The Yellow Vest: A Floating Signifier

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This article was originally published on Contretemps. It has been translated from French by David Broder. 

On 24 November Paris was gripped by a spectacular demonstration by the gilets jaunes movement, driven by a revolt against rising fuel prices. This came as the promised “Act II” of the movement, named after its participants’ bright yellow hi-vis vests; indeed, the previous Saturday close to 280,000 people had mounted blockades on around 2,000 roads across France.

The text below, by Félix Boggio Éwanjé-Épée, was written in between these two high points of mobilization. The conflict has been marked by a great variety of actions, from the most positive (for instance, attempts to block oil refineries) to a much darker side (the racist attitudes expressed during selective blockades, attempts by the far Right to exploit the movement, and the reporting of immigrants to the authorities).

A yellow vest is a banal object – one all road users have to carry with them by law. It is itself devoid of meaning. The text below, written in the grip of events, however seeks to highlight the possible significance of such a movement in a period in which the labor movement has suffered a series of defeats and in which we see a general retreat in activist forces’ ability to mobilize.

A floating signifier

The gilets jaunes movement and the media and political response to it point to a deep crisis in the present regime. We got a first taste of this crisis when the Benalla affair exploded [with the revelation that Macron’s own bodyguard had falsely pretended to be a policeman in order to beat demonstrators] and then the executive had to face a series of ministerial resignations. Clearly, the launching and then the spread of the present mobilization owe to independent causes of their own. But it is no chance thing that they come after such a forceful delegitimization of the ruling power bloc. The socio-political character of the gilets jaunes, which could (neutrally) be described as a “populism from below” correspond to one fundamental feature of this period: the rising importance of “scandals” and the exposure of the corruption of the ruling power bloc, but also the impunity of the leading political personnel and the progression, across Europe, of a “dégagisme” [the call to get rid of the powers-that-be, or “kick-them-all-outism”] relaying this delegitimization of the traditional body politic. This movement’s characteristics are, by definition, indistinct; the political and social Left has (sometimes rightly) already emphasized the gilets jaunes’ troubling character. Such a popular outcry, with ambivalent slogans which are not framed by political or trade-union structures, should not be taken in isolation from the overall crisis of the traditional organizations of the workers’ movement. From the perspective of both their capacity to mobilize and the concessions they achieve through struggle, the trade-union organizations, collectives and parties that identify with collective emancipation are at an impasse. In this sense, even if the situation seems open and the consciousness of the gilets jaunes is still marked by contradictions between “left-wing” elements (tax justice, purchasing power, pensions) and “right-wing” ones (a propensity to look favourably on the armed forces and police, slogans against benefit handouts, migrants, civil servants and taxes) it is worth remembering that reactionary forces start off with a basic power relation more favorable to them imposing their own ways forward for these movements.

Nonetheless, and notwithstanding the scandalous outbursts of racism, sexism and homophobia (inevitable, given the movement’s spontaneous character), from what we have seen thus far, for the moment at least the movement is not hegemonized by right-wing affects, actions, tactics and ideologies. In order to grasp this, it is worth understanding that while the movement surprised the whole spectrum of the social and political Left, from reformists (though La France Insoumise has not condemned it, and gone as far as to encourage it) to autonomists (except [independent media platform] Nantes révoltée, whose experience and rootedness have allowed it to take a clear-sighted approach) we can venture that this struggle unconsciously stands in continuity with the mobilizations of spring 2016 [against the Loi Travail] and indeed spring of this year [protest movements notably marked by the strikes in rail, energy and other sectors, as well as student occupations]. Clearly there are certain antagonisms that separate these different moments – doubtless, most of the gilets jaunes demonstrators do not identify with the workers’ movement, public service, trade unions, “casseurs” and “racaille” [“hooligans” “riffraff”] and such like. Nonetheless, the spread of antagonistic actions, the normalization of rioting and blockades, and their portrayal in the media, have instilled these representations in the collective subconscious. An antagonistic imaginary spontaneously emerges in response to police repression. There are no lack of amateur videos showing groups of gilets jaunes shouting at the police “Join us! Join us! We understand, you’re doing your jobs,” only then to throw projectiles and hurl the police’s own tear gas canisters back at them. And they end up shouting “We pushed them back! Travellers, with us!” In practice, the objective of each protestor is to advance, to go somewhere, like in the march to the roundabout on the Champs-Élysée. Here, the clash with the state becomes an essential battleground: hence the scenes of delight when a group breaks its way through a police blockade or when they put up barricades on the Place de l’Étoile.

