By Bernard Dreano, the chair of the Cedetim (Center of international solidarity initiatives and studies) and cofounder of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (Assemblée européenne des citoyens). Originally published at openDemocracy
What is this yellow fever that has seized France since mid-November? Wearing these yellow safety vests (that every European motorist must have in his car), the Gilets Jaunes, by day and often night, have been occupying motorway interchanges, highway intersections, roundabouts and shopping centers all over France, and going out into the streets every Saturday. With the apparent general approval of French public opinion (80% according to polls).
They are members of the white lower middle-class, driven by a diversity of motivations, generations and backgrounds. An unprecedented involvement of pensioners, a significant number of women. They are nurses, shopkeepers and artisans, employees of small businesses, farmers or jobless persons. They come mainly from suburban and rural areas, and very often from small towns.
A Deep Sense of Injustice
As has happened so often in France – and elsewhere – this movement started as an anti-tax movement, against the rise of a tax on gasoline and diesel. Was it also an anti-ecological gesture, since directed against a carbon tax? The historian of social movements Gérard Noiriel has pointed out that this type of anti-tax struggle always reaches its climax when people have the feeling that they have had to pay without getting anything in exchange. The feeling, widely shared, that the tax serves to enrich the small caste of the ultra-rich has fuelled a deep sense of injustice in the lower classes.
Most of the Gilets Jaunes revolt less against the tax than against its unjust distribution. The fuel taxes were the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The movement is particularly strong in areas where the withdrawal of public services is most obvious, where people are condemned to using their cars to find, beyond the moribund sub-prefectures where they live, access both to public services and jobs. They are defending what holds a society together: schools, hospitals, police stations, transport, free of charge education, and so forth.
The initial response of President Emmanuel Macron, and the government of Edouard Philippe was that of contempt (towards his people who “understand nothing”) and an added provocation. This was an answer they had already deployed in opposition to the hundreds of thousands of people (workers and civil servants – that is categories other than the Gilets) who had taken to the streets at the behest of the main unions, against laws reforming the labor code in 2017.
After the first big demonstration of the Gilets in Paris on November 24, and a few incidents on the Champs-Elysée avenue, Christophe Castaner, the Minister of interior spoke about the “brown plague” in reference to the supposedly fascist character of the movement. This was in line with Macron’s own strategy to proclaim himself and his policy “progressive” in contrast to the fascists-populists that, the government began to explain, were drowning out the Yellow Vests from the ultra-right. Macron duly spoke of “scenes of war”, a self-fulfilling prophecy, since on the following Saturday (December 1) there were spectacular scenes of violence in the Arc de Triomphe and the rich neighborhoods surrounding it.
Here, before proceeding with our story, we must make two remarks.
First about the “political character” of the Gilets. Historically extreme-right parties have always been rooted in the social movements of the poor “white petit-bourgeois” social classes. And it is also the case with the new national-conservative populism of today. This time, the Rassemblement National (RN, former National Front) of Marine Le Pen, or Nicolas Dupont-Aignan’s smallest party Debout la France, immediately supported the movement, and RN or radical-rightist groups were soon to be spotted as active in certain rallies and demonstrations. We’ve also seen people from the ultra-right spreading fake news, conspiracy theories and racist themes in the Yellow Vest gatherings and on social media.
But this movement is horizontal, locally self-organized, with no leaders or representatives emerging (until now). The Gilets are anti-party, (and also anti-trade-union). In their many and sometimes confusing speeches and claims, racist and anti-migrant themes are not very visible. And we will also see that the Left is not totally out of the game.
Second remark. When Gilets Jaunes come to a demonstration, particularly in Paris, it is striking to see how they do not have the traditional codes and skills of demonstrations. They do not go to the east of Paris, traditional location of all popular manifestations, but congregate in the Champs-Elysée, because it is the most famous place. The majority of the protesters have never been to any demonstration before and are coming “from the provinces” (as the Parisians say). Such people constitute the great majority of those arrested and convicted “for violence” after the demonstrations of December 1 and 8.
Yellow and Green Vests Together?
At the forefront of Gilets Jaunes, what are the positions of the left and progressive forces? There has been, and there still is a lot of contestation over this, even if almost everyone agrees on the analysis of what caused this movement: the growth of inequalities, the marginalization of certain regions and social categories, austerity and neoliberal politics, etc.
The trade-unions initially maintained their distance, noting the anti-unionism of many Gilets. Only Solidaires (minority and radical union) supported the movement, the CGT (the main union) remaining more cautious, although some of its activists participate in the actions, and the CFDT (the second most powerful, moderate union) proposed its “mediation services” with the government (which was initially refused).
NGOs and the social movements (and especially ecological campaigns) perceived the importance of the movement from the outset. In a tribune published on the November 22, leaders of the alter-globalist movements ATTAC and Fondation Copernic wrote:
The “yellow vests” are also the product of a succession of failures of the social movements. (…) We organisers, activists and leaders of the political, trade union and left networks, are all a part of these failures.
Two questions are posed by this movement: that of growing social misery, especially in the popular neighbourhoods of metropolises and rural or ultraperipheral deserts; that of the rise of an ecological and climatic crisis which threatens the conditions of existence even of a large part of humanity beginning with the poorest ones.
