience of recent protests in Paris, this article attempts to sketch the yellow jackets movement as it stands.
As is widely known, the movement began as a social media call-out to protest the government’s decision to raise fuel taxes. It has no official leaders and no affiliations with political parties or trade unions, though the former are of course scrambling to funnel the revolt in their favour. Historical comparisons and parallels abound. The ‘level of violence’ is continually and glibly compared to the French uprisings of 2005 and 1968. The yellow jackets are also compared to the Poujadists of 1950s France, in which politician Pierre Poujade led a reactionary anti-tax movement that petered out with the return of Charles de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic in 1958. The jacques, a 14th century peasant movement, have also been invoked. And yet the most prevalent historical comparison one hears — be it in the media, in the mouths of left leaders such as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, or on the streets — is of a much more diffuse nature, namely France’s revolutionary history tout court. If one needed a reminder of the power of historical memory — in all its diffuse, malleable glory — this appears to be it, which may, in part, explain the choruses of la Marseillaise sung at many of the protests.
But the ghost of the French revolution doesn’t get us very far. The yellow jackets’ grievances are cut in the present. The rage in the streets is palpable and alive. It is a rage directed against the brutal misery of capitalism: the misery of having to get up to drive to work to get paid to pay bills to pay taxes to scrape into the next month. It is a rage against the flagrant arrogance of the ruling classes — a posture that Emmanuel Macron has refined down to the most detestable tee. It is a rage, in short, against inequality.
Nonetheless, these sentiments do not reflect the entirety of the movement’s impetus. As has been pointed out, some yellow jacket protests and blockades have been marked by acts of racism and homophobia. And there are undoubtedly fascists participating in the movement (see, for example, a video of antifa yellow jackets beating up a well-known fascist spotted at this Saturday’s protests in Paris).
But beyond these distinct and deeply worrying instances of reactionary violence, there are also wider currents in the movement that mark a potential opening for the far right. While the focus on taxation is the most obvious, it is perhaps not the most worrying. This is because the movement is so patently a revolt against the profound and grinding inequalities of neoliberalism. On a Sunday night TV debate, Éric Ciotti (a representative of the dregs of Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right Republican party) called for the general lowering of taxes; a move which appeared as nothing but farcical – everyone knows that Macron more or less abolished a long-standing tax on the super-rich worth €3.2bn a year.
However, despite the fact that the movement was sparked by a rise in fuel tax, the focus is now on inequality and a generalised anger at the governing class and the system that keeps it in place. The neoliberal right are thus dead in the water. But more worrying is the possibility of an opening for the fascist right, who could — given the potential for nationalist, anti-eurozone solutions to the movement’s principal grievances, as well as the Front National’s current polling — fill the void in the event of the dissolution of the national assembly.
But who are the yellow jackets? The social composition is relatively typical of mass movements since 2008. The ubiquitous post-crash spectre of the immiserated middle — public sector workers, students, small business employees, shopkeepers and artisans — joins a host of precarious workers and the long-term unemployed. The former have seen their futures darken suddenly, and the latter never had one in the first place. Women, at the sharp end of the decline in living standards that makes itself felt in the private sphere, have been prominent in the movement. These are the people, invisibilised by neoliberalism, who are donning the high-visibility vests.
This social composition maps onto a distinct geographical spread: the heart of the movement is neither urban nor (as often cited) strictly rural, but rather peripheral. These suburban, or semi-urban spaces — which are not to be conflated with the ever-present, racialised image of French banlieues — are defined in part by a lack of public transport. Far from a lifestyle choice, driving a car in these areas is a pure necessity: in order to drop the kids off at school, to drive to work, to go to the shops, you are obliged to sit in lengthy traffic jams. Asking people to pay more for this misery in order to subsidise France’s ecological transition was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But far from a mere jettisoning of environmental concerns, the yellow jackets is rather the politicisation of the question of ecological transition. While the debate remains limited, the fact so many people are asking the question of how this transition is to be done – and who will pay for it – should be seen is an opportunity to be seized upon.*
Aside from the historical comparisons, some interesting contemporary parallels have been drawn. From the movements that grew out of the cost of public transport in Brazil in 2013, to the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, to the ‘pitchfork movement’ in Italy of 2012-13, none of these comparisons suggest a progressive direction of travel. Of these comparisons, the last seems the most fitting. Like the yellow jackets, the pitchfork movement grew out of call for lower taxation, was riddled with acts of sexism and racism, and acted outside the methods of the institutional left by blocking parts of the economy. With hindsight, this movement appears to have been one of the heralds of Italy’s present far-right governing coalition. It is nonetheless important to take account of the differences with the current French context, namely the strength of the institutional and autonomous left in France.**
This brings us to the situation in Paris, with all its specificities. The participation of the left in the capital — stretching from parties such as La France Insoumise through to assorted and vibrant extra-parliamentary formations — has increased notably over the last three Saturdays (named Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3). Anecdotally, there was a noticeable shift in the makeup of protesters in and around the Champs Élysées between Act 2 on 24 November and Act 3 on 1 December. While there were party activists and leftist activists present at the former, the majority, including the people I spoke with, did not fit into these categories. By the latter, the balance had seemed to tip in the other direction, with leftists and activists making up a larger chunk of those present. However, the strategy of dividing ‘peaceful’ yellows jacket protesters from ‘professional troublemakers’ is unravelling in light of the profiles of the first people facing court this week: a 47-year-old butcher, a 30-year-old metal worker, a 23-year-old fisherman, none of whom have criminal records — in short, the same precariously employed people that make up the bulk of the yellow jackets movement.
Nonetheless, the participation of the Parisian left in the movement can be understood as an extension of the cycle of struggle that began with the large 2016 protests against the then-Socialist government’s plans to deregulate French labour law. This blooming of the radical left — growing largely outside the traditional trade unions and parties — marked and continues to mark a process of intense political recomposition. One question is how this recomposition — which is in itself multifarious and volatile — maps onto the yellow jackets movement. How to work with the grain of the movement without ceding ground to reactionary currents? According to a certain leftist dogma, the yellow jackets movement is not a fruitful terrain for anti-capitalist struggle because it starts with the question of taxation and takes place outside the sphere of production. Yet, as the Platforme d’enquêtes militantes point out, the sphere of social reproduction is at the heart of all of the grievances coming from the yellow jackets: transport, pensions, benefits, training and education, housing, health, and so on. While pertinent, one wonders how such an analysis could effectively crystallise into a political articulation capable of neutralising the fascistic ‘solutions’ being proffered, such as Marine Le Pen’s claim that successive governments have looked after “every possible minority” whilst ignoring “the French”. On such uncharted territory, the left will need all the imagination it has got to hold the movement together whilst sticking fast to its principles.
One such imaginative spark has come from a leading anti-racist organisation, the Comité Adama, which was set up by Assa Traoré in the wake of her brother’s death in police custody in 2016. Last week their spokesperson, Youcef Brakni, took part in a pertinent, well-attended conversation with Édouard Louis (a young novelist famed for writing about his experience of growing in a poor village in northern France) about the similarities and differences between rural poverty and life in the suburban ghettos. The Comité Adama also called for the youth of these suburbs to join Saturday’s demonstrations in an attempt to scramble far-right readings of the yellow jackets movement. Such a move also reflects a simple, powerful idea expressed by Édouard Louis last week: that people are not coherent, singular entities, but rather contradictory, multiple beings. Such an observation does not excuse racism or homophobia, nor does it suggest that dyed-in-the-wool fascists can be ‘won around’. Rather, it affirms the indeterminate character of such movements, and the necessity of working within them.
If alliances such as that being attempted by the Comité Adama can be built and extended, the yellow jackets could do more than precipitate a major political and constitutional crisis — they could begin to find ways out of it.
* The arguments made in this paragraph come directly from the Platforme d’enquêtes militantes, ‘Sur une ligne de crête. Notes sur le mouvement des gilets jaunes’, with permission.
** As previously.