This sequence strikingly illustrates what Nicos Poulantzas sought to convey when he spoke of the impact that popular struggles have on the state. Even if we do not win and our strikes and protests are defeated, struggles do nonetheless have an effect on the state. Since spring 2016, the recomposition of forms of demonstrating, the ZAD [Zones à Défendre, occupied spaces “to be defended”], the links established between strategic sectors of the workforce (oil refineries, railworkers) and combative sectors of the social movement as well as the unknowns of the popular districts and their high schools, all produce a certain nervousness within the institutions. We see as much when we observe the police prefectures’ prevarications with regard to maintaining order, from the aggressive methods of 2016 to the more discreet strategies of 2017-18 via the procrastination over the ZAD and the muscle deployed in the raids against La France Insoumise. Add to this the moral panics around feminism and anti-racism: the former trouble the most reactionary elements of the ruling power bloc (accusing “gender” [sic! – this English term is used to refer to any critique of normative gender roles] of destabilizing any established and stable identity) and the latter its most liberal ones (insofar as political anti-racism implies the spread of a culture of systematic distrust toward the state and imperialism, especially among youth).

Macron’s strategy is to hold course, and above all not to meddle in the government policy. Any intervention by the Macron camp will serve only to defend the executive’s agenda and the rationality behind the reforms. In this sense, the team in government seeks to be nothing but a pure technocratic elite, whose mission is to reform the country at whatever cost, negotiating nothing, without any superfluous or irrational ideological attachment (no excessive republicanism, just enough conservatism to avoid troubling the “zombie Catholics”, and a near-inexistent social discourse which is totally pinned to individual success and to the market). This strategy allows the pursuit of counter-reforms while sparing the political personnel of the political and ideological fractures that are inevitable in a more classic parliamentary framework. From this point of view, the ruling power bloc may seem all the more powerful and inflexible when faced with social movements.

This strategy could function, for a time, but it overlooks the fact that ideological state apparatuses run… on ideology. In his day, the previous president François Hollande could count on his prime minister Manuel Valls to put the country to sleep, playing the card of the “enemy within” and the state of emergency, albeit doubtless at the cost of a considerable exhaustion the executive at the end of his term as well as a striking return of the repressed, in the form of the protests of spring 2016. This movement doubtless failed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory for social democracy, which was crushed at the subsequent election. Clearly, Macron seeks to avoid meeting with a fate like Hollande’s by doing without either a Valls figure or a “socialist” façade. But the reality is there to see, and Macron cannot avoid it: social relations are becoming uglier, unemployment is rising, and the lives of the majority of people are ever less livable. In the absence of ideology and storytelling (be it social-democratic or conservative), the reality can only make us wince.

For the Right, the gilets jaunes simply make up part of a political narrative about the popular classes of the periphery. In this narrative, these latter are losing their class status, abandoned as they are by the public authorities (centered on the big cities and especially Paris), and suffering a hammering by the tax man as well as a loss of cultural bearings (under the waves of migrants, Islamicization and other chimeras of “reverse colonization”). It goes without saying that the whole Left must resist this harmful and factually wrong imaginary. It is clearly an avatar of French urbanophobia, of the type “the land never lies”, whose most striking historical examples were the rise to power of Louis Bonaparte as described by Karl Marx, or indeed the Vichy regime during World War II: schematically, the alliance of the ruling classes in Paris (or Versailles!) with the provinces, against the faubourgs and the suburbs of the capital. The geographer Bernard Marchand has shown that this hegemonic bloc still structures today’s situation, insofar as the big agglomerations are direct contributors in terms of the tax take (while also massively contributing to GDP) whereas rural France is heavily subsidized.

Concretely – since both the right-wing and left-wing opposition are able to support the movement – this means that the government found itself on a tightrope in confronting the mobilization planned for 24 November. This time, the intelligence services and the Paris police prefecture would be on the alert: but would they risk repressing it too much or not enough? An excess of repression would be exploited by the opposition to attack the executive (and defend the “right to protest”) whereas overly lax means of maintaining order would mean a significant possibility of being overwhelmed and opening the way to scenes akin to a riot. From this point of view, we can understand the media-political communication constantly seeking to relativize excesses that are in fact without precedent in the recent history of social movements in France (with two dead, and many more injured, including on the police side). To cast the “misbehaviour” in a dramatic light is also to lose face, as the Right and the far Right outbid each other in speaking up for “order”, knowing that the public are well-aware that the police were outnumbered during 17 November’s protests. But how is it possible to reconcile this sovereign imperative and the maintenance of consensus?

The gilets jaunes are, therefore, a return of the real. Ideologically and socially, the movement is ambivalent: it is, by definition, a trans-class movement, even though it has an undeniable popular, blue-collar and white-collar element. It mobilizes the least “politicized” sectors of the population; there is no self-organized structure, no permanent assembly such as would allow a politically-based intervention. This is a mass movement that this country has seen little comparable to for a long time. It also corresponds to a structural feature of late capitalism: in a context of mass unemployment, growing precarity, and falling real wages, the workplace is ever less straightforwardly the fundamental site of mobilization. The post-workerists have called the metropolis a hyper-factory, or a social factory, and here we see the importance of logistics to the functioning of contemporary capital. We could also underline the fact that with the authoritarian liberalism that we have experienced, and with the financialization desired by and implemented by the state, popular struggles are over-determined by the political level. In this sense, it is no surprise that a class struggle should have a demand in terms of tax and not directly in terms of wages. The spontaneous consciousness understands that the public authorities are indeed very much part of the current socio-economic order.

Ironically, after several years of controversies among the supporters of France Insoumise on this very question, the theory of populism as propounded by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe has not been embodied in the form of a program or leader, but instead become active, alive, in an unprecedented social movement. Populists of both Left and Right had, utterly nonsensically, read Laclau and Mouffe as a communications tactic, quarrelling among themselves over whether the Marseillaise, the tricolore or Euro exit was the best “empty signifier” to hegemonize. This was to forget that none of these things are indeed “empty signifiers”, for each is charged with France’s colonial history and its “transcendental Pétainism”. From this point of view, a gilet jaune is a far superior candidate to be an empty signifier: what, indeed, could be less full of meaning? Road users are obliged by law to carry such a vest: and it is a visible marker of recognition, whose only legal definition is that it is compulsory for reasons of safety on the roads. It is neither a national, nor racial, nor social, nor generational signifier, and nor is it a signifier of citizenship. The gilet jaune concretizes the dream of both Laclauian-Mouffian populism and of democracy as seen by Jacques Rancière (“the equality of any person with any other”), of the generic as seen by Alain Badiou or Giorgio Agamben’s whatever-singularity.

In this regard, it is important to avoid any naivety with regard to this ambivalence, and to give due focus to the racist outbursts on the road blockades as well as the omnipresence of tricolore flags among the demonstrators. Despite the presence of non-whites, especially in the major cities, in the present mobilizations one can also see an assertion of whiteness and Frenchness. This is not a matter of “cultural insecurity” or “the abandonment of the deep peri-urban” but what WEB Du Bois called the “moral and psychological wages” of whiteness. In a social fabric increasingly ravaged by deindustrialization and the loss of work as a vector of socio-psychic structuration, with the withering of public services and soaring inequality, the “nationalization of the popular classes” itself enters into crisis. Frenchness and whiteness are the final focuses of identity available to wider layers of the population, for whom the spontaneous, popular multiculturalism of the big cities only makes their own risk of losing their class position even more outrageous. To put that another way, if asserting the status of “the French” today serves to tell the state that it is no longer fulfilling its social-racial contract (integrating nationals through social and symbolic privileges) it also allows the denial of any elective affinity between a whole section of this movement and the emancipatory tradition (trade union banners, left-wing parties, etc.).

So here is the danger. An empty (or floating) signifier needs hegemonizing. Who will do this? Whether the movement folds or lasts, the progressive elements of the social terrain must succeed in hegemonizing the meaning of the yellow vest (even, and most importantly, after the fact). They can only do this by associating it with other signifiers: the fight against repression, solidarity, blockade, sabotage. That is why it is essential that in parallel to this, political anti-racism continues to destabilize French identity and whiteness and mount a charge-sheet against the racist structure of the state. In this sense, it is a happy coincidence that the anti-racist mobilization the Rosa Parks collective had already called for 30 November and 1 December is taking place in the same period as the gilets jaunes, with modes of action that echo it: boycott, “disappearing” from workplaces and schools as from social media, strikes, demonstrations. Even if these are two disconnected moments and do not exist in the same “space-time”, in their disjuncture they allow for polarization against both the extreme center and the extreme Right, two faces of one coin which each share the affirmation of the authoritarian neoliberal state and the permanent state of emergency. This is, quite clearly, a challenge to be mounted in the face of the far Right, which risks exploiting this confused conjuncture to its own advantage.