December 8 was the 4th Saturday of demonstration for Gilets Jaunes and was also the international day of climate protest. Was there a risk of a clash between Green and Yellow? Overly zealous Préfets even arrested the leaders of the march for the climate in Nancy and of the yellow vests in Grenoble, since “potential confrontations” could disturb the public order. The number of “yellow” and “green” demonstrators that day were roughly equivalent (15/17,000 in Paris). In the climate march there were a significant number of “greens” with yellow vests, bearing slogans such as: End of the world and end of the month, for us, it’s the same fight! Or No climate justice without fiscal and social justice!In some towns, like in Lyon, “Greens” and “Yellows” joined together and a significant number of Gilets Jaunes expressed their concern about climate change.
This does not mean, however, a unity of the people or a convergence of these struggles. We have seen that the Gilets Jaunes are rather white and lower middle class. Those who joined the climate marches are mainly young urbans (like those who occupied places during the Nuits Debout movement in March-June 2016) or traditional leftist activists.
And what about inhabitants of the banlieues, those populated neighborhoods where especially the youth from Arab or African origin reside? There was debate, some groups called on others to join the protest or support the yellow vests against their repression, but as the Collectif Rosa Park underlined in their response:
There will be no broad front against the Macron regime or the fascism that is coming if immigration and the suburbs that make up a few million souls are ignored.
In early December, high school students, and to a lesser extent university students, also began to move. High schools in the banlieues are particularly mobilized and have been particularly repressed by the police in places such as Aubervilliers or Mantes la Jolie where the spectacle of young people, stopped and arrested, kneeling at the foot of the police, has became a symbol taken up even by the yellow vests (kneeling hands on their head in protest in front of the police). And by mid-December the movement had spread to many high schools in large cities or their suburbs.
Social and Political Crisis
Is there a political way out of this social crisis? One of the problems is the extreme polarization of the debate. In the political system of the French’s Fifth Republic there is a concentration of symbolic and real power assumed in the hands of the President of the Republic.
The call Macron resign ! is extremely popular among Yellow Vests. For the French editor of the popular leftist website Mediapart, Edwy Plenel, Macron is paying for his irresponsible unconsciousness, added to a personal exercise of power woven out of scorn and contempt. . Esther Benbassa, Member of the Senate for the Green Party (EELV) walking on December 1 alongside a group of youth from the banlieue of leftist activists and trade-unionists, to join up with the Gilets Jaunes, described in her blog:
All along the way, the yellow vests I met told me about the “king’s head” they wanted. Macron’s. The tone was hard, angry, whole. We did not speak of the President of the Republic but of the King.
But the king is naked. Trust is destroyed. The possibility of a “party of fear“ supporting Macron (like De Gaulle in 1968) does not exist… Macron will keep the instruments of power and parliamentary majority but is no more the wonder-boy elected eighteen months ago.
The government has retreated on the increase of fuel taxes and some other measures, and desperately seeks a “framework of negotiation”. It calls to its aid those Macron has previously treated with disdain: unions, local elected representatives, associations. And the King (Excuse me, President Macron) spoke to his subjects on December 10 (Pardon, the French citizens). He announced some measures in favor of low wages and poor pensioners, but no fundamental change in social or ecological policy. However, it is going to be difficult for Macron to pursue the neoliberal demolition of the French social model at the same pace as before.
On the political field, the opposition parties, leftist Jean Luc Melanchon’s France Insoumise (LFI) and Ultra-right Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National are asking for new legislative elections (without really believing that it can happen). The Parti Socialiste has not yet recovered from its 2017 defeat. The centre-right conservative party Les Républicains, hesitates, especially because if they were in power, they would enact the same neoliberal “modernising” policy as Macron, while their leader, Laurent Wauquiez, took up the themes of the extreme right.
The next election deadline is the European elections next spring. We can expect a considerable number of abstentions, and the success of europhobic and xenophobic extreme right-wing forces, as elsewhere in Europe.
Some of the yellow vests going to the polls will no doubt be tempted by this far-right populist vote. Could others support a progressive, social and environmental alternative? The aspiration to find such an alternative has also been expressed in the yellow-green fever of recent weeks.
At the level of programmes of “ the left of the left” parties, the convergence on social and ecological objectives, (if not ecosocialist), seems, on paper, possible, between La France Insoumise (LFI), the Greens (EELV), the movements Génération.s of the former socialist Benoit Hamon, the French Communist Party (PCF) and even the popular Trotskyist leader Olivier Besancenot.
But this unity will not take place for these European elections, because these different forces are divided on Europe. Even more, because they are in competition, and because Jean Luc Mélanchon and the LFI are persuaded that they alone embody “the movement of the people”.
Pity. But we may not have to miss out on the next instalment entirely. The municipal elections of 2020 or multicolored alliances are both possible … if the crises afford us sufficient time…
 Annick Coupé, Patrick Farbiaz, Pierre Khalfa, Aurélie Trouvé, In Le Monde, November 20th
 Edwy Plenel : The battle of equality, Mediapart December 